Day Nineteen of An Advent Calendar: “You Brood of Vipers!”

Thursday, December 15, 2016     Thursday after the Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 9.18—10.4
2 Peter 2.10b–16
Matthew 3.1–12
The text of the readings follows after the comments.

john-the-baptist

John the Baptist window at St. Matthias, Victoria BC. Photo courtesy of Toad Hollow Photography

There are days when I wish I could talk like John the Baptist. Who wouldn’t like to turn to the hypocrites and compromised leaders and say, “You brood of vipers!”?  Who wouldn’t like to threaten with axes those who exploit the poor?

Jesus clearly had a strong connection with John the Baptist. That connection is mentioned in all four gospels (although Luke and Matthew probably have a literary dependence on Mark). All four gospels agree that Jesus was baptised by John. The Gospel according to John states that Jesus found some of his first disciples from among the disciples of John. The Fourth Gospel also says that Jesus baptised people.

The interesting thing is that the direction Jesus took was very different from John the Baptist. Whereas John was at the river Jordan, and people came to him, Jesus began an itinerant ministry, going to “the lost sheep of the people of Israel”. Jesus had a healing ministry, but there is no indication that John did. John proclaimed the coming wrath of God, whereas Jesus, while not disavowing this, talked about the coming kingdom in parables.

In both cases they challenged the established order – the Herodian client kings, the collaborationist Pharisees and Sadducees, and the Roman conquerors. In both cases they were put to death by the powers they offended. In that respect Jesus was like John the Baptist.

What is interesting is that John the Baptist’s movement eventually died out; there are reports of his followers decades later, but in time they just faded away. The followers of Jesus, however, obviously carried on. What made the difference?

It’s probably that Holy Spirit thing. John the Baptist cleansed people of their sins when they repented, but Jesus was the means by which his  disciples encountered the living God through the Holy Spirit. They felt empowered to be like Jesus – to teach, proclaim, heal – and whatever they thought about the wrath to come they knew that they would be spared it. Ironically, while they might be spared from “the wrath to come” they encountered plenty of wrath already present, and so as the Holy Spirit propelled them to be like Jesus some of them also experienced a suffering and death like his.

Between Pentecostalism and Orthodox Christianity those us us in the traditions of Western Christianity (Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Reformed/Calvinism, and so forth) have had to reassess how they approach the third person of the Trinity. This has sometimes been unsettling.

Unsettling can be a good thing, though. We need to be unsettled. We need to be in-spired. As I get older in the faith I realise that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in me, and I can see it at work in others, as their prayer lives deepen, and their reaching out to others becomes profound and natural. It is a kind of transformation, a metanoia or change of mind that is far greater than mere repentance (which is how the Greek word is usually translated).  

Isaiah 9.18—10.4
For wickedness burned like a fire,
consuming briers and thorns;
it kindled the thickets of the forest,
and they swirled upwards in a column of smoke.
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
the land was burned,
and the people became like fuel for the fire;
no one spared another.
They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,
and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;
they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;
Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,
and together they were against Judah.
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.

2 Peter 2.10b–16
Bold and wilful, they are not afraid to slander the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not bring against them a slanderous judgement from the Lord. These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed, suffering the penalty for doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their dissipation while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! They have left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

Matthew 3.1–12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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. Even now the axe 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.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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