It’s been a long time with a lot of things to forget, but to the best of my knowledge I have never opened a worship service by saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I suspect that that kind of greeting would probably not be well-received. Over the couple of thousands of years of Christianity we ministers have learned to be a bit more welcoming than that when we open up a worship service. We’ve learned to say nice things; we’ve learned to thank people for coming, and for taking the time out of their busy lives to do so. But most importantly, we’ve learned not to insult our parishoners right off the bat. It turns out that that kind of greeting is counter productive. I’m pretty sure that if I had used John’s greeting this morning, that attendance would be down next Sunday, even though it is what we traditionally call “Christmas Sunday.”
The imagery here is that of a pack of snakes, and that’s bad enough already, don’t you think? But this is a pack of snakes that has settled into the relative warmth and comfort of a pile of wheat chaff, only to discover suddenly that the pile of chaff is on fire, and that now, horrifically, they are being subjected to the burning heat of flames and choking, acrid smoke. Smart snakes would slither out of that pile of chaff in a hurry, if they valued their lives. And that’s exactly what would sometimes happen, when after the wheat harvest, the piles of chaff would be set afire. And because very few people like snakes, it was often good entertainment to see those snakes fleeing the wrath of the fire.
It is no secret, I suppose, that John the Baptist was a fan of the book of Malachi. If John were here this morning, he could probably recite the whole thing verbatim for us. John knew the spiritual condition of the people to whom Malachi was writing. John was well versed in the comfortable and warm, but spiritually dead place that the people of God had devolved themselves into. He knew that those people had not even the slightest interest in hearing from a messenger sent from God, and certainly even less interest in a sudden appearance of God in his temple. But from his study of the book of Malachi, he also knew this: he knew that he was the messenger sent from God that Malachi predicted, and he knew that he was the one sent by God to prepare the people for the sudden appearance of God. And so it seemed perfectly proper to him to address his audience as a brood of warm and comfortable vipers about to be subjected to a horrible judgment.
So what did he do? He preached repentance and forgiveness, and he used baptism as a visible symbol that the people could participate in that would indicate that they had repented of their sins, and that their forgiveness had been secured and assured. It wasn’t exactly Christian baptism that John administered, but it was very close. And I think that that is wonderfully cool. And I think that because when there is the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, the fear of judgment goes away, and it goes away completely. Warm and comfortable people who have no interest in having God in their lives can respond to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, even if that preaching is loud and fiery, and they can have their lives and their eternal futures secured, without any fear of judgment what-so-ever.
And it is to the warm and comfortable that John addresses his remarks. John sees absolutely no difference at all between Malachi’s audience and his own. Both have grown warm and comfortable, and he makes that abundantly clear in his opening statements. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Don’t be telling me about your heritage, John is saying. Don’t be smug that you are a child of the covenant, or that you’re one of the elite, or that you have special status as one of the chosen people of God. Don’t be telling me you’ve got family connections. Heritage and special status doesn’t cut it anymore. God is now doing a new thing. God can get children anywhere. God can take rocks and bring them into his family, if he so chooses. And what a wonderful prophecy that was! The land of Israel is just peppered with rocks. They’re everywhere, and there’s nothing special about them at all. They’re just underfoot, and sometimes a real nuisance. But guess what? We are the rocks that John was speaking about. We are the ones who were outside of the covenant; we are the ones who had no family connections. But because we have repented of our sins, and because we have received forgiveness, we’ve been adopted into the family. Otherwise we’re just Gentiles.
As always, with the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, there is a sense of urgency. When repentance and forgiveness is preached, now is the time to respond, now is the time to act. John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John is saying the ax-man has found his spot. When I split wood, I rest the splitting maul on the spot on the log where I want it to split. And then I lift up the maul. When I rest that maul on the log, the log knows, deep in its heart, that it is about to be split. It is very short warning. When the maul goes up, and then comes crashing down, boom! The log is split. The same is true of the ax-man. When the ax is laid at the foot of the tree, there is a bit of a warning of what is about to happen, but not much. It is scant warning. Hence the urgency. Now is the time to repent and now is the time to receive forgiveness.
When the people responded to the urgency of John’s preaching, they naturally had questions. This is normal. We’ve repented, we’ve received forgiveness, where do we go from here? We can’t stay warm and comfortable, now. You’ve just rescued us from our complacency. What is required of us?
And John has answers. And they were simple, but profound answers. To the common, ordinary folks John said, if you are fortunate enough to have two coats, look around for someone who can make good use of your other one. And do the same with your food. Luke seems quite impressed that tax collectors showed up to listen to John, he says, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?”‘ To the tax collectors John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” I think probably Luke didn’t like tax collectors very much, and that’s why he is so surprised that they actually repented of their sins, and found forgiveness. I’m more impressed, though, that Roman soldiers showed up, that’s awesome. They were the visible representation of the much despised Roman occupation. It wasn’t out of character that they were there, that’s their job. What is out of character is that they responded to this wild and fiery preacher. And so to the soldiers John said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” All of these are very simple answers, but they are even more simple when we boil down the essence of them for ourselves. This way, they become, be a person who is always willing to share with those who are less fortunate than yourselves. Act fairly and honestly in everything that you do. And finally, don’t take advantage of someone who has less power and less authority than you do, and don’t be greedy. Those are very simple, very practical precepts that should be practiced by all who have been forgiven of their sins.
John’s powerful preaching had stirred up the people, and some of them began to wonder, is this guy the Messiah? Is he the one we have been seeking? Fortunately for us, John had a very good understanding of himself and of his calling. He knew who he was, and maybe even more importantly, he knew who he wasn’t. And so John said, no I’m not the Messiah, I’m just the messenger, I’m just here to prepare the way. But when Messiah comes, look out. When Messiah comes, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granery; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Phew!
John had a much more realized view of the end-times than we have. He believed that he was right on the cusp of all things ultimate. He was, after all, preparing his world for the sudden appearance of the Lord in his temple, as he understood it from his studies in the book of Malachi. He didn’t see that there was a whole lot more time for repentance. Things were coming to an end very quickly, and when Messiah arrived, there would be a crisis of judgment.
But God is merciful and loving and kind. It turns out that God’s primary aim is to collect the wheat, not to burn the chaff, and that’s good news. One day, the Lord will come suddenly to his temple, just as Malachi and John the Baptist predicted. But until then, we are the messengers of the covenant, we are the ones who are called to proclaim the good news of forgiveness of sins and eternal life to this broken and dying world. We are the messengers of hope and joy.