A Viper’s Humility in this Strange Land

Last week we heard John the Baptist proclaiming the message he’d been given by God: prepare yourselves to receive the gift of life who will come to you in Jesus Christ. This you and I recall each Advent because it confirms God’s promise to come for us, to gather us to him now in our day-to-day lives. This promise fulfilled when Jesus was born and lived amongst people, when he died, and when he was raised, establishes our truth as baptized Christians: we are being brought as he comes to us over and over, to God our Father. And as we are brought in Jesus Christ by his own Spirit to our Father, we are being transformed – that is, our lives, our ways of thinking about really basic stuff like our relationships, our work, our retirements, our ways of spending our time and money, how we treat people we know and don’t know – our lives and the criteria we use for making decisions about HOW to live knowing that Christ has come for us, knowing that Christ calls us to a different way of life, is changing, it is being transformed by Christ, so that we might become more like him: in the Son of God, we are being made into God’s children; Jesus’s own brothers and sisters.

This might seem really academic to you. It might seem like it’s just some theology, or just some intellectual mumbo jumbo. But here’s the thing: it only seems that way because Scripture, which is God’s revelation of himself to us, gives us a different language, different ways of thinking, different ways of knowing and understanding the world in which we live and our personal lives. Let me give you an example. How many of you immigrated here to Canada at some point? Okay, so at least a few. Well for those who didn’t, imagine for a moment that you decide you’re going to move to a different country. You can choose your most ideal place, warm and sunny, old history in Europe, wherever. Guess what. When you move out of Canada and into that new country, you’re going to have to learn a whole host of new things: maybe a new language, new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking about relationships, new ways of talking to people, new ways of doing things like finding work, finding a spouse, finding a home, living as a single person, etc. Eventually, even though sometimes you’ll fall back into your old habits, you will start to be transformed more and more into a ‘a Canadian,’ or, ‘a German, French, Italian, Swedish, etc’ person. It just happens as you learn the language, customs, culture, etc.

Well this is indeed what is going on for us. We live in this world now where we’ve been raised to think that ‘what you see is what you get.’ We make decisions so often on the basis of things that we can empirically prove to be the case. We’re actually really skeptical about supernatural claims, so much so that we often don’t talk about God or faith, or more particularly, sin (because we fear being considered judgmental or close minded), Satan, angels or demons, in public. Sure, these are the stories we read about in Scripture – God, humbling himself and coming into the world as a human being, even dying, rising, with the expectation that he will come a second and final time to gather all things to him? My goodness. These are pretty bold claims for a people who have been raised to believe only in what they can see with their eyes or prove through scientific experiment. This is the culture that we live in now though. And so it is the world that we read about in Scripture that can seem much like it is a foreign country to which we are being called to immigrate. What is this, ‘Kingdom of God’ we’re being drawn into? What sort of language is spoken? Is the God of Scripture to be believed? Trusted to fulfill his promises? How are we to make sense of this new land we’re being called into?

In our reading from Luke we continue John’s mission from God to proclaim a baptism of repentance. But we get this, sort of contradictory line from him. People come to him for this baptism of repentance and he says to them: “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ Yikes. Who is he addressing here? Definitely the Israelites, we already hear God refer to his people in association with a ‘viper,’ Falling to the temptation of Satan, then again, being killed by serpents or vipers in the desert as they are tempted to turn back from following God. Remember that? Moses prays to God and says, ‘help Lord’, come and help us. And God sends a serpent whom Moses stabs with a spear, and then raises up on that spear. A serpent – the very representative manifestation of sin itself – raised on pole, stabbed with a spear, a serpent whose death rids the Israelites of the plague of serpents. The Son of man, become a human being himself, raised on a pole, stabbed with a spear, rids not just Israel, but all of us plagued, killed dead by sin, sin the fruit of falling to the temptation of Satan, represented by a serpent.

This is why John here uses the term ‘you brood of vipers.’ He is referring not just to the Israelites but to all human beings, all of us who inherited sin, all of us, in a sense, ‘infected with the bite of a serpent, with its poison of sin.’ When he yells out, ‘you brood of vipers,’ he means to call out all of us – you sinners. But then he says something really strange, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come.” Who wouldn’t flee from a coming wrath, from judgment? I venture to say that given the choice, most of us would actually rather flee than have to stand in judgment for the ways we have sinned against our neighbors and our enemies alike. None of us are without sin, we hear in the epistle to John. IF you say that you have no sin, the truth is not in you. In other words, if you think you are okay without enduring God’s transforming you – calling us out of the distorted ways we have responded to him, neglected him, or responded to our enemies, our neighbors, our friends, our family – then we will miss the boat or the plane, to stepping into the Kingdom of God, into his grace, allowing him, in his Scriptural revelation of himself, to transform us into his likeness. If we presume that ‘we’re okay as we are’ without engaging God where he is to be found – in our Scriptures which form our not just our knowledge, but our prayers, our ways of thinking, our ways of determining good and bad, of making decisions. If you think you can run away, if you think you can flee from God’s judgment that is coming and has already been revealed in Jesus Christ, if you think you can flee from moving into this new country, you’ve got another thing coming my friends: because one day, this will be the only ‘kingdom’ there is.

If we think we can flee from God’s judgment and go about our business as we think is right, when God has told every person over and over that we are caught up, tempted by sin, blinded by it often so that we can’t even recognize when we’re living out of sin because we become comfortable and complacent with the way our day to day lives are, about what out culture and society says is good, and moral and ethical, we’re going to miss this call John has issued to humility. To say, hey you know what, I’m not really sure I’ve got this right. Am I thinking about this as God has shone light on this situation or relationship or event, or way of acting or way of using my resources or my gifts, or responding to my emotional upset, my fear or anger, am I thinking about this stuff as God has shone light on all of this stuff through his scriptures, or am I going about things with the arrogant presumption that I am right, imagining that my own judgment makes me so? John is basically saying, folks, you are not going to be able to flee from judgment so get things in order now. Seek God’s ways. Don’t presume you’re right without being open to his correcting you. So go back again and again to him through the Scriptures, in prayer, with humility that’s grounded in his fulfilled promise of coming and of his promise of coming to us again. Respond to that gift of being drawn into a new country, a new world, the kingdom of God not with fleeing, but with confession, with repentance, with humility. So then with the crowds when we ask of John, ‘what should we do?’

Whatever our particular circumstances, what we have done is humble ourselves so that we take on a way of life that is open to receiving grace, correction, change, and transformation. John gives some particular examples in our Gospel today: share your resources, don’t hoard them for yourselves, particularly when you have abundance, don’t cheat people or bribe them, or trick them, or steal from them, take only what is prescribed for you. In other words, work to earn what you need, but be willing to share, even to the point of sacrificing the things you’d like, for those who have less. Don’t hoard your own gifts or hide them away from those who might benefit from receiving them and don’t make of them more than they are worth by false claims to superiority or greatness or power or wealth. These are just some of the fruits of sin. Instead, be willing to share what has been gifted to you – your very life and everything you have – for the sake of building up the whole people of God. For this my friends, was precisely who Jesus was; it is precisely what he came into the world for; it is precisely what he accomplished, and so it is the very way of life he calls us to lead. This is the ‘good fruit’ he demands we bear in this world. AMEN

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