The Rev. Harold Munn gave this sermon at the 10:30am service on the Third Sunday of Advent:
May our words and thoughts be in the name of the One who creates us, redeems us, and makes us a holy community Amen.
In today’s gospel there is a strange contradiction. First we hear John the Baptist calling people a “brood of vipers” and threatening them with eternal fire and being cut down like trees being felled and then Luke comments that this is how he preached “Good News” to the people!
The clue to his contradiction lies in the context, and the context of today’s gospel was read last week. Last week’s lection was the the introduction to today's gospel. John the Baptist was speaking about being a voice crying in the wilderness. This is not just any wilderness. This is not the wilderness of northern Canada. John say he is crying aloud in the desert. And it's not just any desert. It's the Arabian desert. It's the desert that lies between Babylon and Jerusalem.
Some 500 years before John the Baptist and the life of our Lord, people have been exiled into Babylon, and Isaiah at that point comes up with this great poetic image that between Babylon and Jerusalem, there lies the great desert with impassible mountains and valleys. Isaiah is writing around the time this happened to the people. The desert is impossibly difficult to pass through. But God will undertake this magnificent construction project in which entire mountains will be collapsed to fill up valleys and will construct an enormous multi-lane highway, which is absolutely flat and absolutely smooth so that nobody trips. On that magnificent highway, Isaiah says, the people will return in joy from exile in Babylon, back to Jerusalem. That was the image, although sadly, the highway didn't exactly happen. Nevertheless, they were released from Babylon and they returned to Jerusalem.
So when John the Baptist says, “Prepare the highway for our God”, he is saying this time, and he's also thinking of Egypt much longer ago, you are no longer enslaved back there, you're enslaved in your own country by a foreign power. And so the context of what we read today is what John the Baptist is doing is proclaiming that the people can return almost to the Garden of Eden, almost to the way God meant all humans to live. Impossible. Under Roman rule and under the cruelty of the Roman Empire, it seems impossible, but John is proclaiming that there is a road back to that state.
So as he's proclaiming this out of the city of Jerusalem come a great crowd of people. And John says, “You vipers, who told you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” But notice the character of these vipers. Vipers are deadly snakes filled with death. And when they but bite you, you die. So these deadly snakes coming out of the city of Jerusalem are going downhill to the Jordan to John the Baptist. Why are they doing that? To flee the wrath that is to come.
Yes, but there's more going on than that, because they are fleeing from exile to God's magnificent life in Jerusalem, seeking that great highway John the Baptist is going to symbolize by crossing over the Jordan River from the wilderness side, which was not part of the land that God had promised. John the Baptist will cross over the Jordan River. Remember that the Jordan River parted when Joshua crossed through it. That's the highway that John the Baptist is re enacting. You go out of the land across the Jordan River and you are in God's magnificent new world.
These vipers who are filled with death because the Roman Empire has forced death upon them. Vipers who are filled with death are proceeding to John the Baptist at the Jordan River. But despite being filled with death, these vipers have got something figured out. They have a sense that there is a way out of their life of death. They come to John the Baptist at the Jordan. John takes them across on the other side to the foreign territory of the desert, and they cross with John. That’s what he called Baptism. They crossed with John and then notice what the vipers say. They want to know how to get on the road of life back to God's magnificent life.
So I'm wondering whether John the Baptist, when he says, “Who, vipers are you fleeing from?” I wonder if perhaps he's saying it with a little bit of sense of affection. “Vipers, from whom did you learn to avoid destruction? Because the vipers, once they've gone through the Jordan, come back and claim God's land. They have three questions.
People ask, “What are we to do to get onto the road back to God's life?” And John says, If you have two coats, and you meet someone with none, give them one.” It's a kind of love that we would name as generosity.
The next group of vipers ask the same question. These are ones that everybody would agree were vipers. These are tax collectors. Tax collectors have teamed up with the Roman Empire to bid for who gets to collect taxes, the point being that you have military and legal authority to collect as much as you can. And then you give your bid to the Roman Empire and you keep the extra. These really are vipers and they say, “What should we do?” And John's response really is to say the economic system that you serve is to be for everybody's benefit, not about taking from the poor and giving to those who are already wealthy. Do not participate in that. You don't have to stop being a tax collector, but you no longer participate in the economic abuse.
