The revised common lectionary is a wonderful tool. Its three year rotation provides weekly biblical texts to guide you and me through the rhythm of the church year. In addition to serving as our roadmap on our faith journey, it connects the various Christian communities and denominations by creating a space for collective, simultaneous dialogue. More practically (and perhaps more selfishly!), I tend to preach the lectionary texts because there is a plethora of liturgical resources based off of the lectionary readings that help me organize weekly worship services. But perhaps what makes the lectionary most helpful is precisely the reason that, this week at least, I really didn’t care for it too much: it forces me, and other preachers, to preach on a passage like this.
This Sunday, like every Sunday in the lectionary, there are four passages. To give us a feel for the tone of today’s passages, let us look at the first verse of each of the four.
Zephaniah – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah – “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Philippians – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” And then, in Luke’s gospel, our wild and untamed friend John the Baptist says, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Well…this is awkward.
Kathy Beach-Verhey, put it well as she said these words about this passage: “No one wants to be chastised by John the Baptist this close to Christmas. No preacher wants to read this text when preparing for his third Advent sermon. No parishioner wants to be challenged by John’s words as she sits in the pew enveloped in thoughts of final Christmas preparations and purchases.” However, she goes on to say that, because of the lectionary, “there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness call us to repentance.”
Alright, lectionary, have it your way. Here we go!
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? 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. Even now 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.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 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.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The Good News of John the Baptist in this passage begins with the words “You brood of vipers” and ends with the words “unquenchable fire.” It is clear that there is something that John the Baptist is taking very seriously indeed. You see, standing in the wilderness by the chaotic rivers, John the Baptist is preparing us for something, something that calls for change. Apparently, the folks present at that moment did not think that they needed to respond to this up-and-coming new thing! They, after all, had Abraham, that great father of the faith, as their ancestor. They had nothing to fear for they thought that they could rely solely upon the good name of their great-great-great-great grandfather Abraham.
But not so! says John the Baptist. No one can hide under the good graces of their predecessors! No, we are all in this together for what is to come is to turn the world upside down. The first will be last and the last first. We must prepare for this is not what we have been used to. Those who choose to ignore this good news are nothing less than brood of vipers who do not heed this world-shattering news!
John the Baptist’s tone would be abrasive enough if received by itself. However, the severity of his rhetoric stands in particular contrast to the voices of this season singing “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” How dare he ruin the merriment of this season? How dare he interrupt our caroling and our shopping and our decorating? His severe tone grates upon our ears as fingernails on a chalkboard.
But as I was watching the President address a nation mourning the senseless and violent deaths of six adults, twenty innocent children, and one very broken child of God in a Connecticut elementary school, the severity of John the Baptist’s tone seemed more and more appropriate. For John reminds us that there is something wrong, very wrong indeed.
Something is very wrong when one of God’s children has two coats and another has none. Something is very wrong when one of God’s children has to fight for a morsel of food when another simply has to drive up to a McDonalds drive-thru. Something is very wrong when one of God’s children is impoverished at the hands of an unjust economic system. Something is very wrong when one of God’s children is threatened by another. Something is very wrong when twenty-seven of God’s children are killed by what can only be described as evil of the worst kind.
As the crowds in today’s passage, we are a people filled with expectation and with questions in our hearts. In the midst of preparation, in the midst of waiting for this long-expected Jesus, we join with John the Baptist by crying out in the wilderness. For in this wilderness, we are witnesses to the unspeakable but we are also witnesses to the spoken Word of God. The Word of God to which John the Baptist preached and the Word of God which is spoken by the prophet Zephaniah.
In our text today from this prophet, Zephaniah gives voice to the harsh realities of the people. This song speaks of enemies, disaster, and fear and, perhaps most curiously, God being in the midst of all of it. Let us listen again to Zephaniah, this prophetic predecessor of John the Baptist.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
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.
Twice Zephaniah exclaims “God is in your midst.” How can he proclaim those words after Friday’s massacre? How can we stand in this very room and proclaim God’s presence amidst the disasters and horrors of this world? Why would we ever listen to this John the Baptist fellow who is telling us that God is about to do a “new thing?”
I will tell you why we proclaim that God is in our midst even in this hour. We proclaim that God is in our midst because we worship a God who is no stranger to suffering. We worship a crucified God who was punished without reason. We worship a God who knows what it is like to bury a child. We worship a God whose own son was crucified, dead, and was buried in a cold, lonely tomb.
But friends, if you hear nothing else in this sermon, hear and believe this: We worship a resurrected God. We worship a God who, though crucified, dead, and was buried, is risen forevermore! We worship a God who Zephaniah proclaims will remove disaster from us, who will deal with all our oppressors, who will save the lame and gather the outcast, who will change our shame into praise, who will bring us home and gather us, and who will restore us.
That is why you and I should listen to the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. Because you and I are waiting for the God who will give and renew, save and gather, change and restore.
Having faith that this truth will be done, perhaps then we can receive the prophetic cry of John the Baptist not as a threat to be avoided but rather as a promise to be welcomed.
For if we did not have the hope of the resurrection, then we would have reason to fear the unquenchable fire of which John speaks. If we did not have the hope of the resurrection, then we should flee in terror as John describes God’s separating the wheat from the chaff and throwing the chaff into the flame.
But since you and I live as children of the resurrected God, we receive this promise with the singing, exultation, and praise that Zephaniah offers. We welcome the coming of the Christ-child for his birth represents nothing less than the salvation that we have been waiting for. For as he will burn the chaff with the unquenchable fire so too will he defeat death with unstoppable life.
Friends, one who is more powerful than us is coming, one from whom all life comes and to whom all life returns. At this time, as we look for answers in this season of Advent, we must not point to ourselves for then we would only sink further into despair and sorrow. Rather, like John the Baptist, you and I must point to Christ, who has broken and is breaking and shall forever break the fourth wall to be in his children’s presence if all of their joy and all of their sorrow. As we continue to light the Advent candles, we will renew our commitment to cherish the light while maintaining our trust in Christ, who alone will perish the darkness.
Come, Lord Jesus!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.