You brood of vipers!
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
You brood of vipers!
Just kidding. That felt bad even to pretend say.
Every Advent season, I love it when this passage rolls around from Matthew because it is such a good -- and yet somehow always novel -- reminder that John the Baptist is so weird.
John the Baptist is SO bizarre, and we kind of just gloss is over like it's not actually a big deal. He's a street preacher who is out in the middle of the woods shouting on and on about how there's this Messiah who's coming and he's gonna baptize you with fire. I imagined he was quite the colorful character in his camel's hair tunic hunched over his bowl of locusts, and I bet if I encountered him out on the quarry trail or at Motts Run, I would turn heel and get the heck outta there.
But even more, he sounds, frankly, kind of unpleasant! He's out there shouting on and on telling people to repent, and be baptized. I think we are predisposed to react against anyone telling us to "repent" -- I imagine there's only so many times I could get up here in this pulpit and tell all of you to repent, "and here's what for" before the Cynthia started getting emails about me, or before y'all started bringing your pitchforks to church. Anyways, he's not leading with "hi hello how are you" or "hello my name is". He's saying to repent or face the unquenchable fire, repent and be baptized. and then the Pharisees and the Sadducees actually listen, and he chastises them anyways! You brood of vipers -- who told you to come here? They try to repent and he says -- no, I bet your repentance is not good enough, I will believe it when I see it. Bear fruit worthy of repentance or remain just a brood of vipers. It's not really very nice!
The part that gets me every year is this: he sounds so unpleasant, and yet he is one of the most important figures of our Christian faith, and how funny is that. He cleared a path in the wilderness for the person and the ministry of Jesus and his brash methods grind against our unspoken rules of propriety. Could he not have cleared the path in a more gentle way? Could he not have brought people along slowly instead of crashing through like a bull in a China shop? This guy who is such a crucial part of the nativity story and of the Gospels, is not some I would enjoy having around today and I wonder if you wouldn't either. And how funny is that.
And what a great, upending message for this season of Advent. What if the message and the methods of the Gospel transgress our modern sensibilities? What if the message and the methods of the Gospel transgress our modern sensibilities and what if they are supposed to? What if the brassiness of John, what if the brazenness of Jesus were good, and what if we could use a little brassiness too?
I love it because it feels like such a good starting place for our Christian faith: its going to be hard, it's going to seem unpleasant, it's going to make you mad. The things that John the Baptist promises, and the things that Jesus says, the things Jesus asks us to do are going to feel disruptive and inconvenient, you're going to wish it was conveyed in a more gentle way, or that we implement the changes that Jesus and John are proposing phases. The Gospel is going to seem unrealistic and yet somehow still urgent, and what if all of those things -- disruptive and inconvenient and off-putting and unrealistic and urgent -- is how it is supposed to feel? What if a little discomforting and a little maddening is how John the Baptist is supposed to be received?
I say all this not because I want to be mad or because I want you all to be mad, or because I just want an excuse to call us all a brood of vipers. I say all this because I want to try to tell the truth about this important figure from the Gospels who in the Gospels made a lot of people very mad and who earned himself a beheading for it. This being the guy who cleared the path for the other guy who also preached a radical Gospel of repentance, lifting up the poor, selling all your belongings, and toppling hierarchies, and who also made a lot of people mad, and who earned himself a crucifixion for it. I wonder what we would learn about our faith if we worked hard to hold these two paradoxical truths, one in each hand. This person is true and good and giving us the Gospel. And, this person would make me mad, too, probably.
You might be thinking to yourself, Fr. Ethan, aren't you being a bit hyperbolic? Well yes, of course I am. John the Baptist didn't make everyone mad. Jesus didn't make everyone mad. There were loads of people who heard their preaching and heard the promises of God and heard them as a relief, as Good News. There are big throngs of people who heard John's and Jesus's calls to repentance and dropped everything, who heard their promises of food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty and healing for the sick and showed up because they were hungry, thirsty, sick. There were folks who maybe heard for the first time that maybe they are the blessed ones, the meek, the mourning, the hungry, and not the strong, the laughing, the full. There were surely people who heard Jesus' and John's promises of an upended world order and took it as a relief, as a blessing. And others, who took it at the very least as an inconvenience, and at the most a threat, or even a warrant for arrest.
Again, I say all this simply to say that some of the stuff we find in the Gospels is pretty far out there, some of it is pretty radical, some of it is a little brash and brazen in ways that we might not enjoy -- or that we find acceptable only because they are safely tucked away in these books and not directed towards us. And if you find yourself reacting against it from time to time, or finding the methods or the means or the goals dubious, what a beautiful and good and true place to start from. I mean it, what a good starting place. I think it is exactly on the edges where our comfort meets our discomfort that we find the frontier places of our faith.
This Advent season, let's look forward to these figures from our faith who make us uncomfortable, or even mad, folks who say things that challenge us, things that we want to argue against, or outright reject. Let's be grateful for the chance to hear this preached and embodied Gospel in the lives of Jesus and John, and how lucky we are to hear it.