The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018
John the Baptist sure could use a lesson in preaching. Typically it’s not wise to call your congregation a bunch of snakes, though they may be.
But John, well, he never went to seminary so he never learned any better. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” You’re a bunch of snakes and you better start being less snakish. He goes on. “Share your clothes. Share your food. Don’t take bribes.” And then John doesn’t even end his sermon with a nice, uplifting note. No, he says that the one coming has “his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We can safely assume that John’s preaching career will be short, tendentious, and miserable.
Now we, modern, enlightened Christians often do one of two things with this kind of talk. “John the Baptist is a nutcase,” we say. I mean, he’s out there in the wilderness eating crickets. Is causation or correlation, who knows? But still! He’s got bugs on the brain. Should we really trust that guy?. Sharing food and clothes, John, you’re not going to get people to like you with that kind of talk.
The other thing we do is symbolize the thing to death. Well, he doesn’t really mean that we have to share our stuff; it’s supposed to be like, a spiritual sharing. Or, he doesn’t really mean that we have to repent, that’s so negative. What he really means is that we should get a self-help book, to, you know, improve ourselves. Yeah, John just wants us to live our best life and find ourselves, or whatever.
In other words, we do all sorts of mental gymnastics so that we don’t have to share, to repent, or to bear fruit.
Call me a bible thumper, but I think John the Baptist means what he says. He’s able to read the writing on the wall, he knows what was going on in the first century. The people were more concerned with their lineage, that they were Abraham’s children, than how to live righteously now. He could see that they cared more about who they were than what they were doing. John the Baptist could see that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poor. He could see that some people were getting ripped off and some people were getting an extra pay day. He could see that some people were using their weapons to threaten, extort, intimidate. John the Baptist saw a whole lot of people concerned with how to get more money and more power, and that some people were getting a raw deal. John’s right, there were snakes everywhere.
Two thousand years on, not much has changed. You know the news. Because of changing economic conditions and widespread emotional despair, life expectancy in the United States has actually decreased. Judging by the zip code a kid just happens to be born in, you can estimate their chances of ending up in prison. Student loans have strangled my generation. We’ve still got slaves here, in Texas, in Houston. John, you think you’ve seen a brood of vipers? No man, come look around here.
Like John warned the crowd, don’t begin to say to yourselves, “but we’re genteel Episcopalians; you know, somewhere between high brow Methodists and Catholics who don’t use a rosary. Surely we’re not to blame. Surely we are not that brood of vipers.”
Herein lies one of the great truths about humanity. The line runs through us. (see Fleming Rutledge, “The Crucifixion,” for an extensive treatment of this idea) We are both good and evil. Every single one of us. We have profited off companies that have killed people. We carry our weapons to intimidate. We drive right past the places where people are being trafficked. We know about the school to prison pipeline. Normal people, people like you and I, perfectly normal, genteel, good people can be just as complicit with evil as anybody else.
And what does John the Baptist have to say about it? Turn around. Repent. The ax is lying at the root of the tree. Something has got to give.
As much as I want to stand here every Sunday morning and give you some sweet thoughts and positive vibes to make it through yet another grinding week of work and school, I just can’t. Because I know that the ax is lying at the root of my tree. Because I know that I have been a viper. Because I know that something in my life has got to give. I’ve heard all the sweet, sentimental sermons around at Christmas time, and they’re all so fake. You see right through it, don’t you? Two thousand years from now, no one will be listening to those milquetoast sermons about how God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. You know why? Because I’m certain that my idea of my best life would have vipers written all over it.
But two thousand years from now we’ll still be listening to John the Baptist. I don’t know what the pressing issues of that day and age will be, but I do know that if humans are still around, we’ll still be extorting, threatening, and hoarding. As long as there will be humans, there will be vipers.
Merry Christmas. Here we are in church, John is calling us all snakes, and then we go home and turn on Christmas carols, we put on our ugly Christmas sweaters, and pour ourselves another glass of eggnog. I’m not sure what John the Baptist would make of us, vipers that we are.
Like the crowd that gathers around John, we ought to ask what we should do. In our prayers this Advent, I ask you to open your heart to the Lord Jesus and with true humility ask, “what then should I do?” And be prepared for the answer, because you might not like it. I’m certain those tax collectors were upset that they were told to not skim money off the top. I’m certain the soldiers were unhappy that they would have to stop bullying. And I’m sure that if I ask the Lord Jesus what I should do, I might not like the answer. Following Jesus has real world consequences, it will impact your bottom line. This life is not about being with Jesus in heaven when you die. This is about the ax at the root of the tree.
But here’s the deal. What God asks of us will only and ever be for love. Remember that. Advent is not about some angry God who wants to smite you, no. Who is just threatening to sort you out and burn you. Advent is about a God who loves us and wants us to be more loving. And in a world so used to hate, love feels awfully hard. As odd as it sounds, this sermon, and John the Baptist’s sermon, is about love. It’s about seeing that God loves the world so much that God desperately wants us to be more loving, too.
So does God love the traffickers and the bullies and the con artists and the scammers and the vipers? Does God love us?
The crazy thing is that yes, God loves all of them. God loves all of us. The New Testament calls this a scandal - it’s a scandal that God loves us even though God knows full well who we are. I rather think of it as a big inside joke. Wait, God loves me? Self-centered, distracted, hard-hearted me? I think about that, and all I can do is laugh. Laugh that Jesus would be born for me. Laugh that Jesus would die for me. Laugh that Jesus would look at snakish me, and say that even I’m lovable.
Today I am asking that part of your Advent devotion is to laugh. Just laugh at this inside joke, that God loves us and that God would use us - yes, even vipers like us - to make the world a lovelier place. And just then, when you’re laughing at the sad hilarity of your own life, in the softness of that moment, ask God to start chopping away at the root of your tree that is bearing evil fruit. In that moment of laughter, when you know that God loves you eternally and forever, surrender yourself to the loving ax and let God chop down your greed, your intolerance, your meanness, all that is bearing evil fruit. Then will you be ready for Christmas.