John the Baptist delivers one of the most famous lines in all scripture. “You brood of vipers!! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Honestly, it’s a lot of fun to say. Or better yet to shout.
Give it a try. Right where you are. With feeling. “You brood of vipers!
Who do you have in mind?
Are you thinking about the person sitting next to you? Or their relatives. Or the ones they voted for? Or the company that signs their paycheck? Or yours?
At Faith, we are all about being able to talk about our differences – religious, political, lifestyle, belief. But, we have pretty good evidence that healthy conversation doesn’t work well when you call people names. And that is clearly what John the Baptist was doing. In fact, the historical evidence indicates he was basically using foul language.
There is a lot of name-calling going on in our society. It is as if we all want John the Baptist’s job. It feels so freeing, and righteous to thunder down judgment on those who know are wrong – especially – if as John the Baptist seems to indicate, they are people who think they are better than the rest of us in the first place. It just might be worth wearing camel hair and crunching locusts if we could see certain people cringe when we snarl, “You brood of vipers, who warned you of the wrath to come?”
Philosophers and social scientists have named this time “the age of outrage.” We are so clear about who is on the other side and how badly they are behaving. I do it too. We go from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat. From a comment to a tirade. From interaction to presumption. From statement to condemnation. From opinion to outrage.
It is so satisfying to be the righteous one. To be certain that we are right and other people are wrong. And then to point out to them all the ways they have been hypocritical, prideful, arrogant, self-absorbed.
It all gets a bit more uncomfortable when we remember that the people John the Baptist called a brood of vipers were the most religious of people, those who had every reason to think themselves righteous. John the Baptist seems surprised that the religious might want some cleansing, repentance, and cleaning up. He starts out berating them – calling them names, pointing out their hypocrisy, and then he does an interesting thing.
Maybe John remembered he was one of the religious – even if he went about it a different way than the Pharisees and Sadducees. All at once, John stops pointing fingers with judgment and points to the One who is coming after him. “I am not worthy to untie his sandal,” John says, “but he is coming.”
Declaring judgment. That’s the easy part. What is really worthwhile is saving the world.
John can talk about the things that stand in the way of faithful living. He can point to a God who is coming into the world. But he spits out judgment in the wilderness, far away from the lives of those who come looking for a new way.
It is Jesus, the One who is to come, who enters into the heart of human life. He doesn’t stand apart, but steps right up to all the people – whether they are religious, confused, sanctimonious, or humbled. Jesus isn’t in it for the outrage. He doesn’t point fingers and call names. His work doesn’t end with judgment. His work doesn’t end by letting the sinners have it. It ends the cross when the power of sin and separation and self-righteousness I burned off.
John the Baptist is not worthy of that. The religious are not worthy of Jesus. The people who call names, who inspire our outrage are not worthy of him.
And neither are we.
Yet he comes for us.
He comes, and he burns away from our lives, everything that is not worthy, so we are left only with what helps save the world he came for.
The world today is filled with outrageous behavior. Finger-pointing, an ugly name, or even a clever quip has seldom changed anyone’s behavior. What does change the world is being changed. And that is why Jesus came into the world. He baptizes us not just to clean us, but to claim us. He burns away from us all that is not worthy, all that is not worthwhile, and leaves behind only what can yield good fruit. Goodness. Goodness, that can be shared.
That is why Jesus is coming. He is coming for us. We are not worthy to untie his sandals. We are not worthy of creeping up to his manger. Yet he comes for us.
Now, that’s worth saying. Try it now. “I am not worthy. Yet he comes for me. I am not worthy. Yet he comes for me.”