Sunday, December 13, 2015

O Generation of Vipers!

John the Baptist Preaching by Breughel the Elder
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Luke 3: 7-18

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two tunics should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

We have to be careful what we say in Church. MPs have to be careful what they say in Parliament, otherwise they can be rebuked by the Speaker for un-parliamentarily language. Disraeli was reputedly once rebuked for saying that “half the Cabinet are asses”. “Mr Speaker” he replied, “I withdraw that remark. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”

So I’m pretty sure that most bible schools would not encourage their students to begin a sermon by calling their congregation “you bunch of snakes!”  What is John talking about?

Isaiah 60 begins with the wonderful phrase
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people:
but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
 Well just before this Isaiah 59 is a Penitential Psalm, and here we have this (Is 59:2-6):
…your iniquities have separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things.
No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity.
They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;
they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web.
Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.
First Century Israel was a powder keg: a divided land under Roman occupation with corrupt puppet rulers. Plots and rebellion were all around. People were expecting a Messiah, a divinely-backed leader who would sweep the Romans into the sea despite their overwhelming military superiority. It’s interesting to compare the views of Daesh here: following a Hadith  they expect the Last Hour after “the Romans” gather in the Syrian province of Dabiq, be conquered by 1/3rd of the Muslim army: they then expect a final battle in Syria which Jesus would win for them with his lance.

So in this ferment of expectation for divine intervention, John arises: “A prophet and more than a prophet” and people flock out to see him in the wilderness.  Could this be the Messiah?  He’s doing radical things: baptizing people who are already Jewish – that’s what converts have to undergo. And he’s preaching an urgent call to justice as prophets have throughout the ages.  But he doesn’t conform to the zealots’ idea of a Messiah at all. Soldiers and Tax collectors come to him and ask what must we do. To a political activist the answer is obvious: stop collaborating with the hated Roman Occupiers – quit your vile professions. But John tells them to do their job properly and only refrain from false witness and extortion: be content with your pay.

John tells anyone with two tunics to share with someone who has none. The tunic (chitwn) was made of linen or wool and was the standard undergarment worn by rich and poor alike, although if you were really rich you might have a linen shirt underneath. Over the tunic you wear a cloak (himation) – so when Jesus says (Matt 5:40 // Luke 6:29) that if someone takes your cloak you should let them have your tunic as well he’s making the point quite graphically.  Anyone who was not extremely poor would have at least two tunics – Jesus tells the twelve when he sends them out not to take two tunics (and this detail is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke).

There are lots of other similarities between John’s language and Jesus, some of which are brought out in this passage. For example Jesus talks about cutting down unfruitful vines, about sorting the wheat from the chaff (which is what a winnowing fork is for) and he calls the Pharisees “brood of vipers” twice in Matthew (12:34 23:33).  And of course they both resonate with the messages of the prophets. This is hardly surprising: John, like all the prophets, is declaring the Word of the LORD: Jesus is the Word of the LORD.

So what are we to do?  How can we use this time of Advent to prepare the way of the Lord?

Well firstly we do need to ensure that “we bring fruit worthy of repentance”. Without inner transformation, especially rooted in prayer and in Jesus, we can do nothing. I am the vine, you are the branches, says Jesus. And he plainly expects us to pray daily at the very least.  Things can get very busy indeed in the run up to Christmas. But as a wise man said “If you think you are too busy to pray, you’re right – you are too busy ”. I’ve recently started doing some additional praying while I’m running, having read an interview with Justin Welby where he said he did this.  It does slow me down a bit, but that’s not so important – though to my shame when I do finishing sprints I stop the prayers and concentrate entirely on the running.  Maybe there’s something else you do daily to which you can add some additional prayer?

And the other wonderful thing about Advent is that this is a great time to talk about Jesus. We live in a society where there is staggering ignorance about the basic facts of Christianity. A recent poll  suggested that 22% of English Adults (and 25 of those under 35) think Jesus is a mythical or fictional character -  and another 18% aren’t sure if he actually lived.  The poll suggested that only 9% of English adults were practicing Christians, a total of 57% said they were Christian (so 48% are non-practicing). Of the remaining 43%, two thirds said they knew a practicing Christian.   So we have a great opportunity to speak to friends and neighbours and invite them to find out more, whether they are non-practicing or non-Christian (and BTW only 10% of English adults are committed to another religion, though of course the proportion is higher in London).

The Internet is a distorting mirror, but nevertheless tells us something. Atheism gets 22M GHits. Christianity gets 107M, Jesus 558M but Christmas gets 1,590M. Even in China, where Google is blocked, everyone in the major cities knows it’s Christmas (In Chinese it’s Shèng Dàn which means Saint Birth – it should be Shén Dàn which would mean God Birth but there were are). So it’s a great opportunity for conversations, invitations, encouragement. Help bring back the 48% who are non-practicing. In the spiritual desert that is much of London life, let’s follow, in a small way, John’s footsteps, and prepare the way of The Lord.

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