[John] said therefore 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? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
Last week we welcomed back to the Christmas stage that most unlikely of Yuletide figures – the gaunt and rather unjolly figure of John the Baptist.
He emerges from the background shadows of the Nativity scene each year at this time, and last week I focused on just what an unexpected and unwanted intrusion his arrival is for us. He was not the prophet we expected or were in any way wanting to hear from. This week I want to focus on more specifically on the unique form of Christmas cheer embodied in the Baptists’ message:
It’s a message that never fits easily with the climate of the silly season, and this despite my initiative of integrating it into a Christmas card.
As I said last week, I’m not making any broad distribution of my John the Baptist Christmas Greeting Cards this year, but you can download them (in PDF) format here:
It’s beautifully straghtforward: the happy figure of the Baptist with “Seasons Greetings in the words of John the Baptist” on the front of the card and the message inside: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Merry Christmas.”
I remember dear old Marge Yarham (God rest her soul) eagerly getting one of my John the Baptist Greeting Cards from me one year and saying, “I know just the person to send that to!” I don’t think she quite got the point.
Even so, the Baptist’s message is a long way from the “God bless us one and all” message of peace and goodwill to all that we hear Tiny Tim and his mates sprouting this time of year, On the contrary, it’s an exhortation to put down the bottle of plonk, wipe the smile of your face and take an icy cold dip in the Jordan, repenting of your sins.
It’s an unseasonable message. Moreover, it’s a radically conservative message! It’s what your father said to you when you were a child: “what do you kids think you’re doing? You’re not going out dressed like that. Don’t tell me that Abraham is your father. God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!”
The Baptist is like an angry dad, and it does make you wonder why people flocked to hear him? In Matthew’s account of John it says that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him” (Matthew 3:5). Why? Why when we are told that John’s initial greeting to those who came to be baptised by him was, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
I remember a guy who told me once how he’d stopped going to church, and the reason was that ‘sometimes I’d come out of church feeling worse about myself than when I went in!’ Well maybe the Baptist had been preaching that Sunday? I try to explain to people like that that the Christian Gospel is not all sugar and spice and all things nice, At the same time though, I appreciate that people are not going to flock to church if all they are going to be told is that they are miserable worms or a bunch of snakes!
The contrast between John’s ministry and the ministry of Jesus couldn’t be greater in some ways. I can understand completely why people travelled great distances to hear Jesus speak. His words were beautiful, His stories were engaging, and He regularly performed rather spectacular miracles. How many miracles in the New Testament were attributed to the Baptist?
Is that not a fair question? Miracles were part and parcel of the ministry of Jesus, and the Apostles after Him likewise performed multiple miracles in His name. Yet as far as I can tell no one was even healed of their baldness by virtue of their visit to the Baptist!
And in terms of the strength of his prophecies regarding the coming of Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It’s hardly a conventional summary of the earthly ministry of Jesus, is it?
You really get the feeling that John expected Jesus’ approach to people to have been a little more explosive. And so it shouldn’t surprise us really that by the time John is arrested, and Jesus’ ministry has been happening for some time, John is having doubts about whether he got it right about Jesus in the first place? “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:20)
Yes, no woman born of man was greater than John (Luke 7:28), and yes, it was John who first identified Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:36) but at the same time the two were never entirely on the same page, where they?
And it’s not only the harshness of the Baptist’s outlook that separates the two, so it seems. It’s the relatively pedantic nature of the Baptist’s exhortations to repentance. “What then should we do to be saved”, the people ask him? “If you have two tunics, share with him who has none”, he says, ‘and do the same with your food’.
When people asked the same question of Jesus He would give them a much more dramatic response: “Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor and come follow me!”
There’s nothing so dramatic here, is there, and it is somewhat surprising? Tax Collectors come to John and ask him, ‘what should we do?’ and I’d wager that many of them were expecting him to say, ‘Give up your evil occupation! Stop working for the occupying power, you traitors!’ And yet he doesn’t say anything like that. He says, “Well don’t take more than you’re supposed to”
Likewise with the soldiers – those who enforced the law by the power of the sword. ‘What should we do?’ they ask. What does John say? ‘Put away your swords! Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Give up your violent ways and instead become spiritual warriors, fighting for the law of God!’ No! He doesn’t say any of those things, does he? He says, “don’t cheat anybody” and (wait for it) “be content with your wages and don’t you go wasting all your money on wild women and parties either because I didn’t spend all that money putting your through University so that you could squander your living.’
OK. I added that bit at the end, but I do think that if John the Baptist is patron saint of something, he should be the patron saint of “get yourself a haircut and a real job!” ( except that John himself probably never had a haircut, being dedicated a Nazarite from birth [Luke 1:13-15] and I guess, to some people’s minds at least, he never held down real job either).
But that’s John as we meet him in this passage: rough, offensive, unexpected and uncalled-for. He is radically conservative, and his words are full of fire, and yet there is a punch line to this story!
Of course we’ve read it already, though I don’t know whether you got a chuckle out of it when you heard it initially. It’s the concluding verse of our passage from Luke chapter 3. It’s verse 18. After the ‘brood of vipers’ and the axe that’s laid to the root of the trees, after the prophecy of the Messiah, whose winnowing fork is in his hand and who is going to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, verse 18 concludes, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18)
He preached Good News to the people! Is it a mistranslation? No! With these an many other similar exhortations he preached Good News to the people, as indeed they flocked to hear it!
What made this rustic, fiery preacher Good News to those who heard him? The answer is simple. He made the way of God tangible to them.
Preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus – it’s not necessarily going to be a lot of fun, and it’s not always going to be very spectacular, but it’s not impossible either. Indeed, preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus can be broken down into simple tangible tasks that involve sharing our money, opening our homes, not using our position in the workplace to take advantage of others, and being content with what we have.
It’s not always spectacular. It’s not always radical and newsworthy. But these are the steps we must take as we walk the path of discipleship, making ready for the imminent joy of Christmas, preparing the way of the Lord.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2009.