You brood of vipers.
You brood of vipers.
You brood of vipers! Who told you? Why are you here? What are you looking for?
Answers, consolation, hope, someone to save you?
Did you think you would find any of those things by traveling through the wooded wilderness to this place? Did you really think that it would be that easy? It’s almost like we’re wandering in circles, trying to find a way out.
Today’s gospel is uncomfortable and writhing with angry and passionate words. John the Baptist is spewing a furious tirade by the Jordan River. And yet the people keep circling back to see him, to ask for answers, to be baptized with streams of water and streams of words. To hear the good news.
When I first read the text for today, I cringed and wanted to shrink away from it and even to skip over it for a less uncomfortable passage. When I think about Advent, I like to think about lighting candles on a wreath, or journeying with the wise men or even waiting up in the hills with the shepherds. Things that lead to quiet hope and expectation, to manger lullabies and starlight. I don’t imagine a wilderness journey and I certainly don’t want to be the subject of a tirade that comes from a man who yells about things like poisonous snakes and fire. There’s already enough hurt in the world and angry words don’t sound like good news to me. Especially in a week when eruptions of darkness and violence make me yearn for some peace and comfort.
And yet the crowd gathers in closer. What’s so amazing about their reaction in our passage for today is this. They keep circling back and multiplying. Something is happening here on the banks of the Jordan, a place set apart from the wilderness.
English tends to be a language of the here and now and so speaking about past events can be imprecise or simplified. If I say, I swam in the river, it can mean that I went once and only once or it can mean that I went every single day of every summer for years and years. The meaning is ambiguous. The author of today’s text crafted Greek words into meaning and made it clear that this was not the first time the crowds had come to John, nor was it the first time he had called them the children of vipers. The author of Luke, uses a verb tense here that describes ongoing action in the past. Action that took place more than once. This tense is often called the imperfect. Once was not enough and so we know that the crowds kept coming, over and over again. They told their neighbors and friends and family members. And they all kept asking questions to hear John’s passionate replies.
In his frustration, John claims that belonging to the right crowd does not matter any more. What matters now is how you act. How you live together. John tells the crowd to share their food and possessions. He prohibits the abuse of power. Violence and oppression are unacceptable. According to John, being dredged in the waters of the Jordan is only the beginning. But there’s still something missing. John’s good news is not yet complete. It is imperfect.
Washington, DC is a place set apart from the rest of the country, neither state nor territory of the US. It is a city that is filled with buildings of power and people in power suits. Marble columns abound and sidewalks teem with people who always seem to be in a hurry.
The sidewalks are also filled with people who have been stripped of power, who rest their buggies and duffle bags against stoic marble columns as they sleep in meager doorways or on park benches. They sit and watch the suits rush past, knowing that these speed walkers will not stop or let eyes wander from the path. This might be a bit of an over-generalization, but I promise you it holds more than just a little truth.
Some of you know that I lived in DC before coming to Chicago. When I was there, I lead urban immersion programs where people came from around the country to see the nation’s capital and learn about urban poverty and homelessness. Many of them participated in something called a Midnight Run.
During this activity, a member of the homeless community comes to meet with the group shortly after nightfall for some personal testimony and then leads them out onto darkened city streets to distribute food and toiletries and clothing, much like the Night Ministry here in Chicago goes out to serve people living on our own streets.
The first group I accompanied on a Midnight Run was from upstate New York. A handful of retired church members who had heard stories from another group that had already made the journey. Hearing the stories, the elders wanted to come see for themselves, much like the crowds wanted to see John. This group volunteered in a soup kitchen and spent time with women from the shelter next door. They took public transportation and ate meals together in the safe confines of a hostel. And then they were asked to step out into cold, rainy October weather. To meet strangers in their vulnerable dwelling places, in the delicate and sometimes uncomfortable dance of mutual hospitality.
They hurried along the empty sidewalks, because their mission was urgent and rain threatened to get their precious cargo wet. An ultimate destination eluded them, and so they wandered in circles, searching, asking questions along the way. What should we do?
In the group, there was a man named David, a member of the clergy by training. Once he started pulling things out of his bag, he couldn’t stop giving them away to these people he met along the way. Then he ran out of toothbrushes and clean, dry socks, so he astonished even himself and slipped the jacket off of his shoulders, leaving it in the hands of an equally astonished man wrapped in blankets and cardboard.
