Grace Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018, Advent 2C
The Loud Part
One thing you learn pretty quickly about John, the one sometimes called “the Baptist,” is that he was no disciple of Dale Carnegie. When you’re drawing these crowds out into the desert to come see and hear you, and the first words out of your mouth to them are “You brood of vipers!”, you’re pretty clearly not all that concerned about winning friends and influencing people, am I right?
No, John isn’t in this for the popularity. That will be made clear at the end of his career, as recorded variously in the gospels. Luke will later record that John sends messengers to Jesus from prison (ch. 7; also Matthew 11:2-6), and that he was executed by Herod (ch. 9); it’s the gospel of Mark that records the whole sordid story about Herod marrying his brother’s wife (which John would not stop condemning), and Salome’s dance that ends up in John’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29; also Matthew 14:1-12). No, John wouldn’t let up once he got hold of a particular message.
This is a long way, it seems, from the child whose birth prompted the song of Zechariah, his father, that was our responsive reading today. Zechariah names John’s call pretty effectively when he says the infant shall be “the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76-77). That’s what John is doing out in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), whereupon Luke cites Isaiah as the prophetic forth-teller of this call, in one of those passages famous partly for being included in George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.
Despite his penchant for direct language, John doesn’t get quite the weirdo treatment from Luke that he does in other gospels, which make much of his clothing made of camel hair and that diet of locusts and honey. Still, he’s been living out in the desert for ages now (according to 1:80), and you have to figure that his eccentric qualities were at least as much as a draw to those crowds coming out from Jerusalem and Judea as any expectation of what he had to say.
So, one would think, being greeted with that “brood of vipers!” talk might seem to be off-putting at minimum, and of course John doesn’t stop there. First of all is the demand that repentance not only has to happen, but it has to be visible – “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Then, just as some of the crowd was probably starting to mutter, “how dare he talk to us like that? We’re children of Abra—“ John jumps in with the flat declaration that being descendants of Abraham doesn’t get you off the hook, and that God could perfectly well raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones scattered about them. Capping off the message with talk about axes at the root of trees, and fruitless trees being thrown into the fire, had to be pretty disconcerting to the first-century equivalent of “good church folk” who had made the day trip to hear this quaint old-fashioned prophet-type guy.
Here’s the thing, though; for all of John’s bluntness of language and demeanor, something about his message seems to have hit home with the crowds. Rather than seeing these crowds scoffing and walking away or (worse) seeking to cause John harm for his harshness, we see a succession of people asking some variant of “what should we do?” And perhaps even more surprisingly, instead of setting the bar for repentance impossibly high, John gives answers that are … well, pretty practical. You have a coat and your neighbor doesn’t? Share. Same with food; you have it and your neighbor doesn’t? Share.
When tax collectors (the über-sinners of first-century Palestine) stepped up to ask what to do, John’s answer is pretty simple: “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t cheat. Soldiers? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. It seems that as John is teaching repentance, the first thing to do is to do the right thing. It sounds so simple.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that people started to ask questions about just who this John guy was. After all, it’s not likely that any of them were around for the whole story of the old couple who had never been able to have a child suddenly told they were going to have a child (and not just any child), or of how Zechariah had been struck mute for months for scoffing at the prediction. All they see is this guy from nowhere calling people vipers and yet somehow getting through anyway. What kind of guy is this? He’s gotta be some kind of prophet, right? Or maybe something more…
John is nice and quick to quash those thoughts. His only interest is, to borrow those words from Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John baptizes with water; the One to come, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to untie, will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (John does seem to have a thing about fire in Luke’s gospel). Even here John can’t quite contain his bluntness, what with the chaff being winnowed out of the wheat and burned “with unquenchable fire” – there’s that thing again!
And on top of all that, Luke has the nerve to conclude this little account with verse 18: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”Yeah, all that “brood of vipers!” and ax at the root of the tree and winnowing fork and fire and fire and fire…that’s the stuff of good news. In fact, I clearly need to change the way I preach. More fire. More insults. Right?
Except, somehow, it does turn out to be good news.
Somehow, it does turn out to be liberating, to be set free from all of that sinfulness, to be liberated by the act of repentance and set free to do what’s right instead of constantly grabbing and grasping and seeking to “win” over everybody else. There is freedom in that, and that freedom is good news indeed.
And in that freedom, in that liberation from the need to strive and grasp and grab and get get get get GET, something else happens. Peace happens. Deep, abiding, life-redefining peace starts in the being set free from the mania of more more more.
Somehow, even with all the brusqueness and “brood of vipers!” talk and such, John’s call and message does turn out to be the way of peace. Even for a “brood of vipers!”
For the one who prepared the way of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, “A voice cries out in the wilderness”; #106, “Prepare the Way, O Zion”; #96, “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”; #102, “Savior of the Nations, Come”