Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas? Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day? Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers? How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?
What? Oh yes, the vipers. I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers. Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble. The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.
We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy. Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.” All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.
Who, however, rejoices at vipers? People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things. I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference. The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork. I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.
On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.
I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers. There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.
The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him. It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to? Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.
I find that a little scary. In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper. Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared. They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers. They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is. So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”
Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way. (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say? His preaching was getting through to the people. Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?” And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?
Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives? Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?
Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit. No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.
Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices. He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.
In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”
That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it? You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice. But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.
Vipers represent evil. I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap. I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do. Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.
We are evil. We are fallen. We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often. Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.
We are evil. We are fallen. We are sinful. We are vipers. Where is the joy in John’s response?
The joy is that we can do it.