The third group of vipers is a group that Luke, who's writing this gospel, has much sympathy with — Roman soldiers. Luke has a soft place in his heart for Roman soldiers. You know, the person who says in Luke’s gospel, “This is the son of God” at our Lord's crucifixion is a Roman soldier, not a Jew. The Roman soldiers say, “What about us? How do we get on this road to God's fulfilled life?” John the Baptist says in effect, the powers of this age build their authority on the basis of threatened violence. You do not take part in that. You remain soldiers, but you are not using violence to oppress the poor.
The vipers, you see, have already become people who are searching for the life of God.
Now if John the Baptist were speaking to us, with, I hope, an affectionate tone of voice, he might say to us, Harold, people at Christ Church Cathedral this morning, “You vipers who are filled with death because of the world you live in,. who warned you to flee to the Cathedral this morning in order to escape death?” Somebody did. That's why we're here. He might say to us, “You vipers, my dear friends, you already know the road back to God's life. It is about generosity. It is about not supporting an economic system that takes life from the poor and gives it to the rich, and it’s about not always relying on violence to solve problems. That is your road back to the Jerusalem of God.
And if you are at all like me, somewhat viperous and with death inside, even we know the road back to God’s magnificent life starts with generosity. If you have two coats, and indeed I have two coats, if you have two coats and you encounter someone with none, you are to give them one. Even such a small thing is daunting for most of us. And to imagine that we can live with love in an economic system that's about greed. That is daunting. How does one do it? And that we would no longer rely on the threat of killing other people to get what we want, that’s almost impossible. That’s why John the Baptist insists “There is one coming after me, the latches of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, and the one coming after me is unlike me. I baptize you with water.” John the Baptist says that is the water of crossing over the Jordan River and claiming God's kingdom. The vipers already knew that, that's why they were fleeing downhill to the Jordan. They already knew that they must change. That's why they ask those questions. And John says that is not sufficient. Of course, we know we are to be generous. Of course, we know we're not to participate in the economic system that takes from the poor. “Already,” John the Baptist says, “you're really waiting for the one who will baptize you with the spirit and with fire so that you are on fire with the spirit of Jesus.”
That's what we're really waiting for. We know change must happen. But to be on fire with the Spirit of Jesus, that is what is going to grow, the generosity and the ability to stand against what's normal when it is evil. That's what's going to grow. As you and I allow that to be grown in us, we find ourselves on that great royal highway to life in God, that life, which is utterly fulfilling.
John talks about wheat and chaff in this passage. I don't know about anybody else, but maybe it's just me, but I always assume that I'm the chaff and the unquenchable fire is really about me, and I should be terrified. But what if the unquenchable fire is removing the chaff? That is—the lack of generosity— removing the chaff that is the multitudinous ways in which our society exploits those who are weakest. That's the chaff that John the Baptist says, is going to be removed with unquenchable fire. Wonderful! Wonderful!
And who, then is the wheat?
The wheat is you and I, who are gathered into God's barns of fulfilment and joy. That's what John the Baptist is promising. That's why, at the end of the passage, Luke says, “With such words, he proclaimed to them the Good News.” The Good News is that being incorporated into our Lord Jesus Christ that life wells up within us and becomes the joy of God living in us.
So let me suggest something. In a moment, when we come to communion, remember we are the ones who are becoming wheat, and we are fed with wheat, with bread. And you remember that our Lord Jesus was born in a town called “The House of Bread”—Bethlehem—the house of bread. And so my suggestion is that as we come up to receive the wheat, that is our Lord Jesus Christ, as we come up to receive that, you might imagine that— do we dare suggest this? That you are a viper? I know I am—join me, I could do with some friends in viberishness, —remember that we must change, this human race must change. Imagine that you are coming from wherever you are across the Jordan river, past this water of baptism here in the font, which is exactly John the Baptist was doing, through the Jordan river you come close to the altar which is the symbol of God’s giving us fulfillment. As you come and receive that bread, you remember that you are becoming Bethlehem, the house of bread. The bread will live within you,we receive the communion and we go transformed into wheat which will feed the world.
This wheat is the wheat of joy knowing that God’s power will in the end transform everything. And if the end doesn't seem very close yet, and it doesn’t look like everything is going to be transformed, the transformation has started in us, in this community who begin to live the way God intended us to. And then we go out in the world with joy modelling how to be generous, how to stand up with courage against what is evil in the structures of our society and that is how we feed Christ to the world.
Vipers, changed into saints! It could not be more wonderful!
And in just over two weeks no wonder as Luke suggested at the end of this passage, we shall sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”, and comes to you and I in this eucharist and we rejoice that you and I are transformed into God’s wheat.