How many times have you gone to church thinking, “I would really like to hear a sermon that begins with the words ‘You brood of vipers...?” When you first read John the Baptist and his preaching about vipers, the axe is ready at the root of the tree, and all who do not bear fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire to be burned, our minds are ready to put this into a category of “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. You are probably already thinking, “That is not our kind of religion, Pastor.” We have moved on from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” We believe in a loving, forgiving, inclusive God. The last two verses probably magnify our confusion:
17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
That is the good news? Pitchforks and fire, that is the good news? It does not feel like good news.
Why should we bother with John the Baptist at all, here on this Sunday when we have lit the candle of love? The only answer I can give is that Jesus dealt with John. John was his cousin, perhaps his mentor, the one who was to prepare the way for him. Jesus went out into the wilderness with John and was baptized by him, something that caused the Gospel writers and theologians a great deal of difficulty. How could Jesus, the sinless one, go for the baptism of repentance? This is why all the Gospels are clear to say that John was not the messiah, and John says he is not the one, he shouldn’t even be touching the of the messiah’s sandals. (Still followers of John the Baptist out there!)
There must be something else going on here in this text than a simplistic “save your souls from Hell” and “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” kind of sermon. For all this fiery preaching, John sounds like a thundering pragmatist when giving advice. Once he has the attention of his audience and they are doing some real soul searching, they ask “What shall we do?”
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
OK, that isn’t too bad. I was expecting that I was going to need to fast in the wilderness for 40 days, or sit down and make a fearless moral inventory and write down every sin I ever committed and make a public confession that I will change and sin no more. Sharing of my extra with those in need doesn’t sound so bad in comparison-except for the moochers and takers out there, of course.
The text then says tax collectors and soldiers are coming out to hear John. Now it is getting interesting. John is getting to the conscience of those who participate in the prevailing unjust order, When those who grab the money and wield the guns pay attention, you are making an impact. And these folks couldn’t just watch John preach on You Tube. They had to make a days’ journey out to the wilderness. What did John ask of these notorious seekers?
To the tax collector, John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldier, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
It sounds to me like John is just calling everyone to be decent human beings. Share with those in need and don’t be corrupt in your work. Be caring and don’t make your living off of exploiting people. Really that should be the low bar for what it means to be a spiritual person. When Jesus starts preaching he says to the rich young ruler, “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.” I’m sure the man would have preferred to run the coat and food drive as John suggested.
For all the thundering about axes chopping, fires burning and vipers brooding; John’s simple message is to bear fruit. Paul says the same thing in Galations 5, when demonstrating what it means to be a follower of Jesus he says,
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In the Sermon on the Mount, this is what Jesus has to say about recognizing false prophets:
You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
“Don’t just be hearers of the word,” says the Epistle of James, “but be doers of the word, for faith without works is dead.” Bear fruit.
How will these words begin to take root and blossom in our own souls, so that we may feel like the tree of our soul is producing rich, full, sweet fruit in season? There are times when I feel it difficult to know the right thing to do, when I miss the mark, or wonder if I bear any fruit at all. The most dangerous hour for me is 3 AM. Somehow my conscience is wide open at that time. That is when I question if I am a good parent and agonize over my missteps. At 3 AM I realize I misspoke to someone and wonder how I can ever make it right. No matter how much good I may do, that is the hour when even one small critical comment can hold sway in my thoughts. It is the hour I feel most powerless, wondering how I can begin to respond faithfully to episodes like the mass slaughter of innocent children just going to school in Newtown, Connecticut. Do I re-write my whole sermon, organize a candle light vigil, or dedicate effort to a grass roots campaign for gun control? Will any of it matter? If I awake and use the bathroom at 3 AM, I try to stay close to slumber and fall asleep quickly, because once I give the slightest ground to these thoughts, I am lost. It is hard to truly be a decent person. John understood, and simply asked that we seek to bear fruit, help those in need and do no harm.
Over time I have found it impossible to be a person of conscience on my own. To live morally by ourselves is a path of much sadness and sorrow. Isn’t that why we are here this morning? To live a decent life we need a set of practices to live by and a community that shapes you and supports the health of your soul. What we do here at 10 AM on Sunday morning is vital to how we deal with 3 AM the rest of the week, and how you deal with your life.
This is how we face our brokenness, our powerless frustration, our guilt and our pain. We light our Advent candles in the face of the world’s darkness. We sing precious melodies and let the organ tune our souls. We listen to the ancient words of scripture to find wisdom from the communion of saints who have gone before us. We say our prayers – to confess, to be express gratitude, to express our hope for change and healing. We bring our offerings to preserve our sacred space and support ministry and mission around the world. Here we have gifts for a few needy families, we have school supplies for children in Haiti, and we hope those who receive them will know they are not alone and forgotten in the world, and they will find reason to hope. Everything we do here in this hour or so, is a practice session for how to live fully alive, bearing good fruit for the rest of the week.
Look at it this way. When a pianist begins a concert, they have done hundreds of hours of scales, extra work on the tricky runs and chords, and practiced until the melody is so a part of them, so that the crowd just off stage no longer matters. The fruit of their practice is that the music now lives in them and they can share it to bring joy to the world. A lawyer spends many hours reading cases, learning logic, writing briefs, staying prepared for the moment when someone needs their expertise to find justice in their lives. The golfer hit the winning put a thousand times in practice before winning in Augusta.
So too when we face the challenges of conscience, we have the wisdom we need because the scriptures are firmly planted in our souls. When tempted with despair and cynicism, we prevail because we have sung a thousand hymns. When evil gathers round us, we know we are a part of communion of saints around the world who will act with us for justice and peace. We death draws near, we have already walked in the valley of shadow and we will not fear.
Our practice is to set aside this hour together, to tend the tree of life that grows within, so it will bear the fruit of God’s spirit. Together we are God’s orchard, and can feed not only our own spiritual hungers, but also offer rich fruit to a needy world. Whether you feel you are a sapling or a sprawling fig, your fruit will matter. Slowly and patiently we will stay prepared and the fruit we bear will be enough for the world.