Date: Dec. 4, 2016 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon: Brooding Vipers
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Last week we saw a banner depicting John baptizing people at the Jordan River in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Burlington, Massachusetts. The image shows a happy scene. People are dressed in bright colors. Women with covered heads looking like Muslims line the banks of the deep blue river kneeling in prayer. John is waving to Jesus off in the distance headed out to the wilderness. It’s a peaceful, serene, joyous scene.
Yet in the scripture we heard this morning, we are told of John the Baptizer ranting and railing. It hardly seems peaceful or serene. Apparently, the people are coming from nearby cities and towns to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins. That is going fine. But then the religious authorities arrive from Jerusalem and that’s when the fireworks start. Religion is supposed to be a comfort and a guide. These leaders should be offering light and hope to people. Instead, they are imposing laws and rules that cannot be followed and are very costly. These imposed requirements reinforce the authority and power of the leaders which fuels their tyranny. Their teachings and directives end up generating income and personal prosperity for the leaders. Instead of offering religion that is a comfort and support to people, especially people that are downtrodden, they are taking advantage of the people for personal gain. This ignites John’s fury!
While people may have expected John to rail against Rome, the Roman Empire, and the oppressive occupation being imposed by the Romans, a tirade against the religious leaders was probably quite unexpected. In his excoriating remarks, we hear John malign the leaders for banking on their relationship to Abraham to save them. They are counting on their privilege to work to their advantage. They are not concerned with truly repenting, changing their ways, reforming their religious practices, and showing forth the fruits of generosity, compassion, and mercy. They are children of Abraham. They do not expect to be held accountable for their deeds. They expect a free pass. Privilege then worked the same way that privilege works today.
But in the story we heard, John tells these people of privilege just what they can expect from the God that shines light for all people, not just some people. There is one coming, one who represents God, who is going to clean things up; get religion back on its proper footing. There is light coming that will shine joy, peace and hope upon all people. There will be no more undue privilege in the name of religion. There will be no more taking advantage of everyday people in the name of religion. There will be no more power abuse and manipulation for self gain in the name of religion. Not the religion of the God of the Jews. No. The light will expose these abuses and will shine in a way that is pure, healing, and restorative.
It is interesting to note that later in the gospels, Jesus, too, has a melt down over the power abuse of the religious authorities in the story of the overturning of the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Religion is to be a source of sustenance, hope, and comfort. It is to help people be morally good and compassionate. Religion is meant to feed the human spirit so that it flourishes and bears the fruits of compassion, justice, mercy, and right relationship. Religion is precious to the vitality of the human soul. Misusing religion for personal gain is heinous and we see that conveyed in the vehement condemnation from John and from Jesus.
I think that if John were to show up at the waterfront today, he would find plenty of brooding vipers. Still many abuse religion as an avenue for personal gain and as a way of validating their cultural values and attitudes. Religion is still used today to keep some people down and to privilege other people. And religion is still used to make some people rich and to give some people power over others. So, I think John would find plenty to rail about today.
We still need to be reminded that there is no room in the intentions of God for some people to benefit from privilege at the expense of others. There is no provision for gender bias in the reality of God. There is no place for racism in God’s domain. There is no tolerance of homophobia in the dreams of God. There is no space for discrimination against “foreigners” for there are no foreigners with God. Everyone is family in the reality of God. And there is no room for hatred of neo Nazis, white supremacists, or fundamentalists. Later, Jesus will tell his followers, Love your enemy. Maybe today it would sound something like, Love the deplorables – whoever they are for you.
In the stories of Jesus, we are told that the first word he utters when he begins his ministry echoes John: Repent. Turn around. Change direction. Reorient your life toward God. Chart a course in the direction of love. Accept grace. Like plants and trees that naturally grow toward the sun, be led by the Light.
Even brooding vipers are welcomed by the open arms of God. No matter what we may have done, all are offered grace. Everyone has a place in God’s realm of love and light. We can all make a new start. No one is doomed to perpetually living at the expense of others. Even well-ingrained habits of abusing power can be broken. The Gospel is good news for all people, including those who have been caught up in systems that abuse and oppress.
There is no one that is beyond the scope of Divine grace. We all, each and every one of us, have the capacity to bear the fruits of repentance – generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and justice. The Light of the world offers joy and peace to all, all upon whom the sun shines.
Brooding vipers. It’s quite an image. Distasteful, gross, scary. Yet the snake is really a quite fascinating creature. The color patterns and markings are quite remarkable. The mobility of snakes is astounding. They are incredibly flexible even able to defy gravity and climb trees! Snakes are also strong and very efficiently designed. When a snake grows, it must shed its skin to accommodate its expanding body. To do this, it rubs its nose against something rough to break the skin. Then through a long, slow, tedious process, the snake maneuvers its way out of the old skin and leaves that behind. Underneath is reveled a new skin. One that will stretch until it is time for other new skin. The old skin is dull and flat in finish. The new skin usually has a glossy shine.
Given their unique traits, snakes have long been a cross cultural religious symbol. In Christianity, the snake, with its shedding of skin, is seen as is a symbol of resurrection – leaving behind an old life and embracing a new life. In the reality of God, everyone is always welcome, even brooding vipers, because in God new life always awaits. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.