Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18; Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice, you brood of vipers!
This week I read the Gospel lesson last. I read Zephaniah first: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Then I flipped into the New Testament and read Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” So far, so good. Rejoice! That’s an important admonishment during this season of all-too-common horrific news. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are reasons to rejoice, chief among them God’s nearness. But then I went to Luke, and even anticipating yet another Advent Sunday of John the Baptist, the words on the page felt like a smack on the face, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I didn’t expect a “Merry Christmas!” but “brood of vipers” seemed a bit harsh. What happened to rejoice and exult and being renewed in the love of the Lord? I am all for a sermon on Zephaniah this week or Philippians with the peace that passes understanding… but more John the Baptist? I’ve had enough of him.
I don’t relish being named a viper, but John the Baptist refuses to be silenced and, therefore, we have to be content with him even as we long for the arrival of baby Jesus. Given the relentless grim news, John the Baptist’s harsh words are both resonant and necessary. Looking around at the state of the world, it is all too obvious that repentance is required. It begins with accepting our viper status and then asking, “What then should we do?” There is a collective nature to this repentance and response. Individual vipers aren’t singled out; it is the whole brood that is held accountable. The question isn’t what should I do?, but rather what should we do? But are we willing to even concede John’s first point? When this text from Luke is read, how many of us picture ourselves as part of that poisonous lot? Our culture is keen on self-affirmation (I am smart enough. I am good enough. And doggone it, people like me!), but not so willing to admit our myopic selfishness and propensity to hurt others.
Is it possible to hear John’s admonishment and realize we need to heed it? Can we see our collective responsibility for the state of such things as global warming, racism, violence and so much more? It’s almost Christmas – can’t we just bask in the glow of the lights and prepare for the annual pageant? Isn’t the news “out there” bad enough? Can’t we just rejoice when we are in here? Well, not if we want our witness to have an impact on the world that is all too familiar with dangerous vipers.
This third Sunday of Advent, as much as we want to jump ahead to candle light and carols, we have to stop, repent and admit we are, at best, complicit in the suffering that pervades the news. Yes, John, we are a brood of vipers, curved in upon ourselves, prideful and prone to delusions of self-importance. What then are we to do? Seriously, we want to know. We yearn to be better, do better, live better. We know to our marrow that things are not as they should be within us and all around us, so tell us, what should we do to enable God’s transformative power to bear fruit?
Here is where the text couldn’t get more concrete. We want to know what to do. John the Baptist tells us what to do and what he tells us is, in fact, doable. Got two coats? Share with those who have no coat. More than enough food? Give away your abundance to those who are right now going hungry. Need further instructions? Whatever your profession, do it with integrity and honesty. Seems pretty straightforward. In the words of Nike, we need to just do it.
Just do it: Share what you have, treat others fairly, be known by your gentleness, and then be filled with expectation because the Lord is near and that’s good news for those who live thusly. It is so simple and yet so difficult for us, brood of vipers that we are.
Difficult, but not impossible. When the headlines are overwhelming and the problems of the world feel intractable and enormous we need to remind the faithful that God is indeed near, in our midst even, working for us and through us. That means that our meager offerings of a coat and a meal, our fair treatment of those in our small sphere, our gentle interactions with the ones we encounter in our daily living, are blessed and multiplied. Besides, our concern is not the result, it is the faithful doing. We aren’t to worry about anything, remember? We share our coats in a culture that worships acquiring more of everything, we live honestly in a world that prizes winning at all costs, we are gentle, yielding and kind in a context where meanness is cheered even as it is mistaken for strength and we trust that God will use our collective fruits of repentance in spectacular, life affirming, good news bringing ways.
This third Sunday of Advent, God is drawing near and we know exactly what we need to do to be prepared. So no need to worry, just do it: share, treat others fairly, let gentleness rule our actions. Then all that there is left is to rejoice! Brood of vipers!
- Zephaniah 3:15b reads, “You shall fear disaster no more.” The prophet, like angels and Jesus, says, “Do not fear.” In this time when fear abounds, how do we live in ways that show our trust in God’s presence and power? How do we balance prudence with taking risks for the sake of the gospel?
- Philippians 4:5 reads, “Let your gentleness be known by everyone.” The Greek-English lexicon defines the Greek word for gentleness found in this verse as, “not insisting on every right or letter of law or wisdom.” Also, “yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.” How can we live out these traits? How can we be known for our gentleness this Advent?
- John the Baptist says, “Don’t presume today to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” What do you think that means? How do we think we are entitled to God’s favor in ways others are not?
- This Luke texts has ties to Luke 19:1-10, the story of the repentant tax collector, Zacchaeus. Take a look again at that story. Is Zacchaeus a model of what it means to bear fruit of repentance? A model for us?
- How is it good news that Jesus is coming to separate the wheat from the chaff? How do good news and John’s “many exhortations” go together?
- Here is a collect for the third Sunday of Advent from “A New Zealand Prayer Book”: God for whom we wait and watch, you sent John the Baptist to prepare for the coming of your Son; give us courage to speak the truth even to the point of suffering.
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