I don’t know much about snakes. Really, I don’t know anything. I think they’re weird animals – not at all cuddly, frankly a little creepy, they’re just not my thing. But this line from John the Baptist stands out to me every time I hear it: “you brood of vipers.” Turns out, vipers are interesting. They are venomous, of course, and can cause serious bodily harm and death. The structure of their mouths, though, is the most fascinating thing about them: vipers have long, hollow, venom-injecting fangs. These fangs can effectively be hidden – they can fold up against the roof of the snake’s mouth and be covered by a sheath of skin. When provoked, vipers’ fangs emerge from their sheath of skin, ready to stab and inject venom into their victim. These fangs, which are so lethal, are also structurally quite weak – they’re brittle. So, the thing that makes vipers deadly and that lets them victimize other animals…it’s also a weakness.
John calls the assembled crowd a “brood of vipers.” He tells them that they must bear fruits worthy of repentance – they may think that they can rely on their ancestry, on being descended from Abraham, to assure their salvation and favor with God. But this is not so. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Our sinfulness and selfishness do not bear fruit – in fact, they inhibit growth into God and into a life of salvation. So, John says, they – we – should be cut down. If we continue living lives that do not bear fruits of repentance, we should be thrown into the fire – a biblical symbol of judgment.
Understandably, this directive from the Baptist is jarring. The crowds ask him, “what then should we do?” And John’s response is not exactly what we may have seen coming. One might assume the response will be something about spiritual discipline, about fervent prayer and devotion to God. Pray harder, thank God more often for all the blessings of this life. But John is a man of action, and his call to the tax collectors and soldiers is for justice. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you…Do not extort money by threats or false accusation.” These seem to be fairly straightforward directions. But when applied to our lives today, they require a different way of living.
John is calling us to lives directed outward, towards others, lived for the benefit of others. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, shelter the unhoused. This is the Gospel of Luke, after all – it constantly admonishes our selfishness and encourages us to lift up the lowly. Living a life directed outward is living a fruitful life, one that allows for your growth and the growth of those you lift up by your words and deeds. To live this life is to bear good fruit: it is to be the tree that will be spared the axe John the Baptist talks about. It is to be the tree that will grow and flourish.
That is a beautiful image: a fruitful, strong tree, growing and thriving, a tree that carries sap and brings forth fruit. As an image, it’s about as far as possible from a brood of vipers…vipers whose fangs carry poison to bring forth death.
John is laying out a clear choice. A clear one, but not easy.
The choice is hard because evil looks pretty powerful. Evil is greed, the desire for more and more. It is putting oneself ahead of and above others. It is dramatic, and strong, and it can overwhelm us if we’re not careful.
Goodness – by its nature – is quieter. It’s less dramatic. Goodness doesn’t always garner attention; it won’t necessarily get your name out there and make you famous.
Evil can change the world in a flash – the viper’s fangs emerge, bite, and inject in a matter of milliseconds. Goodness, flourishing, bearing fruit – these take time. Sometimes this kind of growth is so slow it’s almost invisible. Vipers are more memorable than the slow-growing tree that bears fruit. We want the immediate result, the immediate satisfaction of seeing our actions play out. More often than we might wish to admit, this means we jump to evil. Make the joke at someone’s expense, lose patience in traffic, default to stereotypes.
But looks are deceiving. Those fangs in the viper’s mouth are brittle. They’re actually weak. They lead to death, not to life. They bear nothing and can destroy many things. Like those fangs, our sin and evil are weakness. Our fangs are those acts, great and small, which put us – rather than God and others – into the forefront of our minds. Our fangs are all the ways we forget John’s instructions to share our coats and our food with those who have none. They are our insistence that our own lives are the most valuable ones. Our fangs are what turn our attention in Advent to ourselves – to our own desires, to the gifts we will buy and receive, rather than to the Christ Child being born once again. These sinful desires, these brittle fangs, are not what Advent and Christmas are about. They are not what our Christian life is about.
But, as always with our loving, redeeming God, there is good news.
Today, on what’s called Gaudete Sunday, despite the difficult words we just heard, despite the fact that we are being called names by this great Biblical prophet, we rejoice. We rejoice because John’s message to us – the message God sends through this wild, locust-eating preacher, is to live lives of truth and fairness. We are all capable of that. And we rejoice because – as today’s Collect says – even when we fall short of this, our Lord will still stir up his power, and with great might come among us. Even though we are sorely hindered by our sins, God’s bountiful grace and mercy will help and deliver us. As Paul told the Church at Philippi, Rejoice in the Lord always. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Listen to John: treat others with fairness, take action against injustice, do the right thing.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog