Vipers, Axes and Good News (Advent 3)
Homily: Yr C Advent 3. Dec 13 2015. St. Albans Church
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Is 12.2-6; Phil 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?
That’s how John the Baptist greets the crowds who swarm out into the wilderness by the Jordan River to be baptized. That’s how our gospel reading begins this morning.
And this is how it ends:
“So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people”
In between that first verse and the last verse of today’s gospel, Luke is telling us that there is good news. Did you hear it?
Is it the bit where John says “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire?”
Or is it when John tells us that it’s not good enough to be one of God’s people; for God is able from these stones to raise up a new people?
Or maybe it’s the bit where John points to the one who is to come, the one who will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire?
With these and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our task this morning is to find that good news.
One approach to finding the good news in this passage might be to assume that John’s harsh words of judgement are directed towards some other group of people. That is in fact what Matthew does in his gospel’s interpretation of the events. Matthew’s interpretation of this same event is that John’s harsh words are directed to the many Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders who were coming for baptism.
It’s a lot easier to feel good about words of judgment directed at others. I have to admit that I indulged in a bit of that this week. As a Canadian it is easy to not only be horrified, but also to feel a bit smug about some of the news coming out of the United States this week. What sort of a society would have Donald Trump as a frontrunner in its presidential election? How can they be blind to the havoc created by a culture of gun ownership which facilitates one shooting spree after another? Look at how we as Canadians are welcoming Syrian refugees.
Then, on Thursday, any Canadian smugness I had was pierced. My son Jonathan shared something written the previous day by one of his classmates at the University of Toronto, a young man named Sachin, on his Facebook page. This is what he wrote:
Today I had 4 extra tickets to the Toronto Raptors vs. San Antonio Spurs game. Having been all consumed with studying for exams and no luck selling them online, I decided to take a study break and stroll over to the ACC to try and sell them. I hate scalping, it feels invasive and weird - just not my style. If I have to scalp I tend to awkwardly stand to the side quietly waving my tickets hoping someone notices. Today was no different. After 40 minutes and the game about to start I saw a father with his son standing in line to buy tickets. At this point I didn't care to get any money, figured I'd spread some holiday cheer and get back to work.
I walked up to them and said "Excuse me, are you in line to buy tickets? If so I have a free pair for you both."
The man looked back at me with disgust and without hesitation said "No. No we don't want your tickets. Not from you. Jesus, your people are always terrorizing us. From Paris to sports games, just leave me and my son alone!!"
I didn't reply. Not the first time I've had racism thrown in my face, and it surely but sadly won't be the last. I had nothing to say. You might think I was hurt by the fact he was racist, or upset by it, but the only thing that bugged me about the whole situation was his young son, standing next to him. He was looking up at his dad, back and forth between my face and his fathers. Couldn't have been more than 6. I for a second hoped he didn't understand what was going on.
That incident, and so many like it, always leaves me sick to my stomach. . .
The brood of vipers isn’t them. It’s us.
Now, maybe some of us want to object to that. It’s not all of us, we protest, it’s the bad apples amongst us. And maybe the good news in today’s passage is that it is these bad apples that are going to be separated out. Like John says, there is one who is more powerful who is coming, one who will baptize with the fire of judgement, not the water of repentance, and the winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Maybe that’s the good news that we’re looking for, that the evil people will be separated out from the good people and will be dealt with accordingly. When we hear news reports of war and shootings and terrorism, it’s tempting to read the good news this way.
But I’m afraid that might be too simple a solution. It may work in a Star Wars movie, where the good guys and the bad guys conveniently dress in white and black so that we can tell them apart without any difficulty. But in real life I’m not so sure. And here I’d like turn to the words of the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who was imprisoned and spent 8 years in a Soviet forced labour camp. Reflecting on human nature and the problem of good and evil, Solzhenitsyn writes:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
John is not talking to someone else. John is talking to us, calling us to repentance, urging us to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
And to their credit, the crowd seems to get it. Or at least they’re so scared that they don’t want to take any chances.
“What then should we do?”
It’s a good question. You might expect John in response to call for religious action, for prayer, for fasting, for sacrifice. You might expect John to call for heroic action, for rising up and changing the world.
But given the rhetoric that proceeds it, John’s response at first glance strikes me as kind of mundane.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
And then to tax collectors and soldiers, those who collaborate with the Roman military authorities, those whose knees were probably trembling more than others, John says to them, basically,
‘Do your job. Do it honestly and with justice and never use your positions of power to oppress others. And be satisfied with what you have.”
And maybe in these simple statements, this is where we find the good news that Luke is talking about. We don’t have to be heroes. The repentance that John is calling for is something that each of us can do, it is there for us in the ordinary stuff of our lives.
Share. Be honest. Treat others with kindness and respect. Do your job honestly and with justice. Never abuse your power. Be thankful for what you have.
You can do this. I can do this. It may be hard, it may require some significant changes in our lives, that’s what repentance is. But it can be done, and it can start today. We don’t have to be heroes. No one of us has to save the world.
But let us not underestimate either the revolutionary nature of what John is saying. For if each one of us who has food shares it with someone who has none, there would be no more hunger in this world. If each one who had two coats shared with anyone who has none, there would be no more poverty in this world. If those who had power were to stop using it to oppress others, there would be no more war, no more conflict, no more terror in this world.
What then should we do? We don’t have to be heroes. But we are called to repent and to bear good fruit. And this, we can do.
So, with these and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.