John the Baptist’s preaching is harsh! He launches into an attack on his hearers:
“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come”
He pictures the crowd who are standing in front of him, the ones who have come out into the middle of nowhere to listen to him, he pictures them and what he sees doesn’t place them in a favourable light. The image he conjures is of snakes slithering out of a burning field. And this is what he says to the people who have turned out to hear him. These words are direct towards those who have come for baptism. This is how he addresses the ones who have come to join themselves to the growing movement within the people of Israel who recognise the need for religious, economic and social reform. These are the people who listen to John the Baptist articulating a message they realise needs to be heard. “You brood of vipers!” is what John calls his supporters!
They say you catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar. That is a piece of proverbial advice that is sometimes given to would-be preachers. If you are seeking to persuade an audience of some message, if you are wanting to evoke conversion and commitment to a cause or a mission, it is probably wisest not to alienate the people you are trying to convince. Any politician who addressed their voters in this way John the Baptist does would be destined to lose. Any preacher who stood up in church and attacked their congregation like John the Baptist has, we suspect, would soon have an empty church. It is advice it would seem that John has either never heard or is simply not taking. His message definitely sounds like vinegar rather than sugar. Part of the contrast that is often made between John and Jesus who comes after him is that no one every invited John to dinner. Whereas Jesus seemed always to be someone’s dinner guest. Who would want to listen to John while they were eating? He would give you indigestion. The suggestion is that Jesus’ message was altogether more digestible. His words, it might seem, were more palatable and his company less abrasive.
Actually the order in which we read Luke’s Gospel if anything rather reduces the shock of John’s preaching. We read chapter 3 which is the account of John’s ministry before turning to chapters 1 and 2 which contain the account of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. Luke, as the historian that he claims to be, arranges his narrative in chronological order. The events in chapters 1 and 2 mostly took place some 30 years ago. And we know this because Luke has pointed to some outside historical references, emperors and other rulers, that allow reasonably accurate dating. But we arrange our reading of Luke’s history liturgically or theologically. John is the forerunner of Jesus. His ministry prepares for the ministry of Christ. Hearing his preaching prepares us for the coming of Jesus which we celebrate in the next two weeks by going back in the story to Jesus’ birth. But Luke’s original arrangement also serves a theological purpose. John’s preaching is even more jarring if we have just read the stories of the announcements of both his and a Jesus’ surprising conceptions and their unexpected and unusual births. In those stories our hopes of God’s blessing are stirred not least by singing angels:
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours
Having heard the announcement of of God’s grace, God’s favour, God’s declaration of peace, John’s announcement of judgement is alarming.
Jonathan Edwards was an American preacher, who was a contemporary of the Wesley’s, and a friend of the Wesley’s friend George Whitefield, and a leader of the revival that took place in what were then the Colonies. Edwards was definitely a vinegar rather than sugar preacher. He was often criticised for the harshness of his preaching To which he replied: If the house is burning wouldn’t you expect me to run round the house crying “Fire, fire” as loudly as I could! John the Baptist is desperate to shake, even those who are already responding to him. out of their complacency, out of their comfortable self-justifications. He wants to shake them into a real saving relationship with God.
“Do not begin to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our Father.”
The temptation for the People Israel was to assume that being descended from Abraham was enough. God had made promises to Abraham, and to Isaac and to Jacob and others that followed them. They ancestors of the people who stood in the crowd in front of John and for most of them up to now being inheritors of those promises was enough. It was easy to presume of God because of who they were. For us the danger of presumption and complacency might come from what could be called “cheap grace.” We have heard the message of the angels. We have heard the message of salvation through grace by faith alone. And like the promises made to Abraham for his descendants they have become little more than slogans for self-justification. We know that God is love, that indeed God loves us more than we could say but what we have lost is any sense of “wrath.” The field is burning we need to slither out quick. The house is on fire we need to get out right away. God’s love asks us to respond. Failure to respond is catastrophic. It is not as if God wills punishment on those who aren’t responsive, but God can’t save anyone who doesn’t respond and turn from the destructive consequences of their actions. And the response must be a genuine turning away from has gone before and a move into something new. There needs to be some concrete evidence that there has been a change of heart seen in a change of lifestyle. This is a message which is as fundamental to preaching of John the Baptist as it is to the
preaching of Jesus, or the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, or George Whitefield, or John Wesley, or any other preacher of an authentic Gospel that hasn’t reduced the Good News to the mere wishfulness of cheap grace.
