Isaiah 11:1-10/Matthew 3:1-12
It’s one of the most dramatic, tension-filled openings of a movie, ever (at least, I think so). There’s Indiana Jones trekking through the Amazon jungle in search of the lost golden idol. As he carefully navigates the hidden, sacred cave he has to crossover the deep pit, avoid the hidden poison dart slings, the trigger stones on the path. Making it to the treasure, he carefully removes the idol but, alas, sets off all the traps. He runs frantically avoiding the darts, the massive rolling stone ball and tumbles out of the cave only to find himself surrounded by natives with blow guns and bows drawn. Somehow, he manages to run away, alas without the treasure. Racing through the open field with natives in hot pursuit, he yells at his pilot to start the engines. He throws himself into the river and with poison darts and arrows flinging his way, somehow manages to climb onto the plane and into the passenger seat as the plane takes off. But the drama is not done! Indiana looks down in horror and screams:
There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!
Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie!
I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ‘em!
Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya?
And the plane soars into the sunset lit sky, as the very familiar theme music swells.
Suffice it to say, we don’t like snakes. We might not hate them, like Indiana Jones, but we really, really don’t like snakes. They are slithery, creepy, ugly and, quite often, dangerous. Remember a few weeks ago in our Mother Goose service, the story of Laideronnette and the Pagodas? And her companion was an ugly green snake? And we went, yuck! What kind of story is that?
Of course, throughout history and in every culture, snakes have played a significant symbolic role. They seem to embody the dual nature of both good and evil. On one hand, snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. Since they shed their skin, they are symbols of rebirth, of transformation, healing (think of the physicians’ symbol), and sometimes immortality.
But then there’s the bad stuff – vengefulness, evil, Satan. Why? Well, snakes are dangerous. They can strike suddenly, without warning, sinking their deep fangs injecting their often-poisonous venom. Best to stay away.
Which brings us to these Advent readings for today. Snakes are everywhere! There’s John the Baptist out in the wilderness at the River Jordan baptizing people and referring to people as a “brood of vipers.”
And then we encounter this vision of Isaiah where he imagines someone referred to as ‘a shoot from the stump of Jesse’ who will bring a fantastical peaceful realm where animals will go completely against their natures and live peacefully with each other. And, of course, included in this peaceful scene are the asp and the adder, who are so tame that children can play close by and not get bit. So, even though they are presented as benign and harmless, it is because they are not known as such that they are included in the panoply of wild animals. Asps and adders are deadly critters. Best to stay away.
Indeed, it appears that these three names – asp, adder, viper – all refer to the same type of snake: the Viperidae, a family of venomous snakes found all over the world. They all have quite long, hinged fangs which allow for deep penetration and injections of venom. Interestingly, the name ‘viper’ comes from the Latin word vipera which seems to refer to the trait of viviparity, which means giving live birth. In other words, they don’t lay eggs. Just thought you might like to know that.
John the Baptist came, preaching hard stuff. Matthew says that this John, coming to the wilderness of Judea, was foretold of by the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of God, make God’s paths straight.” Handel worked that line into a little collection of songs he wrote about the whole affair. Matthew also seems intrigued with John’s look and manners – a camel’s hair coat and a cuisine of locusts and wild honey. He definitely had a counter-culture feel about him.
And yet the people came, people from Jerusalem, about 20 miles away, and, indeed, from all over Judea. And, most importantly, they responded to his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” His was not what you’d say was a comforting message. Indeed, it was quite harsh and confrontive. He was not afraid to get into people’s faces. He was not afraid to provoke. That is certainly not an approach that will get people to like you. But, it got people’s attention.
However, the people did not hear John’s message as judgment or condemnation. Thy actually heard it as good news. In Luke’s account of this story he says, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Unlike much of the fear-mongering messages we hear today, the empty words of current political rhetoric, John’s speech actually was a message of hope. Instead of pandering to the xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic fear of changing the status quo, he actually called upon the people to change, to leave behind their previous understanding of how the world works, to go a different direction. He called them to repent! Metanoia! Which actually means, ‘turn around’. Instead of continuing in the same direction, he says, turn yourself around and go a different direction. That’s the good news!
And, you know what? Despite the in-your-face harshness of his rhetorical approach, it worked. People came. They came to hear and John baptized them. Baptism represented their commitment to this new-direction repentance John was preaching. The baptism of repentance.
But John’s provocative preaching also caught the attention of those who had a considerable stake in maintaining the status quo of fear and judgment. Those who went to great lengths to keep the people in their place so they could control them and continue their positions of power. Those who found John’s message too subversive and dangerous.
