There’s something a little “off” this Advent. Maybe it’s just that it feels more like April than December, and while I’m not a huge fan of shoveling, it’s just weird that there’s no snow yet. Other than the wreath we bought at the Snowball Bazaar, we’ve been relatively late in putting up Christmas decorations at our house. We’re still working and walking outside, rather than hunkering down in front of the fireplace and settling in “for a long winter’s night.”
But there’s something about being called “a brood of vipers” by that wild man in the desert that puts me right back in the Advent spirit. “No one has ever called me a viper before,” writes Debie Thomas, “and I have to confess: I’m curious. Maybe even relieved. At last! Hard words for hard lives. Nothing saccharine….” about John the Baptist. [journeywithjesus, 12/6/15]
“You brood of vipers!” John shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves [don’t you start with me…], ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
There is no “holly, jolly Christmas” here, and even Santa Claus seems a little too cheery. I’ll admit, though, I’m with Thomas here–relieved to hear hard words for hard lives. Have you listened to the news lately?
You may find it surprising, then, as I did, to learn that John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. Really. That is because of the story Luke tells of John leaping in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she greeted her cousin Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus. “Clearly,” one commentator writes, “John understood something hard and flinty about joy. Joy is not sentiment. Joy is not happiness. Joy will cost you.” [Thomas, op cit.]
People say they like some of the voices in the presidential campaign because they “tell it like it is.” What they tell us is the lowest, meanest tendencies in our nature. John the Baptist also drew great crowds, and he told it like it was–and is. “You brood of vipers,” he called the crowd, in the opposite of pandering. “You think you can get by by claiming your inheritance from Abraham? God can raise up relations to Abraham from these stones, so don’t get all ‘native’ on me.”
But John doesn’t preach in the wilderness just to tear people down, to make them believe they are worthless and powerless and so need a strong man with big talk and powerful friends to make their decisions for them and make them compliant. John judges them–sees them–as worth far more than that. “Low self-esteem,” writes another John–John Ortberg Jr.–”causes me to believe I have so little worth that my response does not matter. With repentance, however, I understand that being worth so much to God is why my response is so important. Repentance is remedial work to mend our minds and hearts, which get bent by sin.” [cited in sermonseeds, 12/13/15]
“I baptize you with water,” John told the crowds, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John may make us squirm with his talk of judgment, but judgment is not necessarily about punishment or condemnation. The dictionary also gives synonyms of “discernment, perception.” What if the One wielding the winnowing fork is One who perceives the goodness, the richness within us and is clearing away all the stuff that hinders and hides it? [Thomas] What if our response to being told “like it is” matters to God because we are worth so much to God?
The crowds seems to understand this somehow. “What then shall we do?” they ask John. You might think that such a renegade, wild and bigger-than-life figure like John the Baptist would tell them to do something big and dramatic, leave their homes and families behind, to take to the streets and start a revolution, but John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Wow. What we are to do is go home and take a look at our closets and pantries. And “what should we do?” the hated tax collectors asked. “Don’t take more than is prescribed,” John says, which was the only way tax collectors could make any money for themselves. John doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs. “And we,” the soldiers in the crowd also asked him, “what should we do?” “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation,” John tells them, “and be satisfied with your wages.”
“Inhabit your lives,” John tells us. You don’t have to come out into the wilderness to find God. Right where you are, in your daily lives, going to Price Chopper, walking the dog, chopping carrots for dinner, paying the bills, is holy ground. There is no place and no one outside God’s saving power. If you have anything, you have something to share, gifts to give toward the creating of God’s kingdom on earth. Inhabit your lives. This is good news if you thought that your own little life was out of bounds for God to do anything significant. On the other hand, if your life isn’t what you want it to be, if honestly you’d rather flee from your life, then maybe it’s not such good news…unless it gives you permission to change your life into something that more integrity for you. Hard word. This isn’t: Don’t worry! Be happy! “There’s no need to be surprised by this [Thomas writes]–God isn’t. After all, we’re in the desert now; we’ve left cheap cheer behind. This is joy for grown-ups.”
“What then shall we do?” the crowds ask John. That’s not a question to be asked when things are going well, as one commentator pointed out. [Thomas] “it’s the question we ask when we’ve come to the ends of ourselves. When the received wisdom has failed, when our cherished defenses are down, when our lives are splitting at the seams. It’s what we ask when we’re weary, bored, disillusioned, or desperate.” What do we do now?
John’s response isn’t a grand economic or political plan, but it’s more than just a nice gesture to someone less fortunate than we. Remember that in those days, a coat often doubled for warmth at night. It still does for many people, even here in Bennington. John’s message to people across the political and social spectrum of his time was to start turning around right where they were but also to look at the built-in injustice and inequities around them–some people have way too much while others do have enough to live. Some government officials are corrupt and serve only themselves, not the common good. Some law enforcement officials threaten others with false accusations and extort money. Is this the beginning of the first century in Palestine or the twenty-first century in America?
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John yells into the Advent mist. It’s kind of a scary, church-y word, repentance. It just means, turn around. Adjust your focus. You’re missing the mark, and notice how that’s working for you, focusing over here. “Love always precedes repentance,” Michael M. Rose writes much more recently. “Divine love is a catalyst for our turning, our healing. Where fear and threat may gain our compliance, love captures our heart. It changes the heavy burden of the ‘have-to’s’ of imposed obedience to the ‘get-to’s,’ a joyful response to the genuine love of God.” [cited in sermonseeds, ibid.] John calls us to repentance, yes, to turning around from where we’ve wandered away from our true path, and then back to the truth that God intends for us; but it is God’s love that calls us first.
This patron saint of spiritual joy, calling us names in the wilderness, with locusts stuck in his teeth and a camel skin tied around his waist, is an unlikely harbinger of joy. But John really does have good news for us–that each one of us has a part to play in redeeming the world, that within each one of us is wheat that is good and nourishing and worth clearing the chaff away from, that it is Love that calls to us to discover the joy that is deeper than our sorrows and failures and anxiety, stronger than our fears, more life-giving and welcoming to the seeds of the new creation God is planting within us and around us. Hope, peace, joy, on the way to love, which meets us coming and going, at the beginning and at the end. Welcome the wild one.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark