7John 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? 8 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 even from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, “Rabbi, what should we do?” 13 John said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” John said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, might be the Christ, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. This one will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 With a winnowing fork in hand, this one will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary, but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
Please pray with me this morning, church:
God of joy,
So many things compete for our attention
In these days and seasons.
And it can be hard to find joy
In the midst of everything going on.
Root us, again, in you, this morning.
Center our joy in your unfailing love for us.
Help us extend that joy in our world.
Blessed Advent, a merry Christmas season, and happy holidays, you brood of vipers!
The 3rd Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as the Sunday we talk about joy. That comes from back in the days of the Latin mass, when the 3rd Sunday of Advent was then, and in many places, still is, known as Gaudete Sunday—which means, “Rejoice!”—because both the Hebrew scripture reading and the Epistle reading both start off with “Rejoice!” It’s a bit of a break in the middle of the season marked by such watching and waiting and expectation…a bit of a reprieve from the hopeful anticipation of the not-quite-yet.
So it’s a Sunday that we lift up joy and we talk about joy…and here comes John the baptizer, weird clothes and wild hair and all, you can imagine him shaking his finger or running up to this crowd with a wild look in his eyes and maybe a little spit flying out of his mouth…”You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!”
Rejoice! — Brood of vipers…?
We might not find much to be joyful about being called names by a desert mystic who eats bugs.
But hang in there…
This season of Advent, we’re in our series from the wonderfully creative women at A Sanctified Art called Close to Home, where we’re exploring our longing for a sense of home and what it means that God has chosen to make God’s home here with us in the person of Jesus. The first Sunday of Advent, we talked about that feeling of homesickness and longing for a place that feels like home and the hope we hold onto in the midst of that longing. Last week, we talked about what we would need to start making God’s dream a reality in our own time and place, and needing to begin by laying a foundation of peace.
This week, we hear more from John the baptizer and we start to put a structure and a roof and doors and windows on this home and start to fill it with all kinds of furniture and art and pictures and all the items that make it feel like home, all the things that bring us joy, and what this home needs to look and feel like to truly have it be a home for all.
You’ve heard me say before, but Advent and Lent are really mirrors of one another. And if Lent is a time of spiritual house-cleaning, then Advent is a time of spiritual house-warming. Both require an attention to the small things, an eye and a desire to sort through what is needful, and the willingness to do away with what is not. But while the purpose of the Lenten spiritual housecleaning is the cleaning itself and the inspection and introspection of our spiritual lives and to strip away all the stuff we fill our spiritual lives with and get back to the core of our faith and make space for God…the purpose of the Advent spiritual housewarming is to make that space feel warm and homey and to create that welcoming space for the God who will arrive in Christ at the end of our Advent journey, the birth of Christ anew into our lives and into our world.
John the baptizer shows up on the scene in the Judean wilderness calling people to repentance and to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sin. These are all familiar words to us, but maybe you haven’t thought about them much since Confirmation. “Forgiveness of sin”…that’s fairly straightforward. I’ve done something wrong, I need to be forgiven for that wrong…boom, forgiveness. Baptism…again, pretty straightforward; usually involving water, a ritual washing, a kind of public declaration and demonstration. But “repentance” is the thing I think a lot of us tend to gloss over. Is it enough to recognize that I’ve done something wrong? Is it enough to be sorry for the thing I did or the person with whom I damaged that relationship?
Repentance acknowledges that there’s an intermediate step in between being sorry and receiving forgiveness. The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means “to change one’s mind” but also you have to understand that for the ancient Greeks the mind controlled behavior, so to change your mind was to change your way of living. To change your mind means that you stop going in this direction and living in this way and you start down this other path. To repent is to start living a different way.
This is why, when pressed on the issue in these individual scenarios, John describes different ways of living for each of the groups of people who ask him. “What should we do?” “Well what about us? What should we do?”
“Bear fruit,” John says. But bearing fruit looks different for different individuals. The fruit of your repentance, the way you begin to live differently is going to look different depending on your situation.
But if it’s forgiveness you’re seeking, you recognize the places and the people in your life that you’ve wronged, you commit to living differently (that’s the key…), and then forgiveness is yours to receive. And then you memorialize and ritualize the whole deal with chilly dip in the river, and then you go on your way on this new path that you’ve committed to living.
What fruit looks like isn’t the same from person to person.
The fruit that you are called to bear in this season likely looks different for you than it does for someone who’s been out of work for almost 2 years…or more. The fruit you’re called to bear is different than that of the homeless veteran. Different than those in Arkansas, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky this morning…those who woke up this weekend to their entire world changed and shattered and destroyed…less than 2 weeks before Christmas…
Your fruit might look like giving to Lutheran Disaster Response or the Red Cross. Their fruit might be to simply receive what other people of good will are willing to give to help them in their recovery.
I think I’ve often preached these verses and scripture like this as “Joy is found in giving up.” And while I do still think that’s true, I’m feeling a little differently this morning. I do think joy is found in giving up, but I think it’s because of the effect that it has on our neighbor, not necessarily because of the effect of unburdening on ourselves, although unburdening yourself is certainly a welcome side-effect. What I’m getting at here is that I think our joy is connected to, and perhaps even rooted in, the joy and the well-being and the flourishing and thriving of our neighbor. Friends, joy is found when you give something for the sake of your neighbor because of how it impacts your neighbor. When your neighbor thrives and flourishes, that’s what brings you joy, especially if you had something to do with it.
And if each of us is looking out for the needs and concerns of our neighbor, then you can absolutely trust that someone is looking out for your needs and concerns and is especially interested in your thriving and flourishing.
Again, think of those who have just lost everything this weekend.
Like hope…like peace…joy is a rugged thing. It’s tested and worn and gritty. Joy isn’t happiness. Happiness is conditional. Joy doesn’t deny struggle and hardship…joy persists in the midst of struggle and hardship.
This is what is means to build a home for all. A home where all have everything they need. A home where none are exploited or extorted. A home where justice and peace reign, where equity is the family mantra. A home where resources are shared freely and joyfully. A home where people are welcomed, invited, beloved, affirmed, and celebrated as the beautiful beloved children of God they are. A home with longer tables instead of higher walls. A home that is warm and loving. A home where joy is pervasive in every room and in every person.
Rejoice, you brood of vipers.
This home is starting to take shape.