It’s Christmas Eve. Your holiday celebrations are underway. The lights on the tree twinkle with joy, and you’re surrounded with friends and family.
Your front doorbell rings…
Before the door is even fully opened, a stern and commanding voice interrupts everyone within earshot.
“Season’s Greetings, you Brood of Vipers!”
It’s not Santa Claus…
John the Baptist has arrived at your holiday party. Your guests stand around in bewilderment.
“Who’s this guy in the funky clothes killing our joyful holiday vibe?”
There are probably a good number of reasons you wouldn’t want John at your festivities.
First, he’d walk in to your foyer, and take off his dusty sandals as your party guests, donned in ugly Christmas sweaters, put their cups of eggnog down on their saucer and check out the strange man who strolled in wearing a camel hide outfit. His hair is unkempt. A real wild man!
However, you’re a polite host. You offer him an hors d’ oeuvre and a glass of Wassail.
“What kind of bugs are you serving? Do you have honey dipping sauce?” (John was said to have eaten locusts and wild honey)
“Fresh out of bugs, John. Sorry? Maybe next year?”
John doesn’t beat around the Hanukkah bush or Christmas tree either. He speaks God’s mind because that is what prophets do.
John was direct with his words. He’s direct because there can be no middle way. Prepare God’s way, repent, or keep wandering around lost. Your choice.
Following nearly a four-century period of prophetic silence for the Jewish People, John’s ministry prepared people to meet the Messiah. John, demands immediate action from his listeners. He did it with the intensity and spectacle of all the prophets that came before him.
If you are worried about this over-the-top guest coming to your party, fear not. He won’t come to your house.
You might still need to tend to other quirky guests, but they aren’t so bad are they? Great Aunt Betty might pick apart your cooking and Christmas tree, but she won’t tell you God’s axe is coming for you if you don’t get it together. (Nevermind, I have some of those relatives.)
John, however, would choose not to come. John didn’t go to the people. People came to him.
Believe it or not, people actually came out to be called venomous snakes and told they were in the wrong.
“You brood of vipers! Straighten up! Don’t make assumptions about your salvation based on your lineage from Abraham. God desires you to bear good fruit!”
This is not the sort of homily that packs pews.
Maybe we’ve become too comfortable? Yet, people were drawn to his message.
Let’s try this scenario on for a moment: You’re not buying what you’re hearing from the pulpit at St. Alban’s (Sorry. I try my hardest with sermons.) Leaving the comfort of your own cozy and warm house, you put on your hiking boots and winter gear and head out into the wilderness. We don’t have much wilderness within the 270 loop. You’ll have to drive further out. Alum Creek. John stands at the edge of the water. People gather expecting to be comforted, and perhaps baptized by this strange new, but renowned preacher. That’s not John. (Comfort comes later with spiritual growth and the consolation of God.)
“You worms! What are you doing coming all the way out here from your comfortable lazy boys and nice neighborhoods!? Don’t think that just because you attend church, vote the right way, know the right people, worked your way up the business or social ladder, or live in the right zip code that you’re rewarded and “blessed” by God. These things cannot and will not save you. They can be gone at the snap of the fingers! Then what will you have left? Turn to God.”
John is not warm and fuzzy. The feel good, heady and polite sermon doesn’t help us in matters of repentance because it’s HARD WORK.
The crowds gathered around John did not feel immediate comfort either. John was outside their frame of religious reference, but he spoke Truth (with a capital T).
People recognize this Truth when they hear it, and If people they aren’t finding Godly Truth in their religious traditions and structures…God will meet them elsewhere…like in the wilderness.
This is embodied in John.
