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? 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 axe 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.’
It is more than safe to say that John the Baptist never read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Even if somehow an edition were to be published in Aramaic, transported across time, and landed in his hands on the banks of the Jordan River, I think it is fair to say that John would have been singularly unimpressed. The first of what Carnegie called the “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People” was—wait for it—“Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” “You brood of vipers!” And at the top of Carnegie’s advice to leaders on “How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment” was “Begin with praise and honest appreciation.” Right…
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John couldn’t have cared less about such things. He wasn’t setting out to be a successful leader, nor was he looking to cultivate a wider circle of friends. He understood his calling to be that of a prophet, and as was true of a good many of the prophets of old—I think here particularly of Jeremiah and Amos—it didn’t seem to much matter to him if he offended people.
I was listening the other day to an interview with Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, in which he commented that one of the important roles of a religious leader is to challenge the members of his or her own tradition. Rabbi Sacks then went on to say that such work is by no means going to be all that successful, pointing to the Hebrew prophets whose deep and challenging messages tended to go unheeded by their own people. The singularly most successful prophetic message is actually uttered by the character of Jonah, who speaks but one sentence—“Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”—and it turns a whole nation around. The great joke of the book of Jonah, of course, is that these Ninevites are Gentiles—even enemies—while Jonah is the most half-hearted and sulky prophet in the whole of the Bible.
Mostly, though, the prophets of the tradition aren’t much listened to, and even if they are the response of the people is often either hostile—as when they toss Jeremiah into an empty cistern, where he got stuck in the mud—or less than what you’d think of as transformational. That seems to be the frustration John the Baptist is facing here. People are coming out to him to receive his baptism, but he’s not seeing them bearing any fruit worthy of repentance; he’s not seeing them put their so-called repentance into action by actually living differently.
But the un-success of their calling doesn’t much stop the prophets. Not that they don’t get discouraged, mind you, and that does come through in various places in the Old Testament accounts as well as in the story of the Baptist. There will come that point after Herod has imprisoned John that he will begin to wonder if he’d been right in pointing to Jesus as the “one who is more powerful than I [who] is coming,” the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John wasn’t seeing any “chaff” being burnt with “unquenchable fire” in the ministry of Jesus… maybe he’d been wrong?
Yet so many of the prophets of old had pushed past their misgivings and the failure of their words to effect change, and when things did come crashing down they found new voices with which to sing new songs. That’s so true of Isaiah, for instance, who in the face of the complete collapse of the nation sings of swords being hammered into ploughshares, and of the lion and the lamb lying down together. It is also true of Zephaniah, whose words we heard read aloud this evening. We heard the closing oracle or poem of this prophet, and for anyone who still imagines that the Old Testament is only about law and judgment, Zephaniah’s words are a kind of tonic. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!’ he begins. And why? Because “The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.” No more fear, no more disaster.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home…
Yet all that had preceded this bold song had been rather more unsettling, challenging, troubling. Zephaniah writes during the rule of King Josiah, Israel’s reforming monarch, whose reign is not all that long before Babylon comes marching through and devastates Israel. As Anne Stewart notes in her commentary on the passage, “In the context of Josiah’s reign, God’s presence is disturbing; it upsets the complacencies and faithless habits of the people. It undermines hypocrisy and indifference… God’s presence will surprise those who assume that God is a benign, indifferent deity who is of little consequence to the reality of daily life.” Zephaniah’s voice rattles and shakes and presses… hard. For two and a half chapters, his voice is tough-edged and hard-nosed. Then, and only then, does this other voice emerge.
Deep in its bones Israel carried its stories of being a saved, restored, chosen people entrusted to a faithful, gracious, and liberating God. It tells the story of being freed from slavery in Egypt, and then being carried—step by step, year by year—through that long sojourn in the Sinai desert and finally into the land of promise. Zephaniah knows that story. But it is repeated—echoed—in the story of being released from captivity in Babylon and allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem. It is echoed again in the stories from the Old Testament apocrypha of being liberated from the grip of the Seleucid Empire founded by Alexander the Great; a liberation celebrated in the eight day Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the final day of which is actually marked tomorrow. They are, one after another after another, remarkable and impossible stories; impossible, at least, by any logical, reasonable human standards. Which is why prophets like Isaiah and Zephaniah write poetic words that all but sing.
Which is why Advent is a season for poetry, courageous imagery, and for singing. The hope this season speaks cuts against the falling dark; not in a trite or merely sentimental way, but in the deeply hopeful way of the prophets. Advent hopefulness holds its hands open, praying that Christ will not only be with us now, but will, in the fullness of time, return to bring the whole works home.
Still, what of John the Baptist’s fiery images of the winnowing fork and of chaff being burnt in the unquenchable fire? Was he—as he himself wondered—wrong? No. But maybe he was saying more than he even knew. If you were here last Sunday, you’ll have heard the imagery of the “refining fire” from the prophet Malachi. It is something picked up on by the Scottish pastor, theological writer and novelist, George MacDonald; a man whom C.S. Lewis claimed had baptized his imagination. “When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?” In other words, if we preach grace and mercy in a thoroughgoing way, are we basically saying, “Oh, relax… God is too nice to be troubled by your messy life.”
No. The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear… They will know that now first are they fully themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain—remain glorified in repentant hope… The death that is in them shall be consumed. (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons).
So no, John the Baptist was not wrong in his choice of such strong imagery. He just couldn’t yet see the cross and the undoing of the power of death. And it is on that very cross that our deepest Advent hope finally rests.