John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”
And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.
We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.
He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.
And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.
At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week.
Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do.
Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”
Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”
And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!
In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be.
He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!
And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.
I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.
I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”
Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.
And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent.
The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!
I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.
But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.
And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.
God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!
The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.
Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.
Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.
We, brood of vipers.
John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.
Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal.
I don’t like feeling judged.
But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.
Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.
There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.
In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.
And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage.
What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…
All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!
But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.
His name is Jesus.
So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself.
In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.
But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.
This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.
Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.
Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.
If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.
This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent.
He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy.
He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy.
He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.
Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News.
So, Happy Advent Ya Filthy Animals. Amen.