This is the sermon that I preached tonight at Crossroads. The scripture was Luke 3:7-18, which is John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and, among other things, calling everybody a "brood of vipers."
Grace and peace to you, you brood of vipers!
John the Baptist comes as a real shock to the system for people like me who grew up in the church—particularly the sort of middle-class, suburban, white kind of church where I grew up. Don’t get me wrong, I love the church where I grew up, deeply. But I think as a kid I understood the predominant message of Christianity as, “Be nice.” I can’t even remember how many children’s sermons I heard growing up that basically interpreted whatever the scripture lesson for the day as: “Listen to your parents and be nice to your sister.”
Now, “Be nice” isn’t a bad message, per se. Kindness is always something of an underrated virtue. In an era in which an article from the fake news source The Onion reporting that 42 million people were killed on Black Friday is mistaken for a true story because the reality of Black Friday is so awful, I think this country could probably use a healthy reminder to be nicer to each other (1).
But then there’s John the Baptist. This guy just does not sound very nice. I mean, there’s the “brood of vipers” thing, to begin with. And then there’s all the winnowing and the threshing and the unquenchable fire. So by the end of the passage, when we hear that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people,” I think we all feel a bit confused about what, exactly, is good about the news he’s proclaiming.
John the Baptist’s aggressive demeanor seems particularly jarring in the midst of the season of Advent, which we tend to confuse with a sort of Christmas prequel: same aesthetic, same soundtrack, just laying the groundwork for the main event.
December for many of us is a time for nostalgia and tradition. Christmas is warm and fuzzy. For 29 years I’ve experienced Christmas in Christian religious contexts, and despite all the midnight singing of “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” the song that I still most strongly associate with Christmastime is “Keep Christmas With You,” from the Sesame Street Christmas album that my family used to listen to on vinyl:
“Keep Christmas with you/All through the year
When Christmas is over/Save some Christmas cheer”
If I keep Christmas with me, all through the year—or so the song tells me—then I’ll be a bit more cheerful, a bit more joyful. A bit…nicer. I love that Sesame Street album.
I love childhood memories and my annual viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which stands next to the original Die Hard as the best Christmas movie of all time (2). But Advent isn’t just a prequel to Christmas. Advent, as it turns out, shakes us up a bit. It startles us out of our cultural preconceptions. Rather than a chronological build up to the birth of Christ, the readings for Advent are a bit like traveling backwards in time: from Jesus’ end-of-life predictions, to John the Baptist’s adult preaching, to the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when John and Jesus are still in the womb. We expect to hear stories about waiting for the baby Jesus. Instead, we hear apocalyptic predictions and the exhortations of wild-eyed prophets.
Of course, in a city that has become a symbol of political polarization, I think many of us have developed a healthy suspicion of apocalyptic predictions and the exhortations of wild-eyed prophets. I remember one week in which I literally participated in a protest at 7th and H St. NW one day and then got annoyed at protesters while getting out of the Metro then next day…in exactly the same spot. We’re used to people yelling in this city. Often with megaphones. We’re a bit tired of people trying to shove their beliefs down our throats. Of strident opinions and self-declared prophets.
I mean, let’s be honest—if most of us heard John the Baptist preaching today, say at 7th and H NW, we’d ignore him, not because our hearts are hardened but because the exact same spot is constantly the site of people yelling at us about everything from homosexuality to conspiracy theories to the evils of Halloween. So I think that if we’re going to get anything out of our Advent encounter with John the Baptist—if, in other words, we’re going to experience Advent as something other than Christmas sentimentalism or as just more partisan yelling—we’re going to need to ask: “What is the good news that John the Baptist is supposedly proclaiming? And what, if anything, does that have to do with us?”
John’s message is about repentance. He tells his listeners to “bear fruits worth of repentance.” In other words, he’s not interested in a nominal commitment or a change of labels. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s similar to a word we’re familiar with in English: “metamorphosis,” which is a change in form. Only John doesn’t want a change of form. Metanoia means “a change of mind.” He wants a whole new way of thinking. A new way of being in the world.
A new identity.
John the Baptist is challenging the human tendency to create identity in ways that do not reflect who we are created and called to be. Some of his listeners rely on an ethnic and religious identity to distinguish themselves. To them, John cautions: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Others have formed their identities around systems of wealth and power. Roman soldiers who supplement their wages by accepting bribes and extorting money and Jewish tax collectors who not only collaborate with the occupying Romans but who unfairly collect more than they are charged, come to John seeking change.
So John throws them in a river.
Well, it’s deeper than that, no pun intended. John’s baptismal ritual is based on a Jewish tradition, the mikvah, or cleansing bath. And there’s similar rituals in many other traditions as well. The idea of a cleansing bath has an intuitive sort of symbolic meaning. What John is stressing, however, with his talk of fruits and changing minds, is that it’s not enough to just be ritually cleansed for a few days of purity before another cleansing is called for. A whole new identity is needed.
And that’s exactly what we affirm in the Christian sacrament of baptism. In the traditional United Methodist baptismal liturgy, we say that in baptism we are “initiated into Christ’s holy church,” “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation,” and “given new birth through water and the Spirit.” Notice the language: “Initiated.” “Incorporated.” “Given.” The emphasis is on what God is doing in and through us.
