Forget the vipers! by Pastor Noel

December 15, 16, 2018      3 Advent, C


      This is the anniversary of my first Sunday as Rector of St. George’s in Lee, MA.

      Twenty-one years later, and many times of preaching here, it’s no easier to read, “You brood of vipers!”

      And, if you blanked out after that until the end, “with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news to the people,” you may be wondering about good news.

      Hint—it’s in the rest of the story I read.

      The Bible is many books and many stories. When we read just one story, we may think it’s the whole story, but it’s not. We need to see the bigger picture, and sometimes it helps to know what comes just before and just after.

      When we met John in the Gospel last week, we learned some things about him. He was a prophet. People introduced as “son of” in the Bible are prophets. John was son of Zechariah, a priest of the Temple.

      We read a Canticle instead of a Psalm—part of Luke’s Gospel where Zechariah tells us about his son, so we learn about John from him, too.  Not to be confused with Zephaniah, from whom we hear today.

      “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”

      So John has a ministry as a prophet, and a specific goal to prepare the way for someone else—the one we know is Jesus.

      We also hear that John will help people know that salvation is connected to forgiveness. When we understand that God forgives us, we receive salvation.

      The world tells us that salvation comes from achieving.

      The world says our worth comes from being at the top of the ladder. From having more than anyone else.

      Luke is reminding us of the difference between the way of the world and the way of God’s kingdom.     

      The world says that wealth, power—stuff—is how we know we’ve got it made.

      But God has a different idea.

      So Luke introduces John by naming all the world leaders of his time. From the Emperor of the whole Roman Empire to the High Priest of the Temple.

      He sets John in a specific time in history, and then he tells us that “the word of God came to John in the wilderness.”

      Not with wealth or power or stuff. Wilderness.

      In our reading for today, John is still in the wilderness. He is at the Jordan River, baptizing and asking people to repent, to change their lives.

      He is asking them to turn away from the ideas of the world and turn to the ideas of God.

      So, when some of the wealthy and powerful show up, John calls them out for following the way of the world instead of the way of God’s kingdom. At least, that’s how I read this.

      Like the used car ad that says, “Show me the Carfax!” John is saying these leaders should show some change of heart before they ask to be baptized.

      They puff themselves up to say “We have all the right heritage. Who do you think you’re talking to!”

      John dismisses their claims by saying that God doesn’t want heritage.

      God wants lives that bear good fruit. God wants kindness, and acts of love and compassion. God wants us to live with kingdom values.

      Apparently the leaders, the vipers if you will, respond to John by slinking off home. At least, they don’t show any interest in continuing the conversation.

      Some of the crowd stays and asks John “how?”

      These are the ones lumped together in the category of “tax collectors and sinners.” And that’s who they are.

      John tells the crowd that one way to bear good fruit is to share. If you have more than others, reach out and help them have something. Coats, food—however we can bring someone out of the cold or out of hunger.

      Tax collectors were considered traitors as they collected taxes for the Roman government. They were known to take more money than the tax levied, so they made themselves rich at the hands of their neighbors.

      Soldiers were known to use force to enrich themselves, and John calls them to stop this and bear fruit by living with what they were paid.

      This is the good news that John was proclaiming. Living a kingdom life of honesty and compassion instead of stealing. Bearing good fruit for God’s kingdom of peace.

      There are many ways we can bear good fruit. The baskets at the back of the church are one of ways that we can share our bounty.

      We can get involved and work for a just society where 7 year old girls don’t walk from Guatemala to the US border and die a couple of hours later.

      We can work for ways to end homelessness and the hunger that plagues children and families in our country of over abundance.

      We can ask God to help us every day as we learn how to turn away from the world’s ways and live in to kingdom ways.

      Sometimes our worship traditions tell us about the kingdom.

      You may have noticed that we lighted the pink candle in the Advent wreath today.

      The third Sunday in Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” Like the third Sunday in Lent it is a special Sunday. In Lent it is “Laetare” Sunday or “Refreshment” Sunday and special cakes are allowed.

      On this Sunday in the past the anthem was “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” and we heard that theme today in Pauls’s Letter to the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always!”

      So even as we have “You brood of vipers!” ringing in our ears, we also have “Rejoice in the Lord always…Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”

      A few years ago, in his Gaudete Sunday homily,Pope Francis called Gaudete Sunday the “Sunday of joy.”

      He said that instead of fretting about everything they still haven’t done to prepare for Christmas, we should think of all the good things life has given us.

      So I invite us now to spend this last week of Advent in joyful anticipation of Christmas. As our Advent calendar says, “Slow down.  It’s Advent.”

      Forget the vipers! Remember bearing good fruit. Ask God’s help to be that good fruit for the rest of Advent, and for the holy season of Christmas that we are preparing for.

      If we want our Christmas to be about Jesus, it’s the only way.


The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details