Sugar might catch more flies than vinegar – but there is no point in catching any flies, if once caught the flies aren’t transformed by the experience. A necessary part of our message, not least to ourselves has to echo what John said to
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Live lives that actually look as though you mean what you say, when you say that you believe the Good News.
The crowd seems to come to John group by group with the same question, to be answered as it applies to their own particular situation. Application is always the challenge for the preacher. Each group and individual in any congregation may need to respond in a somewhat different way. John tells those who have more clothes and food than they need to share it with those who do not. He tells the hated tax-collectors to only collect what the were supposed to and not to take the opportunity to exploit their position for personal gain. And to the soldiers he says don’t use the power you have, the threat of violence which is available to you, to extort from those that ideally you are protecting. It is seldom safe to extract generalised principles from the particulars of Biblical narrative. John addresses those groups individually with particular demands. But the answer he gives on each occasion has the same overall thrust: He calls for an end to a lifestyle based on greed and the accumulation of material possessions
Perhaps we have been so shocked by him calling folk “snakes” that we don’t hear him when he says something that is really shocking. Whilst the specifics of his ethical demands may seem somewhat remote to us, especially when they are addressed to tax-collectors and soldiers of an occupying army in what amounts to little more than a protection racket. Whilst that seems remote the principles behind the particular moral exhortation roundly condemn the society, the politics and the economics of the world we live in. We live in a society which is founded on self-interest and the creation of surpluses and the failure to distribute the “goods” which are created evenly. It is a world where some have more than they know what to do with while other do not have enough, a world where some continue to have both the means and the opportunity to oppress and exploit others, and where those who have and those who exploit can give themselves all manner of excuse for their actions, or simply imagine that they are not the beneficiaries of those injustices. Perhaps the most shocking thing about John’s words is that they still apply! His demand for ethical reform, repentance of individuals and wholesale transformation of the world, is still valid!
John we have already noted is thought of as harsh and demanding. Whereas Jesus, who got invited to parties, is usually seen as somewhat gentler Which just goes to show how easily we can deceive ourselves. If anything John’s ethical demands are rather limited. Like the computer company Google whose motto is “don’t be evil.” There isn’t a great deal of moral ambition in what John asks of the rich, tax-collectors and soldiers. He merely asks that they curb the evil which might result from the circumstances they find themselves in. Jesus by contrast in much much more ethically demanding. Jesus doesn’t just call for people not to be evil. He doesn’t even just demand that we be good
Jesus says: Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect! Jesus doesn’t just say don’t abuse those who fall under you power, as John does. Jesus says: Love you enemy! Anybody who imagines Jesus is less shocking than John really isn’t listening to what Jesus is actually saying. And like the Israelites who reassured themselves that they had Abraham as an ancestor are giving themselves the reassuring self-justification that everything will be alright with Jesus. In preparing us to receive Jesus and Jesus’ ministry John offers us one more fiery picture:
His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his grannary; but the chaff he will burn with an unquenchable fire.
The real difference between John and Jesus is not their degree of harshness. They are agreed on the need for repentance, a turning back to God, in which words are matched by life-style. The real difference between John and Jesus is that Jesus brings the Holy Spirit to deliver on all the promises of God’s grace that are being made: Wind and Fire. A wind that blows so that when the grain is tossed in the air the useless chaff is blown away, a fire that burns so that the chaff is burned up and leaves only the good grain. The point is not so much the burning up of chaff as the leaving of good grain. The point is not so much that the flies are caught in sugar or even vinegar but that they are changed Not that any of us are called snakes but that we are given the means to become what God intends us to be.
Which is what the sharpness of John’s words prepares the way for Jesus to do
John’s Message to Snakes by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0