broods of vipers

Sermon 12-8-19

Peace Covenant CoB

Matthew 3:1-12

This week has included a lot of community connection time for your pastor. I met with Soyoun from EAPC to plan our joint worship service next week, with Pastor Anita from Parkwood UMC to plan our joint Christmas Eve service on the 24th, and spent Tuesday evening at the ParkTown Food Hub with friends and neighbors sitting in a bit of Advent silence and preparing food give-away boxes for their big distribution later this month.

But another conversation took place with the Alcoholics Anonymous group that started meeting here in the building back in January. If you remember, the folks involved in that meeting wanted a location to start a brand new meeting, and our space seemed like a great possibility. It turns out that this new meeting has been incredibly successful – the group started with a dozen folks, but doubled in size very quickly. Every Saturday morning for the last year, twenty or so people have met in this space to share their lives, speak truth, and witness one another’s journeys of sobriety.

In a few weeks, the group plans to cook a big breakfast here to celebrate their 1 year anniversary together.

This building partner is not one that we get to share potlucks or worship with. It is something of a silent partnership. But I am so grateful that in this congregation’s willingness to share space, we have been able to offer room for relationship, accountability, and truth telling.

When these folks approached us last year asking about sharing space, I started reading and learning a bit about AA. I know that addiction and recovery are very present realities in the lives of many. I know that AA has transformed many lives, and that it is also not the only path toward recovery. But until this last year, I hadn’t taken time to understand the inner workings.

I read the Big Book. Maybe you have read it, too. I am totally taken with the twelve steps toward recovery. They start this way:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I have heard preachers say that AA does Christianity better than many churches. I think, at least, these first few steps could certainly be one way for us to understand John the Baptist’s call that we hear this morning for us to REPENT.

John the Baptist always shows up during Advent, and he’s always preaching – out there in the wilderness – about judgement. He calls people to repent and join him down in the Jordan River to confess their sins and be baptized. We understand that the people who were joining John down by the Jordan River were poor people, lay people, people who were suffering under Roman oppression and a religious power structure that was not offering them much hope of liberation.

But the religious leaders – the ones who are part of that power structure – show up out at the Jordan, too. We’re not sure why the Pharisees and the Sadducees journeyed out into the wilderness. The Greek is mysterious: they could have come FOR baptism, meaning that they wanted to repent and confess, themselves or – more likely – they could have come AGAINST baptism: the same Greek preposition can be translated either way. And, since John was explicitly going against the religious status quo, far away from the temple center of power, offering a ritual baptism that was not condoned by the priests, it’s pretty safe to assume that the religious leaders came out not because they were convicted far away in their temple seats but because they were fed up and wanted to put a STOP to what John was doing out there.

And when they show up, John does not mince his words

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

John is ANGRY at the religious leaders. He thinks that they are upholding unjust traditions and perpetuating evil systems. He does not meekly welcome the powerful into the crowd of poor and oppressed people who have heard hope in his preaching; he tells the truth about who they are and what they’re doing. John is out here in the wilderness and he is preaching about JUDGEMENT.

Even though we only read one scripture each Sunday, the lectionary offers us four different scriptures each week, and today, three of them have to do with judgement. Listen:

Isaiah 11:

“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.”

Psalm 72:

“He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”

These are not exactly the scriptures that we expect to hear on the second Sunday of Advent which is traditionally known as the Sunday of PEACE. Smiting, slaying, breaking in pieces…just like John’s image of trees being cut down and thrown into the fire, these are not exactly what we imagine when we think about “peacemaking.”

And yet, this theme of judgement is a thread throughout the Old and New Testaments. We cannot simply skip over God’s promises to “slay the wicked” or “separate the wheat from the chaff,” especially those of us who identify as peacemakers or are part of a “peace church.”

So often, we interpret God’s promises of judgement as rewarding the good people and punishing the bad people. But God’s judgement is always, always, always in concert with God’s mercy. God’s justice does not work like human judgement.

Scholar Matt Skinner, in studying the themes of judgement in the Gospel of Matthew, says it this way:

“Judgement doesn’t begin with God’s longing to punish or retribution. Judgement comes first and foremost out of God’s desire to make sure the truth is known. That truth is sometimes really bad news for you and sometimes is really good news for you. Sometimes it’s ‘look at all the people you have hurt’ and sometimes its ‘I see all the people who have hurt you.’ And both of those need to be healed. And both of those experiences are painful experiences.”1

God’s judgement is not about retribution; it is, first and foremost, about telling the truth.

So, when those religious leaders came to John out in the wilderness, he was preaching judgement. And Judgement meant that first and foremost, he had to make sure the truth was known. He needed those Pharisees and Sadducees to hear the truth about their actions: they were, he said, acting like a brood of vipers.


My friend Randall works at Camp Brethren Heights up in Michigan, and he loves snakes. He defends their beauty and utility and grace at every opportunity. He shared earlier this week on facebook that a “brood” is “a young family of freshly hatched animals… in this case pit vipers. They have lots of energy that must be harnessed by the ‘elder’ or parent vipers. The danger is in their numbers! These are not the same serpents that Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 10:16. Those are singular serpents that have the wisdom of knowing how and when to use its defense mechanism.”

So John is calling those religious leaders a young, misguided group of energetic and dangerous snakes. He is not saying that they are evil, exactly, or that they are beyond hope. John is, counter to our first impression, not condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees to eternal torment. He’s just telling the truth about what they are doing: hurting lots and lots of people. In need of instruction and correction.

We don’t know if John baptized the Pharisees and Sadducees that day. The story moves on before we get to the meat of their confrontation. But John does offer another metaphor in his description of God’s justice and God’s judgement:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Again, our first impression of this image is that Jesus – the one with the winnowing fork in hand – will separate good people (wheat) from bad people (chaff), and send the bad people into unquenchable fire. But we only think that because most of us have never winnowed grain before.

“Every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks – collectively known as “chaff” – from the grain, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain.  This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less just, or less respectful of others.”2

The Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said it this way: there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person.

John is not preaching a judgement that separates us from one another; John is preaching a judgement that separates us from our own sin, addiction, apathy and greed.

Remember I said earlier that the lectionary gives us 4 scriptures each week? We’ve read from three of them; here’s the third, from Romans:

“4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.

That does not sound like separating ourselves out from the “bad” people. It does not sound like calling one another names or barring one another from participating fully in church. If judgement = truth telling, then it can be synonymous with welcome. It judgement = truth telling, then maybe Jesus DID baptize those Pharisee and Sadducee vipers that day. Maybe telling the truth is part of welcome.

During this season of Advent, we can hear John’s call to repentance as a call to truth-telling, both about the ways we hurt others and about the ways others hurt us.

And isn’t this what our friends in AA are practicing every Saturday morning right here in this space? Can’t we learn from them how to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming?

Here are the rest of the steps in that 12 step plan:

  1. Be entirely ready to have God remove all the defects of character.
  2. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
  3. Make a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends
  4. Make direct amends wherever possible
  5. Continue to take personal inventory and, when we are wrong, admit it promptly
  6. Seek through prayer to improve conscious contact with God
  7. Try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.

This morning, I am grateful for our AA building partners, beloved neighbors who practice and witness to the purifying power of repentance. And I am grateful for John the Baptist’s call, inviting us to practice justice by telling the truth.

May we be so bold.

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