You have to hand it to John the Baptist. He certainly knows how to get one’s attention. Today’s Gospel picks up immediately where last week’s Gospel left off. A crowd has followed John out to the River Jordan, waiting with anticipation to be inspired by his teaching. John looks them in the eye and says, “You brood of vipers!” Let’s pause for a moment and think about that. How do you think the good people of Christ Church Cathedral would respond if I stepped into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and launched into the sermon by hurling insults at them? I might end up with my head on the chopping block, which is, well, exactly what eventually happens to John.
“You brood of vipers,” he begins, and then he warns the crowd that they can’t claim safety from God behind their Jewish pedigree. God cares nothing for your street address, your job title, your club membership, your race, your nationality. God can cut down one person and raise up another without blinking, and God will do it, too. “Even now,” John says, “the axe 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.” These are John’s words, not mine, and they certainly get the crowd’s attention.
These people have walked from town and across the countryside to be inspired by John. They came yearning for a life-giving word, and instead they’ve been put on notice. Now the people are scared. “What, then, should we do?” they ask John, and one senses that they fear he’ll ask the impossible of them. Their faults run so deep, their sins are so abundant. I mean, they’re a brood of vipers, after all.
And then John the Baptist drops the bomb: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Oh, the horror! The burden! The heavy load Johns asks them, and us, to bear! But wait…what, exactly, is John asking? What, says John, makes the difference between the viper and the penitent? And by extension, what is it that God asks of us? Look again at the essence of what John is saying:
- If you have more than you need, and there is another whose needs are not met, help him.
- Do not cheat in your work or, for that matter, in your life.
- If your work puts you in contact with those who are vulnerable, do not use your power or authority to take advantage of them. They depend upon you.
- Tell the truth.
And the Gospel passage ends by saying, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
And so we, like the crowd, slowly begin to realize just how good the good news is. Through John, God is not exhorting us to be superhuman. God is asking us, merely and blessedly, to be human.
On the surface, it seems to be so simple. And yet, we know that it is not. Ours is a culture that has long been one of aspiration, ambition, self-sufficiency. In more recent years, it has increasingly also become a culture of individual isolation, ironically made more so by the very technology and social media that intend to connect us. Attendance at high school and college reunions has dropped.[i] Civic clubs face a crisis due to a 60% decrease in membership.[ii] The researcher Robert Putnam calls this phenomenon, “bowling alone,” and it points to the ways in which we increasingly walk through the world avoiding the relationships that make us human rather than seeking and nurturing them.
These passive realities were challenging enough before our current political ethos of fear, in which we are actively encouraged to disregard, or malign, or increasingly actually act out against our human brothers and sisters.
Be human, John says. Recognize your shared humanity with those around you. And that includes, of course, your shared origin in God, whose very image is stamped upon each and every one of God’s children. John is telling us to connect with those we love and with those we don’t. Be fair. Seek understanding. Repair injustice. Extend a helping hand. Be human. (That’s all God commands, I suspect, because our track record demonstrates that being human is challenge enough.)
So it is that what, in John’s raucous preaching style, began with fear and apprehension culminates in joy. Luke tells us that the people ultimately are filled not with fear, but with expectation because they recognize that John’s exhortation is really an invitation to be what God creates them to be. In the end, John’s message is not only a call to repentance, but also a call to Advent, to new birth, to a way of being in which God’s presence within each of us finds new expression through us, as we reach out, and connect, and form relationships of grace and care with one another.
For over a thousand years, this third Sunday in Advent has been called in the Church “Gaudete Sunday” marked by a rose candle in the midst of purple or Sarum blue. Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” and the lectionary today takes care to tether the Gospel passage with readings from Zephaniah and Philippians, both of which seek to lighten our hearts, to encourage us in our faith, to assure us that God loves us deeply, ceaselessly, and without condition.
We must balance John’s opening words—his brood of vipers talk and his threats to cut the tree off at its roots—with the words of the prophet and the words of Paul. “Rejoice!” says Zephaniah, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
“Rejoice!” says Paul, “Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near…And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
We rejoice because God—the God who will arrive in just twelve days in Jesus—approaches us not in condemnation and not sowing fear, but as a human being. God does in Jesus exactly what John asks us to do. God shares our humanity; God rejoices in our humanity; God imbues our humanity with God’s own image; and, most essentially, God invites us to embrace our humanity. And that means, this season of Advent, embracing the humanity in others—all others—in thought, in word, and in deed.