Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Well, that’s not very nice. No wonder John is seen as a sort of backwater hillbilly. I mean, with a potty mouth like that, it’s like he was born in a barn and raised by wolves. Way different from if he were born in a barn and raised by a carpenter, if you know what I’m saying.
But it just seems mean for John to say this to the Pharisees. All they wanted to do was to get baptized, which was like all the rage in those days. And really, yelling at your clients like that isn’t all that good for business. Imagine if you came to church looking to be baptized and I called you a brood of vipers. I doubt if you’d ever come back. And calling them a brood of vipers is bad enough, but then suggesting that he’s displeased that they were warned to flee from the wrath to come sounds like he prefers them to be left behind to face that wrath. No, not very nice at all.
Were they really that bad? Do they really not deserve to be baptized? Does John really hate them that much?
To be completely honest, I can’t really answer any of those questions with any certainty because I wasn’t there and the text doesn’t really fill in those blanks, but what I can say is that they probably were that bad and they probably didn’t deserve to be baptized, because quite honestly all of us are that bad and don’t deserve to be baptized. Well, baptized by John’s standards, that is.
See, John breaks it down for those in attendance, he talks about his baptism in water as one for repentance, but there is one that is coming after him that will be baptising with fire. Um, maybe this is that coming wrath that the Pharisees were fleeing from? I mean, I don’t know about you but if I had to choose between having a bath and being burned, I think I would choose hygiene over an inferno.
But what really is the difference here? What is John talking about? And what is a winnowing fork?
With all these metaphors, I admit that it isn’t easy to decipher John’s message, especially if we didn’t already know he was talking about Jesus. But the confusion that we have around his anger and indignation comes down to our definition of repentance. In the case of John’s baptism, repentance is a turning around in action and outwardly appearance. So if you repent, that means you’ll stop acting wrong and start acting right. You look at yourself and see where you are wrong and you change that to be less wrong. You’re committing yourself to be more disciplined and that you’ll try harder to do the right thing, or at least try harder to not get caught. That is what John means that he baptizes for repentance.
And so maybe that is why he was so angry at the Pharisees for coming to be baptized in this light. From what we know of the Pharisees, they don’t have an easy time admitting that they are wrong. In fact, they use themselves as examples of what is right and good and just. Their idea of righteousness was strictly around outward actions. To the Pharisees, your motivations and your heart were kind of… moot.
So John saw their actions in coming to be baptized as hypocritical. As unjust and for the wrong reasons. As something worthy of a brood of vipers.
But that is according to John’s baptism of repentance.
The One who is to come, on the other hand, does something completely different. He won’t baptize into repentance, but he’ll baptize with the Holy Spirit. And while fire might sound scary to us because if you touch it, it hurts, fire in those days was typically meant for purification and cleansing. Yeah, being purified and cleansed can still hurt like fire, but the end result is glorious.
Like how a blacksmith would use fire to shape and hone tools, or how a farmer would use fire to get rid of the weeds and the things that choke out the crops, or how a cook would use fire to make food taste so much better, so does Jesus use his baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit to shape, cleanse, and recreate us, removing all that is tarnishing and corrupt and leaving behind what is pure, clean, and holy.
And that is the baptism that Jesus brings. That is the point of the Spirit and fire. This is the hope that we have in Advent and the expectation of the coming Christ. That through our baptisms and the work and words of Christ, that we aren’t just more disciplined and committed to do the right thing, but that the fire would purify us and change us that we just will be better. Not better in that we just act better, but better in that our hearts will be different, our motivations will be pure, and that we’ll be able to regard each other differently knowing that we are all redeemed, saved, and loved.
See the fire of Christ’s baptism isn’t out to guarantee that we’ll be perfect. It isn’t to completely wipe out evil anywhere that it exists, although that would be nice. It isn’t even really to make us nicer people. But it is to show us that we are in need of refining, we are in need of purifying, we are in need of a Saviour.
And the good news, of course, is that we get one. Not one that we’d think, like someone wearing tights and a cape, but in the form of a child born to commoners, raised in humble means, and someone who sees the good in everyone, the good that makes everyone worth saving.
This is the peace that we celebrate on this second Sunday of Advent, this is the harmony that we can live in, this is the community that is brought to us with Jesus the Son of God coming into the world, that we recognise we are all in the same boat as sinners who cannot help but be in sin, sinners who are in dire need of saving, sinners who indeed have been saved by the gracious love and mercy given to us by the God of Jacob. This is God reaching out to us, this is the shoot coming from what seemed to be a dead tree, this is the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that surpasses all understanding.
This Advent, may we look forward in expectation of the cleansing fire of the Spirit, purifying us to live in peace with God and each other, knowing that we are all sinners saved by grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.