As John surveys the milling throngs of people coming to the river, he sees ‘them’. They stood out probably because the crowd parted out of deference to their position of honor and authority. But John gives no pretense of honoring them or submitting to their authority, these Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, he points to them and calls them ‘snakes’. “You brood of vipers!” And the people who might have lowered their heads out of fear of being found out, suddenly turned to look at John and leaned in to hear better. “This should be interesting,” they may have whispered to each other.
To ‘them’, John’s message was not one of hope, of good news. His message to them was, indeed, a message of judgment. Speaking of “the wrath to come,” he openly challenged their assumed positions of honor and power. And, quite different from those who had come to truly repent, he really doesn’t think they are there to do the same. They are there to defend and guard, not turn around to go in a different direction.
John tells them that their heritage means nothing. Just because they champion their Abrahamic ancestry does not give them any standing with God. And that, simply, is because they do not live lives worthy of repentance. Their religious devotion is a sham. Their piety is worthless. Their fruit, to work the metaphor, is not good fruit and God is preparing to cut them down and throw them into the fire.
And then John says, “and you’ve seen nothing yet!” I’m just the warmup act. I’m the band that performs before the headliners come on. Indeed, “one, who more powerful than I, is coming after me.” Which is why this story of John the Baptist shows up during Advent, to announce the coming of the Christ that is our Christmas celebration.
In this season of Advent, the message of John and, of course, Jesus, still calls out the snakes of our world. In this season of Advent, that message still speaks out against the presumed powers-that-be who defy God’s call to repentance and continue to oppress. In this season of Advent, we long to hear the voices that speak out for Christ, including voices against the perpetual presidential words, behaviors, and policies that are clearly diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus Christ.
We need to call them out, indeed, I believe it is required. We need to call out the ever-growing white nationalism movement among us, the demonizing and dehumanizing of immigrants, and the demeaning assault on women. These are not just racist, compassionless and sexist, they are literally, against Christ. They are the voices of the snakes, of the ‘brood of vipers’ in our world today.
As it was for John the Baptist, we also are called to speak prophetically in this season of Advent. We who follow Jesus are urged to find the courage to call a snake a snake when we hear the words of hate, fear, and violence. The politics of fear, of hating rather than loving our neighbor, and putting the least of these last instead of first, must be challenged in the name of Jesus. ‘Bearing fruit worthy of repentance’, to use John’s rhetoric, means coming together to do the work of truth and justice.
This is a crucial time, this season of Advent, because we can see now how the words and actions of oppression are a threat not only to faith but to democracy. We cannot afford to be silent in the face this threat. We must speak out against the spirit of politics and culture that are antithetical to the person and teachings of Jesus. And, a whole new generation is looking on.
But we also must speak with compassion. Our voices need to be clear, courageous, just, kind, humble and loving. In this season of Advent, we can and must speak the truth of Christ’s coming, a truth that calls us back to Jesus, a call to metanoia, to repentance, a repentance that bears worthy fruit.
And, if we do all that, we just might see Isaiah’s vision come to fruition. Maybe fierce antagonists will embrace in friendship. Maybe someday we will see mortal enemies sitting at the bar having a drink together. Maybe we will find a way to just all get along, as Cindy suggested a couple weeks ago. Maybe we can become friends with the snakes.
OK, maybe that’s just too much to ask for. But Isaiah’s fantastical scene does seem wonderful, doesn’t it? The wolf and lamb living side-by-side. Like those Facebook posts showing dogs and cats sleeping together, we would see the leopard and the baby goat wrapped in each other’s legs. The lion and baby calf romping in the field together with a toddler child leading the way. And vegetarian lions? Why not! And, of course, in the spirit of this sermon, and infant children playing next to the den of dangerous, poisonous vipers. Isaiah envisions a world where hurt and destruction are no more.
How? Because the one coming from the root of Jesse will, by the spirit of God, rule and judge rightly. With justice he will judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. Righteousness and faithfulness will be his belts. And, significantly, he will judge the wicked (maybe the ‘snakes’?).
Yes, a fantastical pie-in-the-sky vision. Maybe in some unknown future. In the meantime, what are we to do? And, know that Isaiah’s vision is not really about literal animals all getting along nicely. It is about us humans, in all our conflictual relationship living into that vision. Well, in this season of Advent, it appears we are to still work towards that vision, with hope and courage. But also, not naively; not unaware of the serious stakes at hand. Because, in the meantime there are snakes all about and they are dangerous. So, in the spirit of Indiana Jones, we will all need to show a little backbone. History is watching, faith is waiting, and hope is rising. So, in this season of Advent, we dare say, “come Jesus, come.” Amen.