John said 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? 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. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
“You brood of vipers!”
I’ve always wanted to start a sermon with that line from John the Baptist. . . . It’s not as much fun as I’d hoped.
Even though it apparently worked for John better than it just did for me, that’s not the line that got my attention. It’s the next one, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Don’t flee, repent.
The crowds are out in the wilderness to be baptized by John. But rather than repenting, they are fleeing—running away, and John calls them out on it. So when the crowds say, “well, then, if running away and saving our own skins isn’t the thing to do, then what should we do instead?”
And John’s answer is this: “Instead of trying to save yourselves, turn back toward your neighborhood, your community.” Invest in them, help them, give them hope. Your hope is tied to theirs.
If one of your neighbors doesn’t have a coat, that means one of us is cold; give them one of yours. Because only when they have hope can you have hope.
If one of your neighbors doesn’t have food, that means one of us is hungry; give them some of yours. Because only when they have hope can you have hope.
If you’re a tax collector, don’t cheat people for your own personal gain. You are all tied together, so if you cheat them out of hope, then one of us is being cheated. Only when they have hope can you have hope.
If you’re a soldier in the Roman army, don’t use your position of power to take advantage of people. If you do, then one of us is being oppressed. Only when they have hope can you have hope.
There’s a Messiah coming, he says, and I’m not good enough to shine his shoes. He’s the one anointed by God, and he will show you God’s way. And God’s way is not about fleeing in order to save yourselves. God’s way is that we are all bound up together, and the hope of one of us is the hope of all of us. You cannot save yourselves while one of your neighbors is cold or hungry or poor or oppressed. Instead of turning away from them, turn toward them. Only when they have hope can you have hope..
It’s like in school when we had to work on a project as a team. Everyone got the same grade for the overall project. I hated those because I always did my portion but was dependent on everyone else to do theirs.
What John understood that we don’t is that God’s way is the ultimate team project. No matter what’s going right for me, if you don’t have hope then I am affected by that. Whether I like it or not. God’s way is that our fates are intertwined. Only when you have hope can I have hope.
Though we deny that aspect of interconnectedness with every breath we have in our culture, it doesn’t change the reality of it. In this culture we long for individualism, to have all the resources needed to take care of ourselves. And once we have all we need for ourselves, then we might share a little of the extras. What’s ironic is that we never quite attain all that we need, so we keep hoarding more.
Which is not the way of this coming Messiah. Our hope is tied up together with our neighbors. None of us have hope until all of us have hope.
Advent is the season of hope. We heard two weeks ago about God’s hope revealed in our lives, and last week about God’s hope revealed in this church. Today we’ll hear from Venessa V about God’s hope revealed in our neighborhood, which is the message of John the Baptist. And a week from today we’ll hear from our Bishop Jim Gonia about God’s hope revealed in the world.
If our neighbors don’t have hope, then neither do we. God’s way, the way this coming Messiah will live and teach and proclaim, is that our fate is intertwined with that of our neighbors. Only when they have hope can we have hope.