Bible Centered, Gospel Focused, Liturgical and Sacramental Worship in Loveland, Colorado

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

December 12 2021

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John the Baptist speaks these piercing words on the banks of the Jordan River, a place filled with significance and symbolic meaning in the history of God and His people. The Jordan River was a place of renewal, restoration, and promise. When Israel first crossed the Jordan River to inherit their promised land, God spoke to them and told them he was doing something new. He would be their God, and they would be His people. As His people, Israel was called to love God, love their neighbor, and seek justice. We know the tragic history of Israel, and their failure to accomplish this call of love for God, neighbor, and justice. So we now find John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, because God is once again doing something new. This new thing is not “new” in the sense that it is inconsistent with who God is and what God has done before because the new thing that God is doing is a fulfillment of old promises. This new thing is a fulfilled promise for God’s people Israel, and for all the nations of the world.

God is making all things new, beginning with an entirely new kind of human being, and an entirely new kind of human community. A new kind of human being, one who is perfectly reconciled with God and with other people. A new kind of human being who loves God perfectly, loves His fellow human beings perfectly, and seeks justice perfectly. That new kind of human being is the God-man, Jesus Christ. John the Baptist is then tasked with the awesome responsibility of preparing humanity for life with this new kind of person, and life in the new kind of human family that begins with Him.

“You brood of vipers!” In St. Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist directs this famous insult explicitly at the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet, in Luke’s Gospel, this insult is less focused, it is directed at the entire crowd who has gathered at the banks of the Jordan River. A central theme of Luke’s Gospel that sets it apart from others, and Matthew in particular, is the universality of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is for all people. So too is John the Baptist’s condemnation a condemnation of all people. Because “brood of vipers” is such a common way of translating that phrase from the Greek, modern translators typically stick to that translation because people expect it. A more contemporary way to translate what John the Baptist means when he directs this insult at the crowd would be to say, “you snake bastards!” I know that is rough, but that better captures the spirit of what John is saying.

As an aside, I want to make it very clear that this is not an example of how Christians ought to speak with one another, particularly clergy to those under their care. John the Baptist is a unique figure in Biblical history with a unique, God-given perspective that no one you or I know shares with John the Baptist. Please, do not speak this way or let others speak this way to you in the church.

The question John the Baptist raises in this provocative insult is a question of family origins. Some in the crowd believe that they are right with God because they are ethnic descendants of Abraham. John the Baptist exposes them, calling them a brood, or a pack of wild, illegitimate children. Abraham is not their father, they are the children of snakes, and we all should have some idea of what it means to be a snake in the imagery of Holy Scripture. In the 8th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus condemns the Temple leadership of his time for their own sense of entitlement to God’s blessing over others on the basis of their genetic lineage from Abraham, concluding his condemnation by calling them children of the devil. We are to hear the same condemnation in John the Baptist’s words to the crowds gathered at the banks of the Jordan River. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Do not think that inclusion in this new family beginning with this new human being is on the basis of ethnic lineage, your bloodlines, or your national identity. Inclusion in the family of Abraham has always been on the basis of what God can do.

Abraham was a wandering refugee who only knew God because God made himself known to Abraham, and welcomed him, though Abraham was an outsider. Abraham’s family was then called to extend a welcoming hand to strangers, wanderers, and refugees. Abraham’s family is the opposite of Sodom. Sodom is a place where strangers and wanderers are dehumanized, and their bodies used for the distorted pleasure of others. Abraham’s family welcomed strangers with meals, drink, friendship, and a place to rest.  All of this because that is precisely how God deals with Abraham. Inclusion in the family of Abraham, the people of God, was never on the basis of ethnic, or national lineage, but the power and promises of God.

The power of God to include strangers, wanderers, and outsiders in his family is once again on full display in the ministry of John the Baptist. I find that one of the most surprising parts of this passage is the incredible sensitivity that the crowds show to John the Baptist’s message. Not only is the sensitivity shocking, but the people who display sensitivity become increasingly surprising as Luke highlights who they are. First, it is the collective crowds, followed by tax collectors, and last of all Roman soldiers. All asking, “what shall we do?” and seeking to be placed under the cleansing waters of renewal in the Jordan River to be ready for what God is doing.

To the crowds, John the Baptist says, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none and whoever has food is to do likewise.” John says to the tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do,” and to the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.” If we translate the portion of the Greek for “do not extort by threats” literally, it would read, “do not shake people” for money. Do not use your physical power and the weapons you carry with you as tools of intimidation.

Justice is what unites all three of these responses to the question, “what shall we do?” We see this theme in our opening Collect this morning, as we ask God to turn “the hearts of your disobedient toward the wisdom of the just.” God’s justice is at the heart of John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation, just as it was at the heart of God’s call to His people at the Jordan River long before, and the message of repentance and preparation from the lips of every prophet.

When we use that word “justice,” we very rarely mean the same thing the Bible does when that word is used. Even Christians struggle to understand and accept God’s definition of justice. Typically, when we say justice in our society, we mean revenge or retaliation. You hurt me, you should hurt also, which is of course not really justice, but retribution. Justice for us is punitive. While punitive retribution certainly feels good for a second and might seem like the best we can do as human beings, retribution creates vicious cycles of destruction. It is really injustice masquerading as something nobler.

Justice in Scripture is nothing like this. Justice in Scripture shares the same root word as righteousness. Living a just life is synonymous with leading a righteous life. A righteous life stops the cycles of so-called “justice,” in their tracks because it is not rooted in anything human, but in the power of God. The justice of God and the justice at the heart of John the Baptist’s responses to the crowds, the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers is simply about living as if God is really coming to us, as if God is really among us, and as if it is really true that the only way we enter into God’s family is through God, and our response to the one who is coming in God’s name.