John wasn’t concerned with establishment and norms. John was an Essene Jew, a faction that was derived from opposition to the two larger Jewish factions- the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Sadducees were an aristocratic class of priests whose practices centered around the Temple rituals. They were Biblical literalists. They were also in cahoots with the Roman Occupation and the manner in which the monarchy, King Herod, was used as a puppet for Rome. The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
Pharisees became the predominant Jewish group. They were commoners and forebears of our modern Jewish brothers and sisters. Mainly concerned with Torah and the oral traditions of Torah’s interpretation. They also believed in the afterlife where God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous.
Essenes believed that the religious sects of his time were corrupt and broken. These hermetic Jews took to living monastic lives in the desert. They believed in the immortality of the soul and believed that righteousness centered around justice and love of truth and viewed this as not particularly tied to the Temple.
John the Baptist arising from this tradition, and serving as a prophet for the Anointed One’s arrival, did not mince words. He spoke directly to the people and told them how it was.
“Repent! You’re out of line with what God desires of you. If you don’t transform your lives and begin bearing fruit, you’re going to get cut down!”
Take note, John wasn’t trying to instill new methods for evaluating moral conduct of one’s neighbor or fellow synagogue member. He spoke directly to people and told them how they, each as individuals, were out of line with God’s intent.
The crowd asks. “Tell us what we need to do!?”
“If you have means to have two coats, share one with those who have none. Do the same with food.”
John’s gospel tells us that the notorious also came to John and received similar direction. To tax collectors, Jews hired by the Romans to collect taxes from their occupied neighbors, he told them,
“Do not overtax with the intent to steal from your neighbors.”
To the Roman soldiers he directed,
“Do not force money from anyone by threats or false accusations. Be satisfied with your wages.”
We are told these directives moved the crowd not to shame for their past deeds, but to hope.
Hope is possible, but it comes from a complete reorientation of one’s heart and mind to God.
Also John’s message is about what is within themselves- not their neighbors or what is outside themselves. Notice John did not tell the crowds to change their careers, change the religious law, or modify religious ceremonies. Instead the message of repentance is “YOU! Do good. Be truthful and honest. Do not use people as objects to promote personal or systemic gain and power. Be content and grateful and use what you have for holy purposes.”
John did not speak to large behemoth systems. He spoke to people in those systems and Empires so that individual by individual the system would be dismantled once they saw the value and humanity of their neighbors.
It’s a direct and foundational attack on ungodly power.
Herod knew this. He knew that if the masses caught on to John’s message he would, as Mary sings, be “Cast down from his thrown” King Herod could not have Roman soldiers seeing occupied Jews, his own subjects, not as a means of colonial power, but as people. What would happen if the rich clothed in finery actually started seeing the poor. The tax collectors realizing they are unjustly benefitting from exploitation of an entire race of people would hinder high tax rates. Yet, this is impact of divine love.
It causes Empires to crumble.
Herod has the prophet of the Most High arrested and beheaded. Jesus begins up where he left off.
We may not be Roman soldiers or Jewish tax collectors, John’s directives are for us as well and we too must follow his prophetic words if we are expecting to see God. Do not assume coming to church is enough. God could pack the pews in our church and every church if God wanted. There is more to be done, more fruit to bear.
Do good. Be truthful and honest. Do not use people as objects to promote personal or systemic gain and power. Be content and grateful and use what you have for holy purposes.
John the Baptist comes to your holiday party. “Happy Holidays you brood of vipers!” Your guests stand around in bewilderment. “Who’s this dude in the funky clothes killing our joyful holiday vibe?”
“Repent! Or else!”
Or else you will miss Christ’s coming.
John will probably not show up at your holiday party, in fact as you gather to celebrate this holiday season you more than likely will not have anyone standing in your living room asking you to turn away from your sins.
Know and believe: The joy we celebrate today and the Joy we celebrate at Christmas comes after we step away from whatever separates us and breaks us. Then, and only then can we finally see the Christ child. Then and only then, can we turn from a brood of vipers to lions laying with lambs. Then and only then will our empires crumble and be replaced with the kingdom of God.
Brood of Vipers, myself included, may we be filled with this joy.