You Brood of Vipers
I’m glad to see you in church, this third Sunday of Advent, while the world is busily preparing for Christmas. In the midst of long-delayed family gatherings, in the midst of pre-holiday covid screenings, haircuts, shopping, cooking, and all the work and anxiety that goes into these days, I am glad you made time for church. But I have one question for you, you brood of vipers, you children of snakes: Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The Jordan valley is the bottom of the world, the lowest point on the planet. It was a full day’s walk from Jerusalem to the closest point on the river, and the walk home is all up hill. The road was known for bandits. You didn’t get to the Jordan river by mistake. It wasn’t a side trip between grocery runs. Matthew’s Gospel tells us John said these words, “you brood of vipers” to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious authorities of the day who came as looky-loos at the baptism.
But Luke says John used the words on the crowd who came to be baptized, which is why I wonder if there isn’t a bit of humor in John’s words, children of snakes, brood of vipers, if these words had become a bit of a catch phrase, and so John used them to kid his tired and dusty followers, the baptizands who made the long journey, the people who had decided to put their chips in with radical vision of the wilderness prophet. John was revered as a preacher. I wonder if humor was part what inspired the crowds to make the pilgrimage.
John was reimagining all sorts of ideas. John was reimagining the role faith could play in people’s lives. John was even reimagining baptism. For John baptism isn’t just about cleansing sin; Baptism isn’t just a washing. It is a chance to be born again. Baptism can be a fresh start. So I wonder if it took some humor to get folks there.
Where’s the word Repent in this translation?
Besides the phrase “you brood of vipers” there’s really one word associated with John, one important word. The one word about which we know John wasn’t kidding, and it doesn’t appear in our translation today. I went looking for the word in the entire Common English Bible, the translation we’ve been using at Holy Communion for a few years. It’s not there, not in the entire text. Do you know what word it is? Repent.
Now I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that decision. The Common English Bible is a twenty first century translation, done in the United States by the most diverse group of scholars ever to work on a Biblical translation. Paul Franklyn, of Abingdon Publishing, who helped lead the project explained that removing the word “repent” was one of the more controversial decisions. We have associated the word with John, with this passage since King James first authorized a translation in English.
But the word John used, metanoia, isn’t loaded with our mediaeval or modern baggage. Metanoia means “change your mind.” The Greek is pretty close in this to the Hebrew idea “shuv” which is often translated from the prophets as “repent.” “Shuv” means to turn around, to turn back, or to change your path. So in our translation today, John tells his followers, those snakes, to “produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” That phrase, “change your hearts and lives” that is what our translation uses for the word we’re used to hearing as “repent.”
I know some of you will want to debate. I know this congregation well enough. I’m happy to talk. Let me get through saying hello to folks this morning, but I’ll stick around. Or I’m happy to get together after the holidays as well. We can talk about repentance, absolutely. We can call up all the sackcloth and ashes.
But this morning, just for a bit, what would happen if we played along? What if the word of God didn’t come to John in the wilderness in order to make people feel guilty, in order to bring about shame? What if God has something else in mind?
Change your heart. Change your mind. Change your life.
Let me ask this another way, have you ever made a decision in your life that fundamentally changed your heart and your life? I can’t tell you how many folks have told me over my time in ministry, “I wish I had retired years ago. The monkey is off my back. I have time for things I care about. I have time for people I care about.”
The decision to retire isn’t the only one I’ve heard. I know people who have stopped trying to make a broken relationship work, or who have stopped trying to “fix” a person in their life. Letting go has been freeing. I know folks who have pivoted careers, who have moved across the country, who have made a bet on someone who turned out to be a great partner, or who have welcomed a child.
There are so many ways to change your path, to fundamentally alter your heart and your life. Maybe you’ve made one of those decisions. Maybe you’re contemplating one right now.
John’s own brood asked him what his words meant, and he said to them, share what you have. He told the tax collectors not to extort, the soldiers not to cheat. He invited folks to be satisfied with what they had and to share. Imagine if we all decided to change our hearts and lives just around those words: be satisfied with what you have and share. Churches, non profits, and NPR stations would certainly spend less of this season raising money.
I don’t know for you, but for me the word “repentance” is so specific, so guilt-ridden, so not-my-kind-of-churchy that it can end up meaning very little for me. I’m grateful today for a broader rendering. As I said, we can debate the full merits of the case. I am open. But on balance, I’d say, We’ve relied on guilt too much in religion. What if faith asked us to open our hearts? What if our faith asked us to change our lives for the sake of others?
I say these words, knowing I am preaching in a church full of insiders. I know how lucky I am, as a preacher, to work with this particular brood of vipers. I know that so many of you have had this experience. You’ve exchanged a spiritual life of guilt and shame for a practice of the faith which gathers the outcasts, which lifts up the poor. You are here because you’ve felt your heart open. You’re not fleeing wrath.
Remember how many in our world need good news.
This Advent, I’d invite you to remember. Remember how many in our world so desperately need good news. Remember that John doesn’t just ask us to change our hearts and lives, but to bear fruit. God’s work is never just about an individual. God is always working to set us free to set others free.
You’ve had these encounters as well. Haven’t you? You know what it’s like, in the midst of an anxious time, or a frenzied shopping trip, or an awful company holiday party, to run into someone who is just relaxed, who is free, who isn’t engaged by the drama. You’ve had the unexpected laugh, the unanticipated easy encounter with someone who cares more about you than some agenda. Isn’t it freeing when you encounter someone who is free?
I won’t say it is easy. Most of us still function first from our reactive lizard brains. We live in a world where too many people hear words like “brood of vipers” and they don’t hear a joke. Too many people are told to repent, by Christians who think they know what’s best. John the Baptizer appeared in a time not so different from our own. Politics were deadly. Many teachers were corrupt and supporting a broken nationalist religion.
John had the sense, maybe this Advent we can believe it was a God-given Word, to say, “the people need to be set free.” You can lay down the heaviness and shame of life. You can change your hearts. Even in the hurried rush of December, at any moment you can change your inner path. You can stop fleeing. You can stop playing the games of the world and start bearing fruit, fruit that might really help another viper. So that when God comes, you might just be paying attention enough to notice.