David stepped back out into the rain to walk to the hostel, shoulders hunched and eyes glowing. His face communicated waves of awe and wonder. It radiated the emotion that this act of sharing had given rise to in his heart. He had been transformed.
And then the other members of the group began to voice their own amazement. How generous of you. How selfless. How brave. How inspiring. And, yes, it was all of those things, but David became uncomfortable under the praise and began to justify what he had done, saying, “oh no, it was nothing”. The astonishment slid right off of his face when the attention rested on him, rather than the people they had just left. The transformation was not complete. It was imperfect.
Even John the Baptist, the one who will baptize Jesus a few short verses from the ones we just heard doesn’t quite get what the transformation is that he predicts. He screams about unquenchable fire and winnowing forks, telling people to change their ways or else. Telling them that a greater one is coming who cannot be compared to anyone, let alone John’s own self. How could he have known what Jesus was truly coming into the world to do? What real and lasting transformation is?
Later in Luke’s narrative, when John sits imprisoned and stripped of dignity and power, where it is so easy to doubt and despair, he sends his own followers into the woods to ask questions. Are you the one? Are you the one who was promised? Are you the one we have been waiting and yearning for? Are you the one we need? The questions are no longer, what should we do, but, are you the one?
Jesus’ immediate response is a cryptic yes. The blind can now see, the lame can now walk, and lepers are made clean. The deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. He tells the crowds that John is the one who prepared the way, a messenger who is more than just a prophet. What he does not tell them, not yet, is that his way leads to another unexpected time and place. Having been baptized and cleansed in the Jordan, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way. He transforms the lives of ordinary Judeans throughout his journey, but the transformation is made perfect on a tree on a darkened hill far from the Jordan River, when he slips off his tunic and goes out into the cold confines of death on his way to the light and life of resurrection. That is a far cry from the winnowing fork and unquenchable fire I imagined in John’s tirade.
All wheat comes with chaff and fire not only brings with it light and life, but it can also cleanse away the dense undergrowth that chokes new life rising from the forest floor. What first comes across as fear inducing judgment is really an act of healing, an invitation to rise and grow, to participate in acts of transformation. To turn away from the darkness and violence that seem so strong.
We know what the coldness of death in this world is like. We see it and feel it every day. In the news stories that tell us of yet another shooting – in Oregon or Connecticut or Southside Chicago. We see it in the hunger and fear of neighbors who go without daily bread. In our own deep seated losses and longings too great for words. And so every year, every day, every breath, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Heal us, cleanse us, transform us. Show us how to live the life you give to us so freely and abundantly. How to be nourished by bread and wine, how to share that nourishment with a world that so desperately needs it. Transform our imperfect waiting.
David and the rest of the group from Upstate New York went home a couple of days after the Midnight Run, sharing stories and proclaiming good news. But they have also gone back to the immersion center bringing new seekers with them, to see if they too can find a piece of transformation there. I don’t know if any of them have slipped off another jacket. But I do know that they are still searching, still waiting, still yearning for a fuller and more complete transformation. Transformation like the one that comes each year as a weak and helpless baby in a manger and carries a heavy cross up a hill.
I am still haunted and humbled to have witnessed even the incomplete transformation of a man who you might expect have some answers and to be good at waiting. A man who found a flicker of light and life on a cold rainy night in October, in an unexpected place, in an unexpected way. This kind of transformation is a powerful antidote to the darkness and blur of our frenzied lives. But it is not what truly saves us.
So, why do we listen to John if we already have already stood by the manger-side and at the feet of the cross? Why do we keep struggling along dark wooded paths seeking answers? Because we are broken, because we are forgetful, because transformation comes over and over again in a lifetime, even after we are dredged in water and words. And even when we trust in the promises that John only hoped for, we still have doubts and fears. Because we need Jesus to come strip us of the chaff that chokes us, to transform our imperfect waiting and yearning, to give us room to rise and grow.
John didn’t lie when he told the people crowded around him on the banks of the Jordan River about the teachings that Jesus would later proclaim. But John didn’t quite have the whole picture either. We heed his calls to participate in making straight the way, knowing where it leads, but also knowing that we need the one who walks it for us and that he truly is coming and keeps coming, to transform us over and over again.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen