To paraphrase John the Baptist, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!” (1)
It’s jarring, abrupt, intense, this word from John. It’s a harsh word and a tough fit on the third Sunday of Advent. This, after all, is “Joy Sunday,” with its bouncing flame and rosy messages, exuberant banners, and adorable children with their parents lined up with cameras like reporters at a press conference.
But our passage today, right in the middle of our Advent expectation, insists that joy doesn’t come without judgment. Before we get to Christmas, we have to get past John. Before we sing “Joy to the World,” with candles lifted and voices swelling, there is work to do: repent, change, let go of some things and take up others, make space, prepare.
This is the call of John the Baptist, booming loudly throughout Luke chapter 3. It begins right away in verse 1, in a passage we read last week, with John as a voice crying in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of repentance. And in our passage today the volume rises and the word intensifies. John is almost breathing fire at points and calling down brimstone, standing waist deep in the water and shouting to the settled shores. He’s so perfectly poised in this season to be the Scrooge to our Bob Cratchet, humbugging out a message of gloom and doom. He’s the strange distant cousin to Jesus that we are obligated to invite to the family holiday gathering. He’s the camel-clothed Christmas killjoy.
He reminds me of the little boy who was learning the Lord’s prayer, when he tripped up on the “trespass” portion, stumbling over the syllables, and ended up reciting it “And forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
John’s message is of the need for forgiveness at Christmas, for all of us. He tells of a coming judgment, ratcheting up the message for the “brood of vipers” to whom he is speaking, and no less for each of us. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath?”… “The ax is lying at the root of the tree; whatever is not bearing fruit is going to be thrown into the fire”… Then later in the passage, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the floor…” all of this language of imminent judgment, “chaff, burn, unquenchable fire…” And then don’t you love what Luke writes in verse 18? “And with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
If that’s surprising for you as it is for me, then it leaves us to ask the critical question this morning: How is this good news? Or maybe, for whom is God’s judgment good news? Or even, if I don’t hear it as good news, who does?
Father Gregory Boyle has served for years as a minister in Los Angeles, particularly as a pastor to gang members through a restorative justice ministry and nonprofit known as Homeboy Industries. He tells of how in his early years, when as he says, “gang violence had me burying more young people than old folks,” at funerals and visitations he would try to isolate the kid who had just viewed his dead friend in the casket. Often the kid was off by himself often, crying and trying to avoid being seen. Boyle says, “I figure perhaps I can speak a word to jostle him from his entrenched vow to seek revenge. Perhaps this is the vulnerable moment, a window cracked open to me. I would almost always say something like, ‘I never want to see you lying in a coffin at sixteen.’”
Boyle says, “When I first did this, I always expected the same response: ‘Yeah—that makes two of us. I don’t want to die.’ What was initially startling grew predictable as I buried more kids. For this vulnerable one would always say the same thing, with little variation: ‘Why not? You gotta die sometime.’”
Father Boyle went on to say, “This is the language of the despondent, for whom . . . hope . . . is entirely foreign.” (2)
I suppose for someone who can imagine no other future than death for himself and for his friends, the idea of a coming judgment that sets things right and ceases all vengeance and makes the broken whole and the rough smooth — well, that might be good news.
This despondency that Boyle describes is shared by so many in our world for whom “hope is foreign,” including some of us here today. I heard it this week, as PBS Newshour reported from the United States/Mexico border and the ongoing crisis there, where just this week 7 yr old Jakelin Caal died after making the journey from Guatemala and being taken into Border Patrol custody.
The reporter shared about another young girl from Guatemala, who was asked, “Why did you make this journey? You know how dangerous it is? You know that children don’t do well on this.”
This little girl described how back home, her life was being threatened, and she wasn’t going to survive. And she said this, “I wasn’t going to let someone else decide how I died. If I died, I was going to die trying to live.” And that little girl is 9 years old. (3)
And I suppose for one wondering “Should I stay in a place of danger or should I venture out and make a harrowing journey whose end is uncertain?”; one who sees no way through, the notion that someone is coming to make a way — that would be a word of great joy.
If I don’t hear the judgment of God as good news, who does?
Well, I expect that for victims – those who have been hurt or wronged – the promise of God judging all things for all time is good news.
I imagine for those in prison, the notion that one is coming who will proclaim release for captives is good news.
For the one who is elderly and living with disabilities and limitations, without the presence of family, maybe dealing with abuse or neglect, the notion that a righteous judge really comes in real time is good news.
For those who are oppressed or overwhelmed, or forgotten or abandoned, or overpowered or marginalized, or out in the wildernesses of our world themselves, the imminent judgment of a righteous and just Messiah is not a threat. It’s good news.
And this is why we need to take time to listen to John and to prepare as he calls us — because John tells us that the judgment of God is part of the promise of joy. John assures us that one is yet coming more powerful and more bold than any we have known, and this one is not coming merely as a vulnerable child, but also as a righteous judge who is out to set things right in a disordered, unjust world.
Our connotations of judgment are so often punitive — based on punishment or condemnation — but this is so much more than that. The judgment that John proclaims is tied to the themes of redemption and liberation we hear throughout the gospel, especially in the gospel of Luke. It’s what Mary sings about in Luke chapter 1, hoping in the one who makes of this old world a new world. It’s the hope that in this Messiah, all of our cycles will break. God will reorder it all. In the one who is coming, God is setting things right.
We can hear the beginnings of this message of redemption and radical change in John’s own words. In verse 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 from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” As Jesus will after him, John is already opening this category of “children of Abraham” — heirs to the covenantal promise God gives to Abraham — to include any person who leads a life of mercy and generosity.
Then later in the passage, John goes to great lengths to include in his audience members of professions that were suspect. Tax collectors and soldiers were agents of Rome, traitors among the Jewish community. But John includes them, and imagines that they have a role to play, as a prelude to the one who is coming to remind that salvation is for all people.
The message continues with the word that God will separate the wheat from the chaff, which is a way of talking about purification as wind and fire remove impurities in each of us. In other words, we have the opportunity to change. We can hear this message of repentance and find the capacity to do what the Greek word John speaks really means. “Metanoia” his message says, which means to turn around, to reorient and reorder, to make a new start.
And I suppose for those who have felt trapped in one direction, who have lost imagination to see anything more for this world or for themselves, who have stopped at times believing that the good news can be announced in their lives, the notion of one who can purify us all, can set us right again, can make of our lives something new — well, that might actually be good news. It might even be a source of joy.
The crowd seems to think so. “What then should we do?” they ask. And they’re probably braced for the kind of thing you’d expect from a wilderness wanderer, waist deep in a river, who undoubtedly will boom out with locusts on his breath: “Abandon your previous life” or “Stay out here with me” or “Start a revolution.” But John’s answer to them is, in so many words: “You should go home.”
To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers: “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages.” To everyone who has abundance he says: “Share from what has been given to you. Believe that you have gifts to give. Stop waiting. The day is now.” He says to them, as he says to us, “Go back to your work, go back to your homes, and believe that the kingdom is near you there. You don’t have to go someplace else to find God. It’s not distant, the kingdom is near. So share, be merciful, do justice.” The message from John is that it’s possible through every one of them… even a brood of vipers.
Can we hear it as good news?
Those early listeners did. In fact, notice what Luke tells us right at the start: people are streaming out to it. Great crowds are drawn to it. They’re not going out to the wilderness expecting to hear the same old words, because that’s not what you hear in the wilderness. They’re going out, because they want to believe things can change.
Could it be that this is actually what the world yearns for? What even vipers uncoil for? The coming of a new way; something more elegant and graceful than we could ever imagine for ourselves; a coming one, even more powerful than we can begin to understand.
We have the chance to flock to that today. We can go out to this one, John, so jarring on this Sunday of joy, and yet situated right where we need him to be. Did you know that some consider John to be a patron saint of spiritual joy? He leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary and Jesus. And when it was time for him to “decrease” so that Jesus could “increase,” he did so willingly, saying, “My joy is now full.”
And so we go out to him today to hear him proclaiming not cheap happiness or fleeting sentimentality, but joy that is all-inclusive, all-encompassing, wholesale redemption for this world. It’s joy that is life-changing and world-ordering. It’s joy that comes from true repentance. It’s joy that comes when we face the truth about ourselves, and start to believe what the coming one believes about us: that we can change direction, and be more than we ever knew.
So let us hear again John’s message of judgment — jarring, demanding, disruptive… and truly good news of great joy.
- A nod to the social media meme with this message, source unknown.
- Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, p. 90
- “How a 7 yr old migrant girl…” (Dec. 14, 2018) www.pbs.org/newshour/show/how-a-7-year-old-migrant-girl-died-while-in-u-s-detention