That’s really important, because it’s easy to read John the Baptist’s words and think that repentance is basically about feeling sorry or about behavior modification. It’s not that. It’s the living-into a new identity that God is bringing into shape in our lives.
Fast forward from John the Baptist about 1700 years, to the life of another John, an Anglican priest named John Wesley. Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that we are the inheritors of here at Crossroads, had a bit of a conundrum when it came to baptism. On the one hand, he was firmly Anglican in his theology, which meant that he believed the sacraments of baptism and communion are signs not of human activity but of what God is doing for us. On the other hand, he was getting awfully tired of hearing his fellow English Christians say, “I’m baptized” as an excuse for not really doing anything to live out their faith. It was the 18th century English equivalent of saying, “We have Abraham as our ancestor” and figuring that was enough. Baptism had come to mean, “I’m off the hook.” Wesley realized that a revival was needed.
So the Wesleyan theology of baptism and communion tries to strike a balance, between God’s gracious activity in our lives and our need to respond. Here’s how the preface to the Baptismal Covenant in the United Methodist Hymnal puts it: “The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God promising our response of faith and love.” In baptism, God’s grace is at work in us, transforming us so that we can live into the new creation that God is bringing about.
Our scripture reading today tells us that John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.” And I think that a big part of that good news is that God is at work, bringing about the kingdom, bringing about new identity and new community in our midst. John points his listeners to One who is more powerful, One who is coming. And this One will baptize as well, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This One will separate wheat from chaff, and burn the chaff. That seems like pretty violent imagery. It’s a bit off-putting. But I was struck, reading this passage in a different translation, that “chaff” means “husks.” The chaff is what’s left over when the fruit of the wheat has been extracted. It’s the shell. The exterior.
And the truth is that, if God is really bringing us into a new identity, that there’s going to have to be some burning away of old, exterior identities. This past week we’ve watched the world grieve the death of Nelson Mandela, and although he is now honored globally as a hero, it’s easy to forget that he was seen as a threat to “the way things were supposed to be.” He was accused of being a terrorist and a communist—in fact, it wasn’t until 2008 that he was officially removed from the U.S. Terrorist Watch List—and he was thrown in jail. For Mandela’s beloved South Africa to live into a vision of freedom, its old identity of apartheid oppression had to be burned away. And so, too, in our lives and in our community, the ways that we establish identity based on power and wealth and violence have to be burned away in order for God to change our hearts, change our minds, and change our identities. The things that divide us have to be challenged.
Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). And in case we think that this sort of challenge to our identity is easy, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that baptism is like being buried with Christ (Rom 6:3-4). For something new to come into being, sometimes something old has to die. Has to be burned away.
Again, the Methodist baptismal covenant is instructive: in it, we commit, among other things, to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” to “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” and to serve Jesus “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.” Not exactly light, easy tasks. Not exactly commitments that leave unchallenged the “way things are supposed to be.”
In this Advent season we, like John the Baptist, are called to proclaim good news and to point the way to a new identity in Jesus. This is a challenge, though, because—as I said before—I think we are all a bit tired of people “proclaiming” things in this city. So what I’d like to suggest is this: our proclamation is exactly the way that we—each of us individually, but also all of us, together, as a Christian community—live out our own new identity. It’s not trying to convince people to believe what we believe; it’s how we live and speak as if we are being transformed, as if we are really bearers of good news in a hurting world.
So I’d like to challenge us to reflect some on what it looks like for us to live out our identity as Crossroads, in this Glover Park community and in this incredibly diverse but incredibly divided city of DC. There are some ways that we already do that. Our shelters. Our hunger programs. Our “Stop the Trials” sign. But I wonder: what do the folks out in the park on a Sunday evening in the summer think about us? Have we ever met any of them? What do the people who dance at Good Guys think about us (3)? Do they know that there’s a church here that proclaims that God loves and calls us all, regardless of what society says about us? I want to ask us to recommit to something, during this season and on into the New Year. To be a community that lives out a new identity, of hope and of love and of radical hospitality, not in some disembodied way but right here, in this little chunk of Washington, DC.
I don’t think we know, yet, what that might mean. Maybe it means cancelling services one Sunday and just going out in the park to spend time with people. Maybe it means buying coffee for a random 10 strangers at Starbucks. Maybe it means inviting more people to make sandwiches or make flood buckets for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, to invite people to spend their night serving others instead of being served at the bar. And maybe it also means spending time in bars and coffee shops, talking to people and building new relationships.
But whatever it is, it’s going to embody and proclaim to people that there is something new going on. That there is more to who we are than where we come from or how much we earn. More to who we are than religious and political labels. More to who we are than educational pedigree and good resumes, or the lack thereof. And in this city of shouting and division, in this city of power and status, in this city where a lot of people are quick to declare themselves prophets, I think that news—that there is more to who we are—is some good news for us to proclaim.
(1) I shamelessly stole this insight from Rev. Mark Schaefer, the United Methodist chaplain at American University.
(2) This is a topic of hot debate among the AU students that I work with. Even as I post this, we are watching Children of Men, which is Mark's unlikely choice for the top spot.
(3) Good Guys is a local strip club, just down Wisconsin Ave from the church.