This time last year, I was slowly sorting through an impenetrable wall of boxes as I unpacked our belongings from the move. I knew that in one of those boxes, somewhere, were our Christmas decorations. But I could not find them. More to the point, even if I had found them, I had nowhere to hang them in the ever-shifting sea of cardboard and packing paper. So I just didn’t even try, instead opting to enjoy the decorations and lights that my neighours put up in their yards and windows and front doors.
But this year, this year has been different. The apartment is unpacked, our belongings all sorted and settled. This year, Matt and I are no longer separated on opposite sides of the continent. And this year, we know where our Christmas decorations are.
So, a couple weeks ago, we strung up Christmas lights in our big window looking out over the street below. We pulled out our Christmas Llama and placed it in a place of honour on our table. On our apartment door we hung a small wreath and, on our bookshelves, the two stockings we have for Demon and Daniel. It is nothing extravagant or over the top, but it feels cheerful.
It isn’t just our home either, as I’m sure you have all noticed. Walking through the neighbourhood in the evening, we’ve been taking in and admiring all the lights and Christmas trees. Even here in our own church you can see it. Our lights are up out front, along with a festive new church banner. Our Giving Tree is glowing brightly right here before us, and the poinsettias practically glow with red and green.
Yes, it is a festive and joyful time of year. As we take it all in, as we hear those old familiar Christmas songs for the umpteenth time on the radio, it’s hard to not feel at least a little bit of the merriment. We even light a pink candle in our Advent wreath this Sunday to remind ourselves that it is Gaudete Sunday, to remind ourselves that it is a time for rejoicing!
And taking in all the excitement, all the eagerness of the crowds pressed in around him, John the Baptist cries out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?”
His words are as shocking to us now as they were to those to whom John first spoke them, a sharp juxtaposition to the hope and expectation filling the people around him. After all, they had not gone to all this trouble, trekking out into the wilderness, just to see a reed shaking in the wind. They had come because they had heard word about the fiery man who preached there. They had come because in their heart of hearts, they hoped that John might be the long-awaited messiah. They had come to see if their joy and righteousness was to be justified. They had come to see if God’s long-promised salvation was finally at hand; if their enemies and oppressors would at last be put in their place and defeated.
Okay, so maybe not quite the same sort of hope and expectation that we normally associate with this time of year. Either way, John’s words were not the message they were expecting, just as they are not the words we are expecting. Glaring at the crowds, John seems to say, “Oh, so you think the messiah is coming, do you? You think you know that God’s promise is about to be fulfilled? Then act like it! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
It is a command that is a bit obscure to us today. It is obscure because when we think of repentance, our minds go to making apologies, making confessions, making amends, making restitution. When we consider repentance, our hearts move to feelings of guilt, feelings of sadness, feelings of failing, feelings of shame. When we seek to repent, we mostly approach it as an intensely personal act between ourselves and the one who was wronged, and do it in the hopes of forgiveness.
But that is not the repentance that John preaches; it is not the repentance into which he baptizes those who seek him by the river. No, the repentance that John commands is a change of perspective, a shift in understanding. The repentance to which John calls us is to see the world in a new way. And that change of perspective, that shift in understanding, that new way of seeing the world, is this: that Messiah is coming. It is that God’s promised salvation is at hand. It is that God is breaking into the world now, not at some undefined point and time in the future, but here and now.
This is the heart of what John was getting at, because if this is what we believe, if this is what we truly see in the world, if our perspective has shifted so that we now see God coming into our world, then our lives must be changed! Our actions must be different! How we live and act and move and exist in relationship to the world around us much shift as well. And if we do not, if nothing changes in what we do and how we are in relationship with one another, if we do not bear fruit reflective of repentance, then we have not repented. Then our understanding has not shifted, our perspective has not changed, we do not see the world in a new way, a way that shows us God’s presence and activity.
Then we are truly a brood of vipers seeking only to be comforted and absolved of the justice that God has promised.
“What then would you have us do?” ask the crowds, troubled by the unexpected message that they were hearing that day.
John, ever pragmatic, tells them. “You who have more than you need, give to those who have none. And you who pad their own pockets by cheating and tricking others, stop doing that. And you who use power and violence to oppress others and make yourselves wealthy, learn to live instead with what you’re are paid rightly.”
So, with many other exhortations such as these, John proclaimed the message that if the crowds came to see him because they believed God’s messiah was at hand, then their actions had better reflect it.
But, here’s the thing, there was more to what John was saying than that. John’s proclamation was more radical than that, because your head is not served up on a platter to the king for telling the crowds to be nicer to one another.
John was a radical. He did not live in the wilderness because he liked nature, but because he rejected society. He saw its brokenness and hypocrisy; the ways that the very system itself was counter to God’s command. Though the instructions he gives to those who came to hear him preach are individualistic actions that each person could make, they all point to something much bigger than the individual. They all point the ways that the system itself is broken, the ways that the system is evil, the way that the system itself is the source of the people’s oppression.
John proclaims that God is coming, that God’s justice is at hand, and that nothing will escape judgement because the whole thing is rotten to the core. If we believe that God’s Kingdom is at hand, then we must start behaving like we live in it. This is the message that would get John killed.
Because here is the thing about corrupt and oppressive systems—everyone knows that they are. They only persist because people like us consent to them by continuing to participate in them. If we start to refuse to be a part of this brokenness, then the whole thing begins to fall apart. When we refuse to live with inequality, it becomes harder for others to continue justifying that same inequality. When the tax collector stops taking more than their assigned amounts, then it becomes that much harder for the other tax collectors to continue cheating the people. When the soldier stops using power and violence to terrorize the populace, then it shines a bright light on the ones who continue to do so.
My friends, the world is broken. The very fabric of society is built upon inequality, injustice, and oppression. I think we all know it. After all, during global economic upheaval and pandemic, the richest of the rich have seen their wealth explode, while the poorest struggle to make ends meet, both across the globe and here in our own backyard. We see the wealthiest countries, the countries with the strongest militaries, hoarding vaccines while at the same time blocking attempts to lift intellectual property rights on those same vaccines so that the poorest countries struggle to afford and vaccinate their populations against the pandemic. We see it in the violence that is built into our very systems of justice against people of colour and against Indigenous peoples. And we see it in the new reality of global climate change, where our collective shortsightedness and greed has brought down destruction on our generation and future ones, but especially on the poorest communities in the world.
And amid all this brokenness, all this suffering, all this evil, Christ is coming. We light this pink candle to remember to rejoice in the face of everything else, because Christ is coming. God is breaking into the world and God’s justice will turn the world on its head and Christ is coming.
How will your life be changed by this truth? How will you live and act and be different with the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is coming and, indeed, is already here? What actions will we take, individually and collectively, to tear down the evil and oppressive and broken systems of our world?
We gather here, just as the crowds gathered in the wilderness all those years ago, because the Messiah is at hand. John proclaims to all who will hear his words to rejoice, and bear fruits worthy of repentance.