Good News for Snakes Like Us
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
This week, Jessica, our office administrator and bookkeeper, told me a story. She was running on a trail in Williamsburg. And there was one spot she ran past three separate times, looking up at the trees, not worried about what was next to her on the path. But on the fourth time, she looked down, and there in the middle of the path was a large copperhead snake.
She was horrified. Not only because she was scared in the moment, but because she knew that snake was close by every previous time she ran. For the next few minutes, Jessica just stood there, having to wait on the snake to move before she could run back. She wanted nothing to do with them.
We don’t like running into snakes. They are dangerous. They are scary. They are predators that hunt, and we are never sure what they will do. They are what we avoid and attack and try to keep out. We don’t like snakes, and if we call someone a snake, it is not a very pleasant thing.
But that’s exactly what John calls the people who have come to him to be baptized. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Now, I have always read those words as John talking about other people, those really bad people out there in the world, not like me. Corrupt politicians and false prophets. Those who steal from the poor and attack the vulnerable. John’s referring to those people. They are the vipers. Not me.
That’s how I like to read this passage. That’s how I want to read this passage. But it’s not what John is saying.
No, all of us – all of us who have come to this wilderness, who are out here seeking a Messiah who are coming for some forgiveness and love and hope — all of us are part of this brood vipers. All of us are snakes. John’s not speaking to other people. He’s speaking to me.
That’s how we are invited to approach God With Us this Advent season. Not as ones who are holier than thou. Not as people who have everything figured out. Not as the ones who can cast the first stones because we have no sin.
No, we have plenty of sins. We have plenty of ways we have bitten family and friends with our words and actions. We have plenty of ways we have forgotten the poor and the hurting, walking right by them, saying “I’m not my brother’s keeper.” We have plenty of ways we have used our money and power and influence not for good, not for healing, but to continue systems of injustice that oppress and exclude and bring people down. We have plenty of ways that we too have been snakes.
John’s message is a tough one for us to face in Advent. It is not the upbeat or cheery message we may hope for on this Joy Sunday.
But there is good news, no, great news in this passage. Because after John calls us snakes, he doesn’t do what you or I would do with snakes. He doesn’t chase us away or flee from the scene. He doesn’t say, “Get away from me snake!” He doesn’t get out a broom or a bullhorn and make us run from him, and say “Go back to your hiding place.”
Instead, he welcomes us and baptizes us. And he does it for even those most vicious of snakes – tax collectors, Roman soldiers, and even self-righteous religious leaders. And he says to us all, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
John isn’t doing this on his own power and grace and mercy. Instead, he is simply proclaiming the amazing grace of the one who is coming. The one to whom he is unworthy to even untie the thong of his sandal. The one who will come not just with water, but with Spirit and fire, to cleanse us and make us whole again. The one who will demand every part of our lives to follow, serve, and love, but who has made room for all people to do so.
The great news is that whatever type of snake we are, we are welcome in Christ’s family. There is grace and transformation and healing offered for all of us, no matter how scary or hurtful, or outcast we have been.
John is reminding us today that Christmas is not just for those inside of churches today. It is not just for those who sing the loudest to Christmas songs or wear the brightest Christmas sweaters or put out the most Christmas lights. It’s not just for the cheery people who seem to have everything going well. Christmas is for snakes. It is for those who have been left out. Those who others call scary. Those who think they have made too big of mistakes that no one can forgive.
John says to them and all of us, “You are a brood of vipers. But God loves you and God wants you to know love back.”
So how do we respond to John’s message today? We do what John tells us to do. Like the tax collectors and Roman soldiers, we are invited to examine our lives and stop the ways we have been cheating or stealing or joining in systems we know that are wrong, unjust and hurt others. The first step is to face the ways we have hurt others.
And then, after we have done that, remember the God we serve. Remember that we serve a God of incredible charity and generosity. As John says, “Whoever has two coats, must share one. And whoever has food must do the same.” Be generous this season. Give what you can. In money. In gifts. In time. In love. Notice those in our community, and see them as Christ sees them.
And finally, go out in the world not with judgment, but with good news. God loves you. There is room for you in God’s family. Make room for all the tax collectors and soldiers, sinners and criminals, because they too are a part of God’s family.
Today let’s listen for John’s words not pointed at others, but at ourselves. And may we approach the coming of Christmas with humility, with gratitude, and with generosity toward all. Amen.