The Joy of Vipers

A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018

Texts: Luke 3:1-18; Philippians 4:4-9

I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”

John seems to be a Negative Nancy of the first order. Yet Luke ends this story in his Gospel with this line: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” How is anything he has said good news?? At first glance, it looks like Luke simply copied and pasted this story of John the Baptist into his Gospel, ignoring the apparent disconnect with the hopeful quote (also stolen) from Isaiah—no transition at all between John and Isaiah’s valleys filled and mountains made passable and wonderful promises that we all shall see the salvation of God. Did Luke actually read over the copy when he was done?

But at this point, I probably should admit to something: I kind of like John the Baptist. I am drawn to prickly characters. I don’t know why, since prickliness is not something I am known for. (Editor’s note: Yes it is.) I like prickly characters. The angry comedian Lewis Black is my hero. When I grow up, I want to be Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. I like John the Baptist, brooding and all.

But as attractive as John is, it’s not immediately apparent how John fits into the Gospel story as Luke tells it. How is he part of the good news? Adding to our confusion, the Common Lectionary has assigned us this reading chock-full of negative vibes on the day in Advent normally set aside for the theme of joy. For as long as Christians have been celebrating Advent, the Church has taken the third Sunday to observe a moment of joy in the middle of Advent waiting. Advent originally was a penitential season, a time to get right with God in anticipation of receiving the Christmas message anew; but in the midst of this season of repentance, the third Sunday in Advent was set aside for joy. It’s why we interrupt the progression of purple candles with a rose-colored bloom.

Perhaps in the Church’s ancient liturgical practices, we have stumbled upon a clue for unraveling this mysterious juxtaposition of downer John and Christmas good news, of repentance and Advent joy. These days I wonder if we are perplexed by the combination because we Christians hear John’s judgment language through our own practices (or avoidance) of judgment, and thus subscribe to the erroneous assumption that judgment and grace are opposites. Certainly in a mass incarceration society such as our own, judgment seems to imply not grace but rejection and abandonment; we cast out those we judge unfit for society, into institutions that relieve us of us the responsibility to contribute to their reformation and restoration to community. The assumption that judgment and grace/love are opposites infects our parenting these days as well. In the name of love, we go light on the demands and critiques we level at our children, with the result that too many of them mature into young adults with no honest sense of their shortcomings and limitations.

But what is the Christian Gospel except a message that judgment and joy are not opposites because judgment and grace are not opposites! The Good News of the Gospel is not that we escape judgment for our shortcomings. It is that God sees our species for who we are, calls out our sins and shortcomings, and loves us anyway. We human beings fall short of our ideals, our potential, and God’s wishes. That declaration is a part of the Christian message, and any rendition of the Christian message that withers before that reality is “fake news.” But any rendition of the Christian message that ends there, or even lingers too long in that minor key, is also a misrepresentation of the Christian message. For the Gospel is judgment in the midst of overwhelming grace, judgment and repentance on the way to joy.

So perhaps the “brood of vipers” language is a bit strong for our tastes (though I kind of like it). Either way, the sentiment is clear: we are flawed characters, you and I. We do things we ought not to do. We fail to do things we ought to do. We think too often from the vantage point of our own experiences, our own interests, our own concerns. We inflict too much damage on others—sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Sometimes with our name signed on it, sometimes anonymously. Sometimes all on our own, sometimes in complicity with others.

I certainly see myself in this description. I think I am a good person. But I also know I am an impatient spouse and father. I am an inaccessible and abrasive friend. I am a delinquent citizen of a divisive, imperial, and at times morally vacuous nation. From a certain perspective, I am a viper. And yet, I know that God loves me, and that love makes me worthy of God’s care and company. And because God loves me and so loved the world, I know that the refiner’s fire is not the endgame of the Gospel. Judgment is only the prequel, the context for divine grace. Honesty around judgment is what gives grace its substance and depth, but it certainly is not all there is.

So what are we to do with this subtext of judgment that resides in the Gospel? Well, in a word, rejoice! It makes perfect sense, as our ancestors knew, for honest judgment of our need for grace deepens its seriousness, but we know that judgment is not the final note. That’s why we recognize God’s judgment in the midst of observing God’s coming, but we rejoice in a season colored otherwise by repentance.

Here perhaps it helps to hear the story of John the Baptist through the echo of the Apostle Paul, specifically this reading from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” The letter that this ode to joy draws to a close is a letter preoccupied with hardship, and yet joy is the refrain. Rejoice in the face of uncertainty, Paul writes. Rejoice in the endurance of discomfort. Rejoice in the confession of failure and shortcomings. Rejoice in judgment. And why? Paul quotes an ancient hymn to tell us why:

Christ Jesus…, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11)

Or, as Luke puts it more succinctly in his Gospel,

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

We rejoice as testament to God’s faithfulness in Christ, which comes not as an avoidance of our shortcomings but as an antidote to them.

The chastened joy Paul commends is not the kind that shows in gritted teeth or pasted smiles. It is also not the joy of naive optimism, or the saccharine kind of nostalgic happiness the cultural celebration of this season peddles. The joy Paul has in mind is deeper. It is joy strengthened by the refiner’s fire. It is joy that lives out in character.

We rejoice when we practice gentleness to everyone, those of whom we are fond and presumably those who test our patience. We rejoice when we have faith, resisting the impulse to be swallowed by anxieties and uncertainties, trusting instead on the gracious mercies of God. We rejoice in truth-telling and truth-defending. Repentant joy lives, as the Baptizer suggested, in the sharing of resources, in our insistence on fair dealings among ourselves and from those in positions of power. We rejoice when we commit to peace, to honor, to justice, to holiness. Joy is the distinctive character of a community of people who embrace the honest judgment of their dark corners and the darkness of this world, because they see those corners better in the light of the Gospel, and they know themselves and their world to be loved despite them, by a light that shines in the darkness and cannot be consumed by it. To rejoice as Christians, then, is to testify to the power of grace to outlast our failings. To rejoice is to testify to that grace by gracing the lives of others.

Our joy shows when we honestly appraise the crookedness and roughness of the world in which we live, and our own part in it, and nonetheless go about the work of preparing the way of the Lord. For in his Advent, we proclaim that all mortal flesh shall be judged, but more importantly, in the Advent of Christ all mortal flesh shall see the salvation of God. Amen.