“You brood of vipers?! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!” Were you able to hear what else John the Baptizer had to say after these words? the lessons that go to the heart of our faith?
During the season of Advent, we focus on waiting and preparing for the coming of our Lord on Christmas Day. We stop for a season and try to reorient the thoughts of our hearts to the good news that is coming into the world, and we enter into a season of introspection and prayer in order to prepare our hearts to receive Christ into the world on that glorious morning. Our waiting begins with readings that foretell of Christ’s coming again with good apocalyptic readings from the gospel. In the second week of Advent, we learn of John the Baptist also preaching in the wilderness of the coming of Christ. He calls for us to prepare the way of the Lord as all flesh will see the salvation of God. Our time in Advent up to this point is focused on preparing ourselves to be recipients of that salvation by taking the time to fill the valleys of our hearts with the love that God shares with each of us in our daily living. As we turn to this week, John the Baptist takes his cry in the wilderness to a new level and offers us one more way to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ on Christmas morn. Did you hear it? Did you listen to the response that the crowd gave to John’s proclamation in the wilderness? He starts with a brood of vipers, and the crowd responds in a way that should take us by surprise in our hearing. They do not recoil from his words or question his message. Instead, they turn and ask him, “What then should we do?”
The response is a startling one because of the message John carries for all of Israel. His words are not meant simply for the individual but also for the entire nation of Israel as it exists under the mantle of Roman imperialism. He urges the people of Israel – all the people of Israel – to prepare themselves through action and to reject falling back on being descendants of Abraham. In the gospel text he proclaims, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” That is quite the prophetic witness that John has for the people of Israel. But let’s not forget that this text is found in the witness of the New Testament and in one of the four canonical gospels. It is not only a message for all of Israel; indeed, it is a message that rings out loud to Christ’s church as we make this journey towards Christmas Day. What might our reaction be to someone that says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say, ‘We have been baptized in Christ’; for I tell you, Christ is able from these stones to raise up sisters and brothers.” Would we be able to hear that message with as much comfort? Would we be able to respond in the same way that the crowd does and to ask John the Baptizer, “Then what should we do?”
What should we do – it is a great question for this time of Advent as we make the turn towards Christmas Day and begin to earnestly prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior. It is a time for us to reflect on what Jesus’ ministry has to teach us about putting our faith into embodied action, and it is a time in which John the Baptizer speaks directly to us about restoring and respecting the dignity of all human persons through our faithful walks with Christ.
The Christian faith is not one that is disconnected from this world or from the challenges that we face in the muck of everyday living. Instead, it is a faith that pushes us to live in the present moment and to recognize the places in which God’s love is needed the most. As disciples of Christ, we are called to make mountains low, to fill every valley, and to make the rough places smooth. Though the season of waiting continues in this third week of Advent, it is also the time of the Advent season that reminds us that our waiting for Christ is joined with the ways that we carry God’s love outside the walls of the church to invite all of God’s children to have a change of thought and feeling towards the truth that God speaks to all of humanity. Just as John the Baptizer’s message was meant for both individuals and for all of Israel, so too is the message intended for each one of us and for all of God’s children. The change is a real change, and it is not one that is necessarily easy for us to listen to much less to embody in our daily lives.
As John continues his prophetic message in the wilderness, he professes a commitment to covenant ethics when he tells the crowd, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” John the Baptizer extends his message not only to Israel but also to those serving as agents of the Roman empire when he advises the tax collectors and the soldiers. The message of repentance goes all the way down to the way that different groups of persons lived in the everyday, and the message for us is the same. It is a message that questions the status quo not only in our own country but in every land. It is a message that pushes us beyond simply distributing to others that which is due to them and into the realm of loving another as much as God loves us. It is a message that threatens the way that things are always done while promising a better way, a way that is filled with love and care for each other. Thus, the message that we receive today calls into question the harsh stances taken against the refugees, the lack of a response to the gun violence in the modern world, and the dwindling economic opportunities for the poorest and most marginalized among us.
And let’s be clear – I am not trying to push a political agenda here. I am asking that we listen to the message that John the Baptizer gives to us within the context of the good news of Jesus Christ. In two short weeks, we will welcome the Christ child into our lives on Christmas morn. We will celebrate his birth and give thanks to God for God’s overwhelming generosity towards all human flesh. As we mark off the days between now and then on our Advent calendars and as we light the three candles of the Advent wreath this week, can we do so with the knowledge that we are called to follow in every footstep that Jesus will take in his future ministry? Are we prepared to walk that fateful walk with our savior without disconnecting it from the realities of the current era? I pray that I am able to say yes to these questions. I pray that I am able to listen to the Holy Spirit in such a way that I continue to remember the abundance of God’s economy, and I pray that I have the courage to take the next step with my savior. I pray that I am able to hear John’s words and to bear fruits worthy of repentance.
And I pray these things because I know that I will not be able to do so without the power of prayer and without being in relationship with God. I pray these things because it is going to be a walk that will require courage, and it is going to be a walk that ultimately ends in crucifixion. In that walk, God is calling us to become servants of his love and to be agents of restoration in God’s creation and through that walk to welcome the Christ child not only into our own lives but also into the lives of all people.