A few weeks ago my clergy colleagues and I were cracking each other up, sharing a meme on Facebook, based on today’s Gospel reading. The context of it was the whole “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” thing, a faux controversy that riles people up for no discernible reason. In the past, we clergy have often responded to it by pointing out that it is not yet Christmas in the church, so if you want to be really accurate you should be saying, “Blessed Advent.” This thing that was going around picked up on that, and then said, “Instead of saying Merry Christmas this December, I’m going to go with the Bible and greet everyone with “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!”
It would certainly generate some conversation!
I find it particularly funny that this Gospel reading comes on the Third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally known as “Gaudete” Sunday—Rejoice! Sunday. For Christians who observe an Advent fast it is a day to relax the rules, much like Refreshment Sunday in Lent. These are the two Sundays for wearing rose vestments, if you have them. (It always seemed a little extravagant to me, to have rose colored vestments that you only wear two Sundays a year.)
Today is day when we are encouraged to hope that God’s kingdom is nearer at hand than it ever has been before, to believe that it is within reach. The first two readings fit the theme, but that third one…comes out of left field, doesn’t it? Where is the joy? The end of that passage ends “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
So how, exactly, is “you brood of vipers” meant to be Good News?
It might be helpful for us to place the first two readings in their larger context.
If this passage from Zephaniah is the only one you know, you’ll have a false impression of the whole thing. For most of the book the prophet has been chastising Israel for its faithlessness, its failure to live up to the standards of generosity and hospitality set by God, warning them that their actions will have consequences. It’s a long and painful thread of “you reap what you sow” and is believed to be an attempt by the prophet to make sense of their time in Exile. The lectionary jumps in at “the good part,” the place where the tone shifts from scolding and condemnation to the reminder that God’s desire for God’s people is to be Immanuel, God-with-Us, wherever we are. We hear God promise to “restore the fortunes” of Zion. I don’t think that’s simply about returning their property and wealth to them. I think it has a deeper meaning. God will restore to them a sense of hope for the future. God is assuring them that, after the consequences have been lived out, there is still potential to do good in the world. They are not lost causes. There’s a reason to be joyful.
And then in the reading from Philippians, we hear that wonderful passage about rejoicing always. Paul is exhorting the Christians in that city to find their sense of identity in GOD, and to commit themselves to the well-being of their community of faith. There’s a detail you need to have, in order to understand just how astounding this passage is.
Paul was writing from prison. He had been arrested for preaching the Good News of Christ. He could have been executed at any time. I discovered this week that the Greek word translated here as “rejoice” was also a word used to say “farewell.” Paul is not singing some saccharine “don’t worry, be happy” song. He had every reason to be despondent, to expect the worst of his situation; this may be his last communication with them. So he writes, “REJOICE,” trusting it to carry a whole world of meaning in one word. He urges them to model “gentleness” to a world marked by competitiveness and violence. He promises them that when they keep themselves grounded in God and the love of Christ, they will be filled with that peace that is not comprehensible to the rest of the world. A joy that is not simple happiness, but an ability to remain grounded, hopeful and loving in even the most difficult of times.
And then…there’s John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers” is harsh; it was only this week that it occurred to me that “brood” is not the basic collective noun for vipers (like a herd of cattle or a clowder of cats) but a term that refers to offspring. You litter of puppies, you brood of vipers. He’s not challenging just their behavior, but their very nature.
It only gets worse as John warns them that they are in danger of being cut down. But, to paraphrase Frederick Buechner, sometimes the news has to be bad before it can be good. Sometimes you have to take a long hard look at the situation before you can even hope to see a way out of it. John is holding up a mirror to the people, asking them to be honest with themselves.
And the people do it. The tax collectors and soldiers come to be baptized, ready to make a change. They ask what they need to do to be ready. He tells the people to be generous, if they have two coats, and they see someone with none, give one coat up. John tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount prescribed. John tells the soldiers not to abuse their power.
Pay attention to this. John is not telling them to stop being tax collectors and soldiers. He is not saying they have to stop being who they are, he is telling them, instead, to find a new way to do what they do. It’s subversive, really. It’s easy enough to withdraw from society and go be holy someplace where everyone has the same goals and values and ideals as you do. It’s another thing altogether to go back to the same old, same old with a new attitude and a new approach. But John knows that the only way to make a difference in the WHOLE world is to go into the seediest, most corrupt places and prepare the way for God’s kingdom to come near even there.
THAT is why this is good news. It tells us that God DOES confront injustice, God DOES provide for the needy. God DOES extend redemption and forgiveness and a second chance. But we have to be willing to cooperate with God’s purposes. We have to be willing to look in the mirror and own up to what we see there. And then we have to be willing to do whatever God asks us to do to improve the reflection. We have to be willing to model gentleness in a world that is violent and competitive. To believe that God has better things in mind for this world and wants to use US to bring it into being.
When we “get” that, when we understand that the Kingdom of God is at hand in THIS world, in THIS life and that we have the opportunity to participate in bringing it into fruition in whatever little corner we find ourselves…even if it’s in the snake’s den or the depth of prison. When we can find that “joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts” even in those darkest of times, because we know that God is with us, well, that IS good news. And that IS a reason to REJOICE!