I'm guessing it's not often you get called 'a brood of vipers'?
Read Luke 3:7-18
I get the impression that John the Baptist was not too impressed by all the people flocking to hear him speaking around the Jordan river, which seems a little strange in that his message was all about the need for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as Luke tells us a few verses previously. It was a message which seemed to hit a raw nerve in a population that were, at least at the back of their mind, anxiously awaiting the promised and long-awaited Messiah.
So, he preaches his message, word spreads, and a crowd appears, seemingly anxious both to hear him, and do whatever they had to do to keep themselves in God’s good books. And what do they get? Not a welcome, not a ‘Good to see you all here!’ but called a ‘brood of vipers!’
Now, that phrase might seem a bit weird to us, but it was a well-used one in its day. Even Jesus used it when getting really frustrated with the attitude of the Pharisees and their followers, calling them ‘a brood of vipers’. I wondered what it really meant, and there’s several attempts to explain it online, and the most plausible one seemed to be this. The many eggs birthed by a female viper are called a ‘brood.’ After emerging, they scamper around searching for prey.
That’s pretty much what the Pharisees were doing with Jesus, trailing Him in great numbers attempting to rubbish His character and message. John might be popular now, but a couple of verses on from our reading and we find him in jail, courtesy of Herod who’s not happy being criticised and wants it to stop. Politicians, eh!
John knew that some of this crowd, maybe most of it, were there for entirely the wrong reason. He’s not criticising them so much for being there to listen to him and act on his words, but for their motives in being there. And that came down to who they were, mainly Jews, who probably considered that as descendants of Abraham they were OK in God’s eyes as long as they ticked the right boxes, and this call to repentance might just be another of those boxes to tick.
But that’s about as good as saying that because I grew up in a broadly Christian country and was taken off to church and Sunday school each week from a very early age, that somehow that makes me invulnerable to God’s displeasure, enough boxes are ticked, and therefore I can consider myself as pretty safe spiritually if God’s Day of Judgement might suddenly apppear. But that’s not the case, as John tells the crowd. He talks about trees being felled for not producing fruit and fed into the fire.
Paul has something to say on this in his message to the Romans. Have a listen to this, which is made easier to understand in the Message version of Romans 4:13-16
13-15 That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an ironclad contract! That’s not a holy promise; that’s a business deal
16 This is why the fulfilment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all. He is not our racial father—that’s reading the story backward. He is our faith father. (Romans 4:13-16 Message)
‘OK then!’ say the crowd. ‘If we’ve got it all wrong, then what do we need to do?!’
And here we get some serious stuff from John the Baptist. It’s not about their temple or synagogue attendance, adherence to the strict religious laws of the time or the amount they’re popping into the collection plate every week. It’s about living out their faith. It’s about their relationship with God and their neighbour. And isn’t that how Jesus later summed up the whole of the law? If your neighbour (in the broadest sense) is struggling then help them out from your own excess – food, clothing, whatever! And moving on some years past the Cross and Resurrection, to the fledgling church growing fast in Jerusalem, isn’t that just what the fellowship did, as we read in Acts 2. They shared what they had, they saw a need and responded. That’s what it’s all about, faith in action, not done for the ticking of boxes, but because it had already become second-nature, part of what they were as people.
In amongst the crowd were some incredibly popular people, tax-collectors! Despised both because they worked for the Roman overlords or Jewish leaders, and because they creamed off some of the monies paid to line their own pockets. They weren’t told to stop doing their jobs, unpopular as they were, simply to do them fairly and honestly. A change in attitude, not job, but away from greed.
Then there’s the soldiers, who had a reputation for abuse of their own positions, bullying, falsely accusing people and making life miserable for those they picked on. Again, just carry on doing your jobs, but change your attitude, away from arrogance and injustice.
There may well have been others asking the same questions, but Luke has got his message across. Don’t live lives that are all about ticking boxes to earn God’s favour. Love God, love your neighbour, and when the Messiah comes, as he will, this Messiah the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, he will baptise you not with water but the Holy Spirit and that refining fire, transforming your faith and life. That’s the Good News I bring, says John.
It’s a message that’s as clear to this generation as it was to those people flocking to the River Jordan.
We shouldn’t have to ask, ‘What should we do then?’ as those folk did, but if we feel the need to do so, the answer is live lives worthy of the God you worship. Live lives worthy of all that God has done for you in and through his Son, whose birth we will soon celebrate.