December 8, 2019
Second Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
When seven us traveled to Tanzania in September, we spent the weekend with a congregation in a village named Kalingapasi. Many of you have heard us talk about it over the last several week. When we arrived, the congregation swarmed around our bus with singing and dancing. The bell choir, which was a group of people with bells around their ankles, were the central leaders. Different people joined in at times, and some of the women got down and danced on their knees, a sign of honor to God. I could have listened to the singing and drumming and watched the dance for a long time. It was filled with life and energy and love.
Watching was not the option. The dance was not meant for our entertainment. It was meant as an invitation to join the community. And there was only one way to show that you recognized this. You had to join in. You had to dance.
Can I be honest? I didn’t want to. I was worried about whether I would be good at it. I was there in my clerical collar, so I was stuck. I didn’t have a choice. I took a deep breath and I jumped in. We all did.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that it was some magical experience that erased my insecurities about dancing, or that I didn’t have all the same feelings a half hour later when it happened again. But I will tell you that something did change when I was no longer a spectator but part of the dance.
Matthew’s account of John the Baptist is fascinating. He says that all of Judea came out to him, including the Jerusalem elite. The Sadducees and the Pharisees came to see what was stirring in the wilderness outside the city. When John sees them, he doesn’t believe they are coming to repent. He called them a brood of vipers. John assumed they came to observe.
Maybe they even admired the message. It came from Scripture, after all. They would have recognized the prophet’s clothing, even the appearance in the wilderness that is so often predicted. Maybe they went hoping that certain “other” people—the fallen and sinful horde, the people on the other side of their theological and political perspective—would hear the message and shape up. The problem was that they didn’t imagine that it required anything of them.
Can I tell you a secret? This is often how I like my Christianity. I like to admire it, when it doesn’t demand a lot from me. I like all the traditions of the faith: the hymn singing, the stories, the candlelight on Christmas Eve, the grand carols with full brass, and the quiet lullabies that we’ve known since our own roles in the children’s Christmas programs. It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside to say that God is love. I appreciate the prophet’s words. I’m concerned about all the ridiculous leaders around the world who are so self-serving, who trample on the rights of the oppressed and the poor, who structure legislation to make their friends rich. I yearn for Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, lion and lamb together, to be real. I’m usually pretty sure that that world will look like my own political commitments.
Which makes me wonder, “Am I part of the brood of vipers?” I’m content to let these deep and beautiful traditions of that faith just confirm my world as it is, rather than demand something of me. It’s always the risk of any religious tradition, that it simply becomes the manger for our nostalgia or of our own worldviews.
John the Baptist isn’t urging us to “ponder these things in our hearts,” but to repent. To change. To allow God to address us, to call something forth in us that we may not be ready to face or give up. John the Baptist steps into the middle of our Advent wilderness to say, “Look out, the one who is coming isn’t coming to put on a show but to turn the world upside down. And you’re going to be part of it, one way or another. The one who is coming is going to chop down the stands, the viewing platform, and we’ll all end up on the threshing floor, which ironically was originally done by stamping the feet.
It’s always incongruous to hear judgment just before Christmas. Yet, every year, for two weeks on these inky blue Sundays, we get the prophet who tells us to turn around, make amends, get with the program, step onto the threshing floor.
I’m always afraid, however, that we hear this judgment as an “or else.” Join in “or else.” Repent “or else.” And we assume that the “or else” is going to hell or getting burned up like chaff in unquenchable fire.
If you heard that when you heard this reading, I want you to cast that interpretation into the fire. It’s not helpful, and it’s not right. Whenever there’s judgment in the Bible, it’s not meant to suggest eternal damnation or to create within you a legacy of shame that makes you feel bad about yourself forever. Judgment, whenever it comes, is for the sake of new life. What God wants is for us is to feel the beat of the universe, to dance in the flow of eternal love, to experience grace and mercy, to join hands with a community that welcomes and heals practices justice.
John the Baptist is the dramatic voice that says, “There are things that are standing between you this deep experience of grace and joy. Now’s the time to get rid of them, to step over them, to get into recovery or treatment, into therapy or into confession with your pastor or spouse or best friend. This is the time to forgive yourself of that thing that you use to judge yourself over and over again. This is the time to give away the stuff that’s building a wall between you and vulnerable, free life. This is the time to let go of all of those ridiculous expectations you place on yourself. This is also the time to challenge the things that keep others from being fully human. Often the chaff that needs to be burned is the ways we have structured the world to privilege some over others. In our country, it’s the privilege of whiteness over blackness. Rich over poor. Comfort over environment. It’s the worship of money or profit above all else.
I had to take a deep breath before jumping into the dance. Most of us have something we need to let go of if we’re going to join the cosmic dance of Triune God; if we’re going to experience the Christmas story as more than just sweet entertainment that we pull out of a box every year.
I want to come back to the brood of vipers for a second. Because I think I’m one of them. Maybe you are, too. It sounds bad, right? What if the honest truth is that we ARE vipers…who regularly get to shed our skin. In some ancient stories, snakes aren’t the symbol of evil. They are the symbols of new life—the symbol of our own potential to shed our skin. Snakes are often the symbols of resurrection and healing. Think of the snake on the pole that represents the healing arts, the rod of Aesclepios that you see in the doctor’s office.
You brood of vipers, who are about to get a new skin, a baptismal garment, a new birth under a star.
You brood of vipers, whose poison is absorbed in the cross and given back as the succulent fruit of repentance: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control
.You brood of vipers, thrashing about in your honesty, no longer chaff, but wheat and yeast, bread for the hungry.
You big, beautiful, brood of vipers, who have come into the wilderness to meet the one is most surely on the way, about to be born, fire and water, Spirit and life, surrounding you as you arrive, inviting you onto the threshing floor.