A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The RCL readings for the Third Sunday in Advent are here.
I missed y’all last week. I hear that father David really got your attention for the the first bit of John’s message last week, using the traditional way of asking us to hear God’s voice calling us to return, to change our hearts and minds and follow in the Way of Love as we participate with God in the building up of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And today we continue with John’s Good News of God as John gets our attention by calling the folks he’s baptizing a “brood of vipers.”
What would you have done, or how would your parents have reacted if the priest at your baptism started out by calling you a brood of vipers? Yeah, I don’t think many of us would have taken it well.
But I promise, it IS a proclamation of good news and love, Y’all! So, let’s break it down; it might be helpful to look at the passage in your bulletins and follow along.
The greek word “gennema” can be translated into English as offspring, generation, or FRUIT of the earth.
It’s interesting that the only other time the English word ‘brood’ is used in the gospel stories is later in Luke when Jesus is lamenting over Jerusalem and says he longs to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And it’s translated from a different Greek word that specifically means a nesting of birds. But I digress.
So, yes, John is calling the folks he’s preaching to the children, or fruit, of poisonous snakes but the point of what he’s saying is the very important and often overlooked question that follows: “who warned you to flee from the wrath?” Who have you been listening to?
Throughout the OT prophets, the proclamation from God has always been if you change your heart, your mind, your ways, IF you REPENT, which means to change your heart, your mind, your ways, God will, as Zephaniah puts it, “rejoice over you with gladness, renew you in his love.”
So, if these folks are being warned to flee the wrath of God, they haven’t been taught anything about God’s nature of Love. They’ve been mislead, mistreated, and flat out lied to. They’ve been told there is no way to avoid God’s wrath, that God is more interested in destruction and condemnation than he is about transforming his children into children of peace, children of joy, children of hope and love.
John is asking them “who have you been listening to? Who are you looking to for your source of life and truth and wisdom? Because the way you are living seems to show that your source is NOT the Word of God as it has been revealed to the prophets.”
He then tells them to bear fruit worthy of repentance – the fruit of God’s kingdom: hope, peace, love, and joy.
“Yes, Mother Nancy,” you may be saying, “that sounds all good and lovely but what about the times the OT prophets do warn the people of God’s wrath and what about the times they talk about the fear-of-the-Lord. Aren’t we supposed to be afraid of God?”
God’s message to change our ways, God’s invitation to be in relationship with him is always a message of hope. God offers a choice: to exchange our way for God’s way of living or to face the consequences of forgetting and ignoring God, the consequences of wanting to have our own way.
God’s greatest desire for all of his children is that we live in his presence on earth as in heaven. God does’t want us to be afraid or to fear life but to live it as we are created to live, in loving relationship with God and each other.
So, yes, Fear-of-the-Lord is is used often by the OT prophets and sages but how often to we hear Jesus say, “do not be afraid?”
In our modern western culture we struggle with the understanding of the term ‘fear-of-the-Lord.’ The meaning of the phrase isn’t a sum of its parts: Fear+God. It is a bound phrase – words that are used together to function like a single word. We don’t define it by adding together the dictionary definition of ‘fear’ and ‘god’. In the original Hebrew it is a two word phrase, again, that when used together make a new idea. Eugene Peterson defines it this way: fear-of-the-Lord is “the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before who God is, who he is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.… A way of life in which human feelings and behavior are fused with God’s being and revelation.”
Fear-of-the-Lord isn’t scary or fearful. It is a way of stating the understanding that we’ve come to know that God is God and we are not. It is the way of life that bears fruit worthy of our repentance.
So, does it change your thinking about John to hear, “you brood of vipers, who has warned you” through a “fear-of-the-lord” lens and not a fear lens?
As we continue through the story, it appears that the crowd is beginning to understand. “How do we do that?” they ask. And John explains to them in simple terms what it is to live knowing that we are not the center of all, that God is.
If you have more than you need, share.
In your job, work with integrity and honesty and compassion for others.
Be grateful for what you have.
In other words, live into the image of God in which we are all created.
John’s message is one of inclusion and love, not exclusion and condemnation. It truly is Good News!
The jobs John chooses as his examples are jobs that were considered sketchy and unsavory to say the least: “even tax collectors” came to be baptized. And the soldiers were part of the occupying force that kept ‘peace’ through fear and intimidation. Even these are welcomed into the Kingdom if they change their mind and heart and choose to bear the good fruit of the Kingdom. Today, we might substitute politicians and cable news commentators. Even these are welcomed into the Kingdom if they change their mind and heart and choose to bear good fruit.
Bearing this good fruit takes growth and transformation as we follow Jesus. And to keep with the agricultural metaphor of fruit, John speaks of this transformation through the process of winnowing. Winnowing is the process of blowing a current of air through grain in order to remove the chaff, the husk that covers the actual fruit. With the chaff removed, the grain can be used either for nourishing food or as seed to grow more grain. Separating the chaff from the grain isn’t about dividing one group from another but preparing everyone for better growth and formation in the Kingdom, so that we can produce the fruit worthy of our repentance. What’s burned away in the unquenchable fire is that which gets in the way of our relationship with God. It isn’t separating good people from bad people, it’s about purifying the good that is already in all of us as we are created in God’s image.
All that John has to proclaim is GOOD NEWS for us all!
The point and purpose of John’s proclamation isn’t to belittle or shame but to get folks asking the critical questions of self-examination: What does it mean to say I am a child of God? How does it change my worldview to know that God loves me. How does it change my worldview to know that God loves everyone?
Is my source of truth and wisdom warning me to flee or to exclude others or is it teaching me how to include everyone, to share love not fear, to bear good fruit so that everyone around me is nourished with God’s love?
Am I seeking, are WE seeking together in community to prepare the way of the Lord? Are we seeking with God’s help to make the path straight and level so that everyone wants to join us in The Way?
We can choose to be children of vipers, or we can recognize that we are created children of God and, listening to John’s proclamation of Good News and following Jesus live as we are created to be, who we are created to be, Whose we are created to be.
And knowing Whose and who we are, we can ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Letting our gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:4-7). Amen.