Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18
If you think on it a moment, I bet you can think of people who seem as flighty as a helium balloon–not just free spirits who at least have some sense of who they are but people who truly seem to have not even one foot planted in reality. That’s no one here, of course.
On the contrary, we also know people–some people we probably hold quite dear, who are grounded and sure-footed in this world. These people tend to know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and often they have a pretty clear sense of what their purpose in life is. If we’re not one of these people ourselves, we may be working to get there. It’s not bad work.
Whether or not we have a firm foundation, when we approach someone or something, we come as who we are, even if we are sometimes the flighty one. Who we are is a mixture of all that our lives have taught us and the circumstances we’ve been born into. Who we are is precious and unique; individually, our worldview, our perspective, is shaped by what we know. In our tradition we say that Scripture, tradition, and reason shape our theology, how we understand God. Similarly, several factors come into play to create the context for our worldview, how we understand and relate to the world around us.
In this crowd here today, we’d be hard-pressed to find people who have exactly the same perspectives. We’d come close, but there would be nuances. We’d be more likely to find others with completely different viewpoints but who are no less firmly grounded in their sense of being, especially in their love of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of our common worship.
Just because we’re grounded, even in our love for God and God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we’re perfect.
“You brood of vipers!” John calls his gathered crowd.
I’m sure it sounded harsh to them, too. John the Baptist had a crowd who assembled to be baptized. They heeded his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are presumably good people, people who have heard something in John’s message that led them to this moment. Did they really deserve to be berated?
Not necessarily, but John warrants no apology. The Baptist’s admonition is a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP! There’s urgency and necessity. A matter of life and death.
He calls out to the brood to jar them, to awaken the one lost in the clouds, carried away on every whim; the one so grounded and steeped in tradition that the footing has become shackled and immobile; the one planted in infertile soil, kept alive by synthetic fertilizers of the latest fad, the quickest fix, and empty promises; and the one buried into the ground by shame, guilt, and fear. And there are others still.
Surely it’s by the grace of God that they came to John at all, and he has to keep their attention, catch them while there’s a chance of waking them up. For asleep most of us are no better than vipers, bound to the ground with no footing, venomous, ready to strike, and a threat to those around us. The poison is within a viper. The potential is there in them as it is in us to do great harm. Provoked or afraid, a viper–humans, too–can deal a dangerous, painful, if not fatal, strike.
Even if we think we know who we are, John demands attention. John, the last prophet of the old way and the first martyr of the new, catches us and turns our attention toward God in a way that even he may not have fully understood but that he firmly believed.
So the crowd in the gospel reading today does not get baptized with water but is sort of instructed in a baptism of repentance instead. Neither ritual cleansing nor repentance were a new thing. Repentance–or teshuva–is a practice of faithful Jews, providing a way to turn away from sin, from ways that are harmful, and to turn toward God, toward one’s true self whom God created to be whole. Repentance was and still is an act that can be done by one’s self or in community.
Jewish ethicist Louis Newman, in discussion with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being, spoke about a study with professionals–in this case pediatricians and trial court judges, people with immense power. One thing the study found, as I understand, was that some of these doctors and judges had no outlet through which to process, let alone acknowledge their mistakes or biases.
A pediatrician who prescribed the wrong treatment that proved fatal found a safe space within the study’s controlled group to acknowledge the mistake for what it was and to emphasize the need for doctors in particular to admit to mistakes so that they can learn from them.
A judge realized that the power could go to his head and knew he had to be careful since he realized the vulnerability he had in the biases he held. In his court an attractive young woman might get a lesser sentence than someone who fit his mind’s stereotypical convict if he wasn’t paying attention to his prejudices.
Newman says that looking at our shortcomings and knowing our vulnerabilities clues us into what we need to be repentant about. It’s like knowing what triggers us to release our poison, whether within ourselves or onto others. If we let our self-awareness grow dim, we risk harming others and missing the opportunity for wholeness. We don’t want to miss that chance.
Whether we are doctors or judges, tax collectors or soldiers, men or women, young or old, we ask as if with one voice, “What then should we do?”
We could band together with others and provide a safe place to share. Recovery groups do this. John the Baptist offers examples of what one might do if one is truly repentant. Share clothes and food. Charge fairly. Be content with earnings. Preparing the way for the Lord means being honest with ourselves and perhaps even seeing “those people” or “others” as our neighbors. What John says causes me to think we are to consider ourselves and one another bound not to that which makes us sick and angry but bound together in what is to come through Christ: a new covenant of love, a covenant strong enough to hold us when we fail and big enough to provide space for many perspectives.
As Christians, our wholeness is realized through Christ. Sometimes we have to change our footing and get reoriented toward the way of our Lord. We repent and begin anew, often repeatedly. I believe God makes no exceptions for those who seek God’s grace and knows the hearts of all believers in every land in a way I cannot comprehend. What this viper has a chance of doing is not controlling the other vipers in my brood or the ones next door; my chance at wholeness is to align myself with the one who brings peace and pass that goodness along.
If I trust John has awakened me to a new way, toward Truth, then wherever or however I’m grounded, what’s important is that I’m oriented toward Christ. That gives us all reason not only to repent in all sincerity but also to rejoice.
We have reason to rejoice with our lives turned toward Christ and joyfully anticipate his arrival.
All who have humbly repented know the anguish and discomfort overcome. Repentance is our anti-venom. The peace of Christ is our calm assurance, rooted in our trust in God that all shall be well. Really. Paul was sincere in his exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice and not to worry. The more we live into our whole selves, the more keenly aware we are not only of our potential to fall into sin but also of our capacity to experience true joy. It is imperative that we keep our heading focused on Jesus.
It may only be a moment–a moment from this morning or from many years ago–but we have known joy. If it’s been too long for us, we especially need to heed John’s call and repent, letting go of that which holds us down and riddles us with dis-ease and deceit. Either in prayer or with the support of our community here, we let go of what isn’t true. With integrity we embrace our wholeness through Christ. Whoever we are in the crowd, we turn toward the one through whom our joy is made complete.
The time is drawing nigh.