John the Baptizer took his faith seriously. Do we?
interpreted by Deborah
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You nest of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Don’t just talk the talk; walk in the way you’ve promised to follow.
“Don’t rely on your status as ‘children of Abraham,’” he reached down into the water and scooped up a handful of pebbles that glinted in the sunlight, “I tell you: God can turn these stones into children of Abraham.” John opened his fist and the rocks fell back into the river bottom, lost among all of the others.
“At this very moment the harvester is on his way, his ax in his hand; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The crowds asked him, “What shall we do?!!” He said, “Whoever has two coats must share with one who has none; and whoever has food must do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said, “Collect no more than the prescribed amount.”
And soldiers asked him, “What about us? What should we do?” He told them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”
The people were anxiously hopeful and began to wonder if John might be the messiah, but he always told them, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He’s wielding a pitchfork, ready to bring in the harvest and get the hay into the barn; but the weeds he’ll toss into the fire to be burned.”
John said things like this as he went about proclaiming the good news to the people.
Image that you are sitting in church waiting for the sermon to begin; there is the usual rustle of hymnals, a few coughs, surreptitious glances at watches, and the repositioning of feet and fannies. After a moment of silence, the pastor stands up and begins shouting,
“You congregation of cobras! Gathered together like venomous snakes under a rock, puffed up; sanctimonious, smug and self-certain. Give up the pretense: get right with God or get ready for trouble.”
Nobody is going to sit still for that kind of talk these days. When we go to church we expect encouragement and affirmation, not challenges or criticism. But the author of Luke describes John’s preaching (literally: his urgent exhortations) as “good news,” and tells us that the people were made both hopeful and anxious by his words.
Whether it heralded the arrival of a divinely-commissioned leader (a messiah) who would lead the people to victory over their oppressors, or God’s own Self coming to earth to mete out justice (“the Day of the Lord”), John’s message promised a change. A Big Change. Soon.
But change can be scary for human beings: we are notoriously creatures of habit. Change means that life will be different: unusual, out of the norm, challenging; it often requires that we modify our ways of doing things, of thinking about things, even, possibly, revising our understanding of what is right and true. Change can cause great stress; even nice changes — ones we desire and hope for — can disrupt our routines, challenge our expectations, and can actually make us sick. Most of us have experienced the heightened anticipation of exam results, recitals, reunions, romances, long-distance travel, that has set our stomach churning, or made us dizzy and lightheaded.
Perhaps the most challenging part of John’s exhortations was the fact that he didn’t say when this change would occur. He insisted that taking action was urgent, but the deadline was soon-but-not-yet. And that’s the tricky bit. Another aspect of being human is our tendency to put off for tomorrow those things we’d rather not do.
We Californians know that “the earthquake” is coming. It’s the way things are: we live on a shifting plate that trembles and vibrates hundreds of times every day; this is earthquake country. We tend to downplay that fact, joke about it, and generally ignore it, even if we’ve personally experienced some pretty “exciting” ones in the past. Geologists exhort the citizenry to be prepared, but studies have consistently shown that very few of us have assembled supplies and equipment to see us through a future event. Because, after all, it’s a terrible thing, distressing to imagine, impossible to control or prevent, and, anyway, it probably won’t happen right away (for all we know) — so, really, who wants to think about that?
Is it any wonder, then, that the Baptizer sounds annoyed and infuriated at his hearers? He’s earnestly warning them that a Big Change is coming, insisting that they must prepare themselves; and they are nodding their heads, wading into the river with the greatest sincerity, and then going back home to business as usual. “The messiah may soon be assembling an army? God will arrive to separate the weeds from the wheat? Yes, to be certain, it will happen — someday, I have no doubt; but I don’t want to think about that right now.”
And so we postpone, avoid, ignore, and joke about the serious and scary aspects of life in our world. We speak about our death as if it’s an option: “IF I die…” — when it most certainly isn’t.
We’ve heard stories of faults, failings, and shortcomings, of falling into temptation, of lives damaged and souls distorted by ugly attitudes and hateful deeds…. but, really, who wants to think about that? We’re content to bow our heads, pray for those others with the greatest sincerity, and then go back home to business as usual. “Yes, my life will end one day, and I don’t know what I’ll have to show for it — but I don’t want to think about that right now.”
Unlike those who first heard the preaching of John the Baptist, we do know what the change was that he was foretelling: the arrival of Jesus our Lord. God sent a gift, a sign of divine compassion and extraordinary trust: God placed Godself in our hands as a holy (wholly) innocent; to be brought forth, nourished and nurtured, educated, and befriended. The awesome Day of the Lord brought not condemnation, but a reprieve; we have been set free — to love as we have been loved: fully, completely, compassionately.
The Messiah came not to command, but to teach; to bless and not to curse, to heal and not to harm, to build up and not tear down. Are we His followers — or a nest of vipers? How do we show forth the fruits of our nominally restored (“Christlike”) natures: by loving some and despising others? in our compassion for poor strangers while ignoring needy neighbors? in celebrating our Lord’s birth while spitting venom at those with whom we disagree? Do we truly follow the teachings of Christ as our savior, or use Jesus as a human shield to deflect criticism from our hubris and self-certainty?
Christians do not live in a bubble; we live in a multicultural, multi-faith — and increasingly none/no-faith — world. The Way that Jesus taught is no longer readily-accepted and understood, but often viewed with suspicion, distrust, and outright hostility. The time of sailing comfortably along under the banner of Christ — our decency and integrity assumed, our failings winked at, our crimes ignored — has ended, and that is A Very Good Thing. We are now obliged to actually live our faith, as the Baptizer demanded of his hearers (in slightly different language): we must walk the Walk; demonstrate in the way we live our lives Who it is that we follow.
None of us knows “the day or hour” when our opportunities for sharing the Good News will come to an end; but whether it be measured in days or decades, time is of the essence. There are those who dwell in darkness and despair, never knowing — or even hoping for — the Light of divine compassion. How will they come to understand God’s love and faithfulness if we don’t show them?
If we say we are Christians, people will believe us. Others will look to us to show them what that means: Is that what Christians do? Is that how they speak? Is that what they believe? Is that how they behave? Is that how they treat one another, other people, other opinions, other ideas, other beliefs? Are they a community of wisdom, tenderness, and compassion — or a nest of vipers looking for another victim in which to sink their fangs?
There is a hymn that says, “They will know we are Christians by our love;” to that, I ask you to join with me in saying: Amen!
As we come to celebrate anew the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, may the divine Light of love shine in us, and through us into all the world.
Ask yourself: Is this how Christians behave?