After all, where is the justice in John the Baptist’s response to the tax collectors? “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” No one likes tax collectors, but the Jewish animosity for tax collectors at the time of Christ goes far deeper than a natural disdain for someone who takes a portion of our wages. The very coins used by the Romans had engraved images of emperors who claimed to be gods, so that Jewish tax collectors were carrying bags of idols. I have friends in ministry in both Denmark and Germany, and in those countries, their salaries are provided by taxes collected by the state. That is an odd system to us, but it is typical throughout history, and it closely resembles the Roman system of maintaining religious houses of worship to Roman gods. A portion of Jewish taxes went towards the upkeep of Pagan temples. The Jewish revolt which resulted in the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 began as a protest against those taxes.

A tax collector is a bottom-of-the-barrel, corrupt, unfaithful traitor to his own people, who deals in idols and feeds the beast that keeps the Jewish people under Roman oppression. To these people, John simply says, be a just tax collector, “collect no more than you are authorized to do,” submit yourself to these waters of renewal, and welcome to the family. What a scandal this is to our natural sensibilities, and our definitions of what justice means. But can we not see foreshadowing, and a glimpse into the heart of Jesus Christ’s ministry, a ministry to seek and to save the lost sheep of Israel? Is it not the sick who need a physician? Is it not the lonely, isolated tax collector who responds with great sensitivity to news of God’s coming to save sinners?

Gentile Roman soldiers, young men and boys from every corner of the Roman world, asked John how they should respond to the coming presence of Israel’s God. Surely, there were many in the crowd at the Jordan River who had an answer ready to their pagan oppressors. It was probably something like, “get the hell out of here Gentile oppressor, you will never be part of Abraham’s people.” But that is not what John says, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be content with your wages.” Be a just Roman soldier, welcome to the family.

What a scandal, where is the justice in that? Can we not see a glimpse of Jesus Christ’s ministry to the Gentiles? His ministry to those nations who God always promised to bring into His family through His own people? Remember that it will soon be Jesus’ most violent disciple, the one who cuts the ear off of a Roman soldier, the one called a “zealot,” identifying him with a terrorist organization founded before the time Jesus was born whose mission was to kill Roman soldiers, St. Peter the zealot, who will baptize Cornelious the Roman Centurion along with his family, in the Book of Acts.  

Be prepared for the coming of this new human family beginning in this new man, Jesus Christ. That is what John the Baptist says to the crowds, and to us. Yes, preparation for God’s coming to us means the preparation of our own hearts and lives to receive Him. Preparation also means abandoning our natural understandings of God, our neighbor, and justice; and allowing them to be redefined by Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. Preparation means finding ourselves standing under the condemnation, “brood of vipers,” along with those we consider enemies, those we hate, and even those who have done us real, awful, harm, and hurt us. Preparation means being ready for God to deal with enemies and strangers as God has dealt with us, who are by nature enemies and strangers of God.

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, a service of baptism was held at the Anglican Cathedral in Singapore. As the Japanese Army quickly approached Singapore in early 1942, just a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack which we commemorated this week that took place 80 years ago, the Anglican Bishop of Singapore John Leonard Wilson, was given the opportunity to escape along with his Diocesan staff. Instead, they all chose to remain together under Japanese occupation, in order to minister to their Parishioners, as well as Allied POWs who were soon captured nearby.

For a season, the Bishop and his staff were protected by a Japanese officer who had become an Anglican Christian while studying business at Penn in the 1930s, an officer named Lieutenant Andrew Ogawa. Bishop Wilson held services often in the Cathedral and even celebrated the Eucharist for POWs who were held in captivity nearby, as staff snuck food and other necessities to them during the services. The well-being of POWs and civilians in captivity in Singapore unfortunately caught the attention of Ogawa’s superiors, and he was transferred to another theater until the end of the war. Life quickly deteriorated in Singapore as all citizens, Christian or not, were neglected, tortured, beaten, and mistreated by new leadership. Bishop Wilson and his staff were particularly mistreated, and he was not permitted to celebrate often. He did lead calisthenics for prisoners and would recite the Sursum Corda (lift up your hearts!) while doing jumping jacks.

To make a long story short, it was Bishop Wilson presiding over this Baptism service in 1946, which had to be held outside because it was so well attended. Lieutenant Ogawa was there at the service. The Cathedral had paid for him to come on his way home to Japan and gifted him with boxes of prayer books to bring with him to his parish there. Ogawa became a key lay leader in the Anglican Church in Japan for the next 50 years. Many of the Camp guards and soldiers who had overseen the occupation of Singapore were at the service as well. They were the ones getting baptized. Yes, this service was a service of baptism for some of the prison guards and soldiers who once occupied Singapore, who had ears and hearts ready to receive Jesus Christ.

All that matters in this new family of God is how we respond to the one who John the Baptist identifies as one, “whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  Who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The foundation for a new humanity and this new family is Jesus Christ, the one whose coming we quickly approach in this Advent season. By Him, and with Him, and in Him, we are a new creation, because He is a new creation, and He graciously gives all of His life to us. He is the new beginning for all of humanity. God and sinners reconciled, in human flesh. In His life, death, and resurrection we hear God say to us again, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” While even John the Baptist is not worthy to stoop down and untie His sandals, He will wash his disciples’ feet. He will come to us with the power of God, the power to baptize in fire and the Holy Spirit with a winnowing fork in his hand, but He will show us that power chiefly through a humiliating birth and death. All of this for us, so that He would raise us up to live life with Him once again. With the crowds, the tax collectors, the Roman soldiers, the rest of this brood of vipers, we ask “what shall we do?” What shall we do to prepare for his coming? Look to Him, for He can raise up children of Abraham from stones, and has promised to raise the dead to new life. Amen.