Nothing says Advent like being called a collection of young, deceptive, and venomous snakes. Yet this is precisely what we encounter in this week’s gospel story. The crowds had come to hear from and be baptized by the one out of the wilderness and, to their surprise they are greeted with imagery that draws their attention to the ancient creature cursed in Eden. “You brood of vipers,” John lashes out at the swell of religious leaders, tax collectors, and soldiers, exposing their poisonous intermingling with the oppressive economic and militant practices of Rome. John’s contrasting allusion is quite brash, you look less like children of Abraham and more like the offspring of empire.
Again, this is not exactly suitable for the Christmas card or being etched on a Secret Santa ornament.
Still, Luke’s story is crucial to the pilgrimage we call Advent. It is an invitation to linger not only in Bethlehem, but also alongside the Jordan as we remember our own baptisms. There, as those drenched in the sacred and sending waters, we are confronted with similar questions as those posed to the ancient crowds, is our witness reflective of our identity as the children of God or as the hatchlings of systems designed to maintain power and privilege? Do we breed liberating goodness or infuse toxic venom into our neighborhoods? Is our professed allegiance to God’s kingdom come mere deception to our preference for the control of others?
If we are honest, these are daily questions. They may even lead us to ask one of our own, echoing those who gathered by the river two millennia ago, “what then shall we do?”
What I love about John is his straightforward and practical response to the crowds. He moves his message of repentance beyond mere platitude and towards specified enactments of justice and equity that subvert the abuse of authority: all who have two coats, share with those who have none; tax collectors, refuse to exploit your neighbor and take no more than what is due; soldiers, cease the threats and extortion of money from those you pass by on patrol. This is the kind of fruit John proclaims as worthy of repentance, the working out of our baptism through a concern for our neighbors.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can imagine similar invitations should the camel-skin-wearing, locust-eating prophet speak to us in our time and place, in regions not along the Jordan but in proximity to the Schuylkill: In the midst of pervasive poverty and homelessness, leverage collective resources for the common good. When struggling local school systems become pipelines to prison, work to ensure all children have a fair shot at quality education. When opioid addiction plagues both our urban and suburban neighbors and neighborhoods, collaborate with community partners to promote healing and recovery. When prison systems are unjustly biased against people of color and the poor, promote restorative justice to transform individuals and communities. When gun violence takes yet another life, offer not only prayers, but also systemic and legislative intervention. In the face of the vitriolic public rhetoric, ease the many manifestations of hatred and division. When youth cry out for the world to be different, invite their ideas and leadership as agents of God’s kingdom come. Use whatever you have been given alongside whomever God has sent you to embody the good news in places so often torn by narratives of scarcity and aggression.
Julia Esquivel, an exiled Guatemalan poet, wrote beautifully:
In the most obscure and sordid place,
in the most hostile and harshest,
in the most corrupt
and nauseating places,
there You do Your work.
That is why Your Son
descended into hell,
in order to transform what IS NOT
and to purify that which IS BECOMING.
This is hope!
(“Hope,” Threatened by Resurrection, 1982).
One of the greatest joys of ministry within this presbytery is the opportunity to venture alongside the many disciples of Jesus who have entered into such obscure, sordid, and harsh places to transform what is not into what is becoming. Whether a congregational initiative or community partnership, even anniversary celebrations, the faithful dare to ask in some of the most nauseating places, “what shall we do?” Then, still wet from our baptisms, we resolve to bear fruit worthy of repentance as a brood of foolish saints. As we lean into this third week of Advent, when we light candles of hope, peace, and joy, may we allow ourselves to be confronted continually by the gospel, confess our own entrapments by the powers that be, and imagine new avenues to incarnate the good news wherever the Spirit leads, even among the snakes. After all, this is where God does some of God’s best and most redemptive work.