“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” John showed up in the wilderness preaching hellfire and brimstone. He has been out by the Jordan teaching people how to confess their sins—how to turn away from their sinful ways. And only then, after they show an acceptable level of repentance, does he baptize them. I imagine John sizing up each person who comes to him, looking way down deep into their hearts, getting a feel for their intentions, their sincerity, and their integrity. Only then—once he’s figured out how repentant they really are—does he allow them to step into the water and be washed clean of their sins.
But then the Sadducees and Pharisees show up, and John lets them have it: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” What in the world have they been doing to merit such vituperation from John? The gospel writer doesn’t really tell us in this story. But later in Matthew’s gospel—in two places, in fact—we get the whole picture:
In one story, the Pharisees seek to destroy Jesus for gleaning in a wheat field, healing a man with a withered hand, and restoring a demon-possessed man to his right mind. Gleaning means you’re poor, a withered hand means you’re a leper, a demon means you are cut off from God. In all of these cases, the Pharisees—rather than rejoicing that the poor are fed, the leper healed, and the estranged restored—use the law of the Sabbath to keep the poor, the lepers, and the strangers in their place. “You brood of vipers!” Jesus calls them. This is the kind of thing that makes John angry.
In another story, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for a long list of sins: for not practicing what they preach, keeping people down with burdensome laws, taking the best seats in the synagogue and making a big show of religion instead of tending to the state of their hearts, trying to bar the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven rather than flinging them wide open for everyone, loving the gold and money that come into the sanctuary more than the community that the sanctuary is supposed to shelter and nurture, and paying attention to the tiniest details of the law while neglecting justice, mercy, and faith. “You snakes, you brood of vipers!” Jesus calls them. These are the kinds of things that make John angry. They can’t lower themselves, can’t step off their high and mighty religious platform, long enough to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, or befriend the stranger.
So when the Sadducees and Pharisees show up for baptism, John declares a reckoning.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance. . . . Every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . . One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. . . . He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Where I come from, this called a “come-to-Jesus meeting.”
- A come-to-Jesus meeting is when the kid isn’t acting right and the parent sits her down for a good talking to.
- A come-to-Jesus meeting is when a student has stomped on the teacher’s last nerve and she hauls him down to the principal’s office.
- A come-to-Jesus meeting is when the college basketball team is playing middle school junior varsity and the coach lets them have it at half-time.
So John is just getting warmed up with his come-to-Jesus meeting with the Sadducees and Pharisees. He has just gotten this unquenchable fire going good, when something completely unexpected happens: Jesus comes to him!
- John is preaching “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” . . . and heaven’s king comes down to the riverside.
- John is preaching baptism for the forgiveness of sin . . . and the one whose sinlessness redeems our sin comes for baptism.
- John is warning that even the stones are more suitable children for Abraham . . . and there stands before him the chief cornerstone.
- John is warning that the ax is at the root of the tree . . . when the Root of Jesse comes to inaugurate a ministry of hope and new life.
- John is protesting that he is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals . . . and Jesus answers “Let it be this way for now, because this is how we fulfill all righteousness.”
The king of heaven, the sinless redeemer, the chief cornerstone, the Root of Jesse overturns all of John’s expectations by becoming one of us, by coming down to the river to be cleansed just like us. John warns us that unless we humble ourselves and step off our high and mighty religious platform to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and befriend the stranger, then God will purge us from the earth like a fierce fire. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be humble. John threatens with stone and ax and fire. But Jesus joins us at the riverside and says, “Let it be.” Let me join you in the water. Let me take on the weight of sin and repentance. Let me help you carry that weight of humanity. Jesus steps into the waters of baptism. In that simple, humble gesture, he shows us what it means to live for justice, mercy, and faith. Amen.