This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on December 13, 2015.
“You brood of vipers!”
What pastor has the courage, or probably more likely the foolishness, to proclaim this from the pulpit? I might try it for a dramatic entrance, but I am likely not going to be so bold as to actually back that abrupt intro with the exhortation fervor of John the Baptist. Perhaps I might let John’s words echo in the room for a moment, before softening their effect by redirecting them to John’s audience rather than my own.
John takes no such soft approaches, and it makes the exhortative words quite confrontational to our ears just over two weeks before Christmas. This passage flies in the face of the Joy theme of the third week of Advent.
But perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps we need to be confronted in this time of December with this message from John. A message of repentance and ethical living.
Maybe a warning of coming wrath (v. 7), fire (vs. 9, 16, 17), or tools of judgement (axe in 9, and winnowing fork in 17) are out of place amongst Christmas parties and the Christmas music that is already in very heavy rotation on the radio, but maybe they aren’t.
Perhaps as John warns his audience, we ought to open our ears to a warning as well.
John’s first century audience has been in earnest expectation of the coming Messiah, and the reign of a Davidic king to set the world right again, and in similar fashion as Christians we are in earnest expectation of the second coming when all things will be made right. That the Messiah did not come as the Jews expected was a great surprise to be sure. Even in this sermon, John is pointing out how numerous are the stones of his wilderness sanctuary, and they are like the ones which God will raise up apart from the rock of Isaiah 51:1-2 – the “rock from which you are hewn” (Abraham being the rock).
They are aware of the impending arrival of the Messiah, and have been drawn out to the wilderness to get right with God. To be baptized as sign of their repentance. They are going to get on the straight and narrow.
But Jesus did not come to answer all of the “star light, star bright” wishes of the Jews, he came to surpass them. To free the Jews from a fate worse than the Romans, and worse than the Babylonians or Persians. He came to free them, and us, from death.
What was delivered was so much greater than what was expected
Perhaps in like fashion, we as a twenty-first century audience ought to head John’s warning. We look to the second coming of Christ with Joy and Delight, but we overlook that he is coming to judge, and in the face of a coming judgment, repentance is the proper attitude.
John calls his audience to repentance – to a turning around, but like ourselves, John’s audience wanted to know what they should do to repent. John happily obliged them, and perhaps his message is one we also ought to hear.
In the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, we should heed John’s words to the crowd, the tax-collectors, and the soldiers. Because John gives us the measurement of what repentance looks like. It is a turning from self-centered actions, to radical love of neighbor. “Share half of your tunics. Don’t ask for more than you are required. Don’t game the system, but be content.”
Or if you like, we may summarize John’s words into a very Christmas compatible illustration of what repentance from self-centered living looks like:
- Live generously
- Live ethically
- Live contentedly
This is a three point sermon that will preach during the Christmas giving-and-getting season.
What would our Christmas season look like if we were to live generously? This is easily the most financially generous time of the year for non-profits and churches, but their needs are not decreased at other times of the year. What would the rest of our year look like if we were as generous as we are during this season?
What would our Christmas gifts look like if we were to purchase them from ethical companies with ethical business practices? How might our decisions on what we purchase with our money affect how we live ethically all year round? How might we reconsider buying cheap goods when we understand they are cheap because they are made, distributed, and sold by unfairly compensated labor?
And in a season of Christmas lists and whimpering credit cards, what would our season and lives look like if we were to live contentedly? To be satisfied with the simple and to be content with what we already have.
John doesn’t pull punches with his audience, and it might be tempting to pull punches in our pulpits. Or maybe, we just need to let John preach his message, and see what our response will be.
J. David Tate
Coordinator, Certificate of Ministry Program
George W. Truett Theological Seminary,
Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Tags: Advent, ethical living, Christmas, repentance, Parousia, warning