But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Tomorrow morning my six year old son will open up his Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar and will promptly put together a little droid, or a mini-figure, or some other object from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
And he will rejoice.
But it’s hard for me to call it an actual “Advent” calendar. First, Advent started last Sunday, not December 1st. Second, the little trinkets are certainly fun but they don’t really have anything to do with the “hastening and waiting” that define this season. And, finally, Advent points to the arrival (and return!) of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereas most (if not all) Advent calendars point to the arrival of presents under a tree on Christmas morning.
Fleming Rutledge, my theological Advent hero, was once similarly struck by the strange juxtaposition of Advent calendars and the real message of Advent and said that the best Advent calendar would be one in which, every time you opened the next day/box, a strange bearded and camel-hair wearing man would jump out and shout, “You brood of vipers!”
John the Baptist gets to shine this time of year in church because he straddles the already but not yet. He sees the new world coming and warns the people of “the wrath that is to come.”
It just happens that the wrath of God is made manifest in the cross that is our salvation.
The church, in Advent, takes up John’s mantle and proclaims the truth that something is coming, and that we do need to prepare for it, but only because to miss it would ruin all the fun.
And yet, there is a strong temptation to make the call for preparation all about our need to finally make the world a good enough place for Christ to arrive. Preachers and pontificators alike will stand up and say things like, “You need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.”
Which are all worthy things for us to do. But Christ arrives whether we do them or not. Frankly, Christ arrives because we do not do the things we should do. That’s the whole point!
Therefore, we don’t come to church in Advent (or any other time of year) to hear about what we need to do. Instead we come to hear about what’s been done, for us!
Or, as Martin Luther put it, “The Law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
The sad and bitter truth of this season is that we are “a brood of vipers” and that we have much to repent. And yet, the truly Good News of Advent is that Christ comes for us anyway. That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years – it is downright terrifying to be loved by God because we simply don’t deserve it.
But that’s also why the Good News is so good.