Now admittedly, the “turn or burn hellfire and brimstone” style isn’t usually what you hear in a proper Episcopal Church, is it? And let’s face it, ad hominem attacks like calling the crowd a “brood of vipers” just doesn’t get you very far in seminary homiletics class. I mean … that label alone is a flip on the “your momma” put downs … because, if you’re a brood of vipers, your momma is a snake! And we know how much snakes are loved in Hebrew Scriptures, right? I always imagine John the Baptist in a modern seminary homiletics class giving this sermon and afterwards the professor saying, "Um ... let's go back to your opening there John ... 'brood of vipers' ... would you like to unpack that?" Seriously ... this just isn't how preaching is done these days.
But did you notice the reaction of the crowd? I mean, John just called them an epithet and ranted about their sin of blindness and pride … and what is the crowd’s reaction? You'd think they would be reaching for some rotten fruit to throw at him, wouldn't you? But they don't! They ask what they should do. Let that sink in for just a moment. They ask "What should we do?"
Like many other liturgical churches, we use a lectionary which is a cycle of designated readings from Scripture. The Jewish rabbis have a similar schedule through their liturgical year – it’s not unique to Christianity. But because we have a lectionary, I don’t get to pick and choose what texts I want to preach on … they are set for me. That means I have to deal with and try to illuminate texts that frankly make people mad at some point or another. I was on Facebook this week commiserating with a few colleagues about complaints we get when we preach: “too liberal,” “too conservative,” “you’re a socialist,” “stop shoving the Bible down our throats,” “Jesus didn’t really say that,” “I’m cutting my pledge” … yep, we’ve pretty much heard it all.
What these complaints point to, though, is our very human reaction to hearing the Gospel crash into our carefully crafted ego. We all stand in the place of being convicted by the Gospel as falling short of the mark. Whether it’s our world view, or our values, or our habits – we all sin and fall short of the glory of God and we are convicted. So when we hear a disturbing message or don’t like what the preacher says our first reaction is usually to lash out at the preacher, question their credentials, claim they don’t know the Bible, or call the senior warden to complain. I confess, prior to ordination, I did it too … I guess being on the receiving end is poetic justice. John’s Gospel tells us even Jesus lost most of his followers after he preached about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The natural human reaction is to defend the ego at all costs rather than listen to how the Gospel is convicting us. That sounds harsh, but remember: the Gospel convicts us not to condemn us but to convert us.
But the crowd in today’s reading doesn’t react defensively. They don’t let their egos get in the way. They want to know what they should do and this is where it gets real. John gives them a plan of wealth redistribution! If you have two coats, give one away. Yeah … and I opened up my coat closet this week and BAM! I was hit with how many coats I had that I don’t even wear anymore! I was guilty of missing the mark (and for the record, we made a serious Goodwill donation this week … coats and all). Luke then tells us two specific groups of people asking John what they should do: tax collectors and soldiers. Both of these groups were officials serving the Roman government. The tax collectors were Jewish. The Romans used locals as their tax collecting agents because locals knew the neighborhood and who lived there. They were hated as traitors because they collected not just the tax owed, but would shake down their fellow Jews for more than what was owed and pocketed the rest (which Roman law allowed). John tells them to stop defrauding people and only collect what is owed. The soldiers were Romans – hated by the Jews as part of the occupying force who could take whatever they wanted by force. John tells them not to commit extortion by threats or false accusations, essentially stop blackmailing the people, and be satisfied with your wages. These encounters tell us that John’s message wasn’t just for Jews; it was for the whole world. Economic justice is a part of God’s plan of salvation, we all have a part in it and we can’t rest on our laurels and think just because we’re saved that we won’t face judgment: a hard teaching indeed.
Advent is the time when we focus on the end of all things as well as the reality that each of us will die. It’s also a time where we focus on the radical nature of what the coming of Christ really is all about. It’s about the total conversion of our hearts and souls, claimed by Christ in baptism, that we may be fully united with God. Divine union is the goal and we don’t get that on our terms. It comes on God’s terms … and it means, like the tax collector, the soldier and the crowd, we are going to be expected to change. This conversion will mean that there are things we will be asked to leave behind – beliefs, world views, values … all that is constructed by our egos has to be set aside so that Christ can enter our hearts and make us new. It doesn’t always feel good – in fact it usually feels pretty lousy when God rips out our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh. But it is necessary if we are to be serious about following Christ rather than just admiring him from the sidelines.
So when you hear the equivalent of “you brood of vipers” and the hackles on the back of your neck stand up, remember you have a choice. You can choose to defend your ego … or … you can see these signs of ego stress as the Holy Spirit’s invitation to conversion and a deeper intimacy with Christ. Maybe it’s time to ask God, “What should I do?” and ask for the grace and courage to do it.