You brood of vipers!
Not a very pleasant way to address a crowd that has come from a long way away to listen to what you have to say and are already prepared to let themselves be baptized in the murky waters of the Jordan. Not very polite and not very prudent either.
But the people seem to love it! A powerful preacher of fire and brimstone that does not mince his words and seems to know what needs to be said and done to change the world. They seem to love a good flogging!
There is little doubt that John was somebody that appealed to the crowds. His exotic appearance in a cloak of camel hair, his diet of locusts and his colorful language apparently did appeal to the masses. The gospels tell us they came from far and wide to hear him preach. And that he managed to convince many of them that they needed to change their ways, start a new life and let themselves be baptized as a sign of that.
At a time the religious and spiritual climate in Israel was at a fairly low point, with organized religion very much into nit-picking about trivialities and loads of rabbis traveling the country with a wide array of messages. John the Baptist only one of the many that tried to fill a spiritual gap with some success.
He probably reminded them of the prophets of old. Apart from the fact that he looked like one and acted like one (camel hair cloak, residing in the desert) his message resounded with references to the prophets. He preached about the law encompassing all of life, not just the religious side of it, he called for repentance and awareness of the failings of the individual and community in regards to Gods law. He called for conversion and reformation of the lives and deeds of those listening to him. He announced the coming of Gods Kingdom on earth and the coming of the Messiah together with the Holy Spirit with an offer of forgiveness and purification.
To some of them it must have seemed like the good old times were back. A prophet to give warning and stand up and raise his voice against the ethical and moral decline of the day, against injustice and iniquity. A prophet that took on the religious establishment and dared to say a few words to rulers that seemed to feel they were above the law.
All thàt is what John does:
Brood of vipers! Cowards! Good for nothings! Do you think that youll be safe because of who you are, you self-important prigs? Forget it. God can make people like you from the stones that are lying around here if he wants to. There is nothing special about you.
And if you go on like this, there will be an end to you and all this before you know it.
Threatening language, menacing.
Let us for a moment consider the situation:
First century Palestine, rumors of revolt rumbling in the background, the roman army ready to pounce at anything that moves its head above the parapet. The emperor Augustus getting older, succession wars in the making. A threat of violence coming from more than one direction.
And by the time Luke writes his gospel down a lot has happened and is still happening: There has been a revolt and it has been smothered in blood. Jews and Christians have been dispersed all over the Roman Empire and the young Christian community is being persecuted relentlessly.
At the time John spoke the axe was indeed lying at the root of the trees and by the time Luke writes his gospel it is pretty clear that a lot of cutting away of branches and trees is being done.
It wasnt difficult to divine that future for John, nor was it for his audience to be filled with trepidation with where they were heading. And by the time Luke writes the story down there is even more reason for his audience to be frightened of the future and the violence that seems to be coming their way.
In our time the prophecy of John would probably go somewhat like this:
You brood of vipers. Who gives you the right to stick your head in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong? Cant you see that horrendous mistakes have been made? Or do you think nothing will happen to you because youre Australian and a long way away from the rest of the world anyway? Didnt you see the two towers go down? Havent you heard growing dissatisfaction in some poorer parts of the world?
Havent you heard about children in detention centers growing up to hate the country they fled to. Arent you aware of the injustice and iniquities that are perpetrated? Of children growing up with hate in their hearts and guns in their hands? Cant you see that violence breeds more violence every day?
The world is in danger of collapse!
And what do you think we can do about that asks the crowd of John the Baptist. If you are such a wise guy, tell us what to do!
Share says John the Baptist. Not: Give everything away, but share when you got more than you need and somebody else doesnt have enough. If you have two coats share one with somebody that has none. Very simple.
And when the tax-collectors come, those who have been identified by the religious establishment as culprits par excellence John does not say: Change your profession. But: Dont ask for more than you are entitled to.
No extortion, no overcharging, no legitimate stealing. Simple. Even for our time I would think a direction that is easy to follow. Do not take what is not your due.
And even the soldiers, collaborators, avoided by anybody respectable get instructions: be satisfied with your wages and dont extort. In other words: Dont take by violence what wasnt yours in the first place. Dont use your power to extract from people what is not yours.
Again very simple.
Share, dont charge more than you are entitled to and dont use violence to get what you have no right to in the first place. If we all kept to these rules the world would be a different place, even today.
John gets them all fired up and enthusiastic, they confess their sins, let themselves be baptized and start to live along the lines he has suggested. There is a revival going on! Rejoice in the Lord, always, I say again, rejoice. They start living good lives, lives that overflow with justice, righteousness and peace. And their enthusiasm is contagious. A new movement starts, they all feel something is in the air, something new is starting, a movement for change, for a different world, for different people.
John however, as the prophets have always done, points away from himself to a promise of the Lord still outstanding, to a future still to come. Points out that more needs to happen and will happen.
The Holy Spirit will have to come down with fire. A fire to bring even more clarity as to what is right and wrong. Clarity in what to do and how to live. Gods Spirit needs to come as a fire to burn away all remaining impurity and make a total renewal of the world possible.
This is faith for John.
He did not know Jesus was coming, but he trusted that God would do bigger things than he himself could do. That God would somehow come and bring further what he had started.
His words get new meaning when his career is cut short. His unadulterated words against Herod taking his brothers wife (definitely something that he had no right to and no need for) bring imprisonment and finally death. Leaving the new, excited and expectant movement he started leaderless and open to persecution. What will happen now?
Rejoice in the Lord always,
Let your gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Writes the apostle Paul to the Philipians.
Not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, but the peace of Christ Jesus.
After Johns head had been served on a plate to Salome, one came that was more powerful than he to take his place and take his prophesying, indeed all the prophesying that had ever gone before, one step further. All the way through death into the life of a community that tries to live the gospel, live in his footsteps a life of sharing, of not taking more than their due, of refraining from violence, of the practice of love and forgiveness. Trusting like John that our enthusiasm, our good will and preparedness for change is just a beginning. That the Lord will take it up and take it further, even when there are major set backs to overcome.
Rejoice, I say again: Rejoice.
The Lord is near. And whenever we succeed in holding on to that, that deep peace that only faith can bring will decent in our hearts.
A peace that will help us to make good the gospel in our lives. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus, speaking up against injustice and abuse of power. Inspiring others to Kingdom living. To be able to say, like Paul, who was in the midst of persecution when he wrote these beautiful words to the Philipians and waiting for a possible death penalty:
Rejoice, the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Bring everything before the Lord in prayer and let go. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.