Luke 3: 7-18
December 13, 2015
This is the Sunday where we light the candle of joy and prepare to celebrate the great mystery of Emmanuel, God with us. It is also the Sunday we celebrate his cousin John the Baptist, who calls people a brood of vipers, and preaches about axes and fire coming down from heaven. Welcome to Paradox City! Joy to the world, you brood of vipers! The ending is a head scratcher:
17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
If that is the good news, imagine John the Baptist when he was having a bad day! Here’s how I make sense of this scripture. This is good news if your social location is in flames. If you live on the South Side of Chicago, West Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri, and you are tired of yet another video of a young black man being gunned down by police, you want to hear about an axe at the roots of the racism tree. If you are a dedicated police officer working for public safety, this is a tough time. If you live in the Marshall Islands, soon to be under water because the world is too hot, you would rejoice at Bill McKibben poking his winnowing fork at Exxon Mobile for funding junk science on climate change. If you own a lot of Exxon stock, that sounds like bad news. If you are a parent from Sandy Hook calling the NRA a brood of vipers for blocking any kind of meaningful arms sales reform to stop massacres, that sounds like good news. If I call Donald Trump a dangerous viper, are you going to hold your thumb up or your thumb down? I think you see the point.
Bold prophetic language can be either good news or bad news, depending on your social location and ideology. Much of John’s audience lived in a world on fire, and they were most likely the poor, excluded, and marginalized out there at the River Jordan. He was their voice, their hero, their Bernie Sanders, or MLK, or Tea Party if you are a conservative. John’s rhetoric was good news to his audience, and bad news to the status quo of Herod, Pilate, the high priest in Jerusalem and Emperor Tiberius. But there is something more going on here.
What is John calling people to do? “If you have two coats, give one to someone who needs it.” Inequality is a moral problem. A Republic cannot be partially prosperous and mostly miserable. The next sentence is mind blowing. Even the tax collectors are there.
“And they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
What is the good news people heard from John? He called them to a world where people were generous, honest, don’t exploit other people out of greed, who are seeking to bear good fruit whatever their job or social location. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” MLK called it the Beloved Community. Isaiah called it the Peaceable Kingdom.
John’s exhortation applies to us. Start where you are. In seminary, I heard the late Walter Muelder speak. He was the ethics professor at Boston University in the 1950s and 60s, and MLK and Coretta Scott King credit him as forming the core of King’s philosophy of social change. His lecture was passionate, hopeful and inspiring, and what I remember was from the question and answer session. One student gave voice to something we all feel, indeed the same question as John the Baptist was asked. “What do we do?” I don’t know where to start in a world torn by violence, sexism, racism, homophobia. The principalities and powers seem to overwhelming, so where do I start. What’s most important? Muelder said, “Start where you are. Start with your passion and with your opportunity. It does not matter what your cause is, because life is all interrelated, and the good you do in one place will help others doing good in another. You can’t do it all, but you must do something.”
The Beloved Community, the Peaceable Kingdom, comes when we engage our calling with passion. One of our most important tasks is discerning our unique calling, as a church and as individuals. That is what our vision team is going to help us do in 2016. Step 2 is to do this work with courage. To have a Peaceable Kingdom, someone has to encourage the lambs and someone else has to tame the lions, because you can’t just put them in the same pew and hope for the best.
John is a snake charmer and a fire walker. These practices started as religious rituals. In the ancient world religious rituals often had an element of danger. We worry about passing germs during communion, or being stymied at a board meeting, while some ancient preists were charming snakes and walking on coals. Snake charming began in India, and moved to Egypt at about the time when Moses challenged Pharoah with his rod that turned into a snake. Hinduism believed snakes to be sacred, and healers studied snakes and knew how to deal with them. People would call on the healers not only for snake bites, but to come and get snakes out of their homes. A guru named Baba Gulabgir used snakes to teach people to understand what they fear. The art of snake charming works first because cobras are not that fast. They are defensive creatures, who can scare the heck out of you when they rise up and flare their hoods and hiss at you. But the cobra knows it has one shot and it is dead if it misses, so it will try to scare you off and then wait till you get really close. So the snake charmers art is to sit just out of striking distance. Cobras don’t really hear, but they sense vibration, so they feel the vibrations in the air coming from the pungi flute and show their impressive defensive stance. But the vibrations stay far enough away that the cobra doesn’t strike, but close enough that it continues it impressive dance, thus it seems “charmed.” The teaching is to understand what you fear, otherwise you will probably do more harm than good to yourself and others. John knew a viper when he saw one, and he understood them, and taught people not to fear their power. Remember, when he says brood of vipers, a brood is baby snakes. They are not mature and he is calling them to grow up.
When John talks about fire baptism, he is in part alluding to a refining fire that burns away all that is impure. But I also wonder if there is an element of ancient fire walking practices behind his image as well. Fire walkers would dazzle their audience by walking across beds of hot coals, and their feet would not even be burned. That seems impossible, given how easily I burn my fingers in the oven. But here is how the art works. The coals are lit hours earlier, and burn down so there is a protective layer of ash on top. The ceremony happens at night so the red glow is visible and impressive. As long as the walker keeps moving, and does not stand still the scorching heat doesn’t get through the ash to burn your skin. If you get fearful and stop, you are in real trouble. But if you manage your fear and just move quickly forward, you get safely to the other side. All it takes is a little science and a lot of courage.
Courage-that is a word I associate with John the Baptist. He was a snake charmer and a fire walker, and called for bold discipleship. Discipleship calls for our courage. God knows we need it. When I meet with the Massachusetts Conference Board of Directors, we lift up three words that all our actions should embody – Courage, depth and bridge building. At the end of every meeting we say, “where did we exhibit courage, or depth or bridge building?” When we are making a decision, Jim Antal, our Conference Minister, will often say, “What would you do if you were bold?” That is what John the Baptist invites from us this morning, “What would you do if you were bold?’