Wednesday, June 16, 2010

That Brood of Vipers

Matthew 3:1-9

by Daniel Harrell
We’ve not been in Minnesota quite two weeks yet. We arrived a week ago last Thursday—one by land and two by plane (plus our cat). Dawn and Violet flew from Boston with Briscoe the cat and I arrived by car. After realizing that we’d never pack for the plane all that we’ll need until our house sells, we decided to load up our humble little urban-mobile and have me drive it out.

As a missionary kid, Dawn is more accustomed to moving than I am. This only marks the third time that I have done it over any significant distance, the last time being from North Carolina to Boston. The first time was from my parents’ home to college. The funny thing is that each of my moves has looked about the same—all of my stuff crammed into a dumpy little car with no air conditioning. I even blasted the same tunes driving to Minnesota that I did driving to college, only now those tunes play on the Oldies station. Still, I can empathize a little with our graduates this morning. And I can pray for you to, which I will do, that God will grant you wisdom beyond your years to choose and do the right thing; and then that God will give you the grace you’ll need to make things right in those times when you choose to do wrongly. You’ll need both. Wisdom and grace. Congratulations.

While my trek to Minnesota was generally uneventful, I did have a couple of noteworthy things occur. On an overnight stop in Buffalo, I stepped onto the hotel elevator only to bump into a group of Chinese students from Park Street Church on their way to visit Niagara Falls. That was weird. My second night on the road was spent in Mokena, Illinois where I got to catch up with a best friend. The next morning I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee. The server at the drive thru window saw my loaded down car and remarked that I must be on a trip. I confirmed that yes I was driving from Boston, to which she replied: “What are doing here?” That was weird too.

Being something of an existentialist, I pondered her question for the remainder of my drive—or at least in those moments when I wasn’t listening to NPR (being more of a public radio junkie than I am an existentialist). I knew I was in Minnesota when public radio turned to the topic of fishing for muskie. Up to that point, most of the newscasts from Boston to the Twin Cities were devoted to the ruinous oil spill in the gulf. Last week was the failed effort to top kill the crude-spewing well. Thousands and thousands of gallons continue to contaminate the ocean and seep toward the beaches and fragile marshes of Louisiana and Alabama, bringing untold devastation to a fragile ecosystem that was among the most fertile on earth. On Friday the AP reported that waves of gooey tar balls crashed into the white sands of the Florida Panhandle as BP engineers adjusted a sophisticated cap over the Gulf oil gusher, trying to collect all the crude. A Facebook friend remarked “Maybe it’s because I’m ignorant, or maybe it’s because I’m not a BP investor, but it seems to me that the emphasis should be on capping the leak, not collecting the oil.”

Sadly, the spill promises to kill countless sea creatures and devastate the incomes of fishermen along with so many others whose livelihoods depend on the gulf waters. And all of this in addition to the deaths of eleven oil rig workers killed in the initial explosion. The whole thing infuriates me, frankly, especially when I hear of BP’s shoddy oversight and greedy overreaching that led to underestimating the challenges of drilling in deep water. I have a Ghanaian friend who used to work for BP headquarters in London, and his description of that corporate culture made it easy for me to imagine some suit demanding the drilling continue despite dangers and warnings. Earnings mattered more than the safety of workers and the environment. And then there was the news of lax US governmental oversight and departmental cozying up to oil companies in exchange for favors. By the end I wanted to pray for God to rain down some righteous wrath on the whole sinful mess—as Scripture promises he one day will.

But then I realized my prayer would be prayed as I burned gallons of gas driving down an oil-soaked asphalt highway, a petroleum-based plastic bottle of water trucked from some far corner of the country in my hand; my wife and daughter (and our cat) flying overhead in a plane that spewed its own carbon exhaust to the tune of 3000 gallons of fuel an hour. I wanted to aim my self-righteous fury (and the fury of God for that matter) at BP and the government and their insatiable lust for power and profit—but the truth is that by my own lifestyle and choices I am complicit in their sin. I have no right to righteousness. Such is the way of all sin. Any attempt to justify ourselves at the expense of blaming others always blows up in our faces. The indictment of Scripture hits home: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This image of vipers is a gruesome one: a viper is a poisonous snake that according to ancient sources would hide in your house and suck your blood. Worse, the offspring of vipers chewed their way out of their mothers’ wombs killing their mothers in the process. Then there’s the ongoing connection of snakes to Satan and all of those connotations. And finally the horrifying realization that John the Baptist’s harsh words are aimed at us. And yet as harsh as they are, these are the words that “prepare the way for the Lord and make his paths straight.” These hard words ironically are the paving stones for God’s grace. For this reason I want to spend my first sermon and the summer reacquainting ourselves with John the Baptist, who even though he shows up in the New Testament, was actually, according to Jesus, the last in that line of Old Testament prophet, all of whom prepared the way for Christ.

Now of course the last Old Testament prophet in the Old Testament was Malachi, of course; but it was he, along with Isaiah, who had predicted that John the Baptist would show up one day. Malachi foresaw a prophet like Elijah who would return and turn the hearts of people back to God. Matthew hints at John’s identity as this returning Elijah by describing John’s wardrobe and diet. Camel’s hair clothing with locusts for lunch had Elijah written all over it.

More significantly, however, was where John showed up. As Isaiah predicted, John was a voice calling out, “prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness” (translated in some Bibles as the desert). But the desert was the last place that anyone would have expected to find a way made for the Lord. The desert was code for Israel’s failure and faithlessness. Moses led God’s people out of the desert, not into it. How could the desert be the way of salvation when the desert needed salvation? And what’s up with all the water? OK, John was a Baptist, but as with the desert, Israel’s salvation had also involved their being led through water and not into it, be that through the Red Sea by Moses or through the Jordan River by Joshua. For a people defined by this movement out of the desert and through the water, to be called back into the desert and into the water was a strange reversal. Yet John was clear that God’s people needed a do-over. They needed to try again. Or as Jesus will later put it, they needed to be born again.

For John, however, his baptizing was not about being born again. John’s water was not the water that saves. The Bible describes John’s as a baptism of repentance. More than just saying you were sorry, diving into water was a way of showing it. I don’t know how many of you watch the TV series Modern Family (it’s pretty funny), but in one episode, Claire (the adult daughter) and Gloria (the young Columbian wife of Claire’s older father) are trying to resolve a conflict over the rude ways that Claire has been treating Gloria. However, her rude behavior has reoccurred so frequently, that Claire’s simply saying she’s sorry is no longer sufficient. Gloria insists that if Claire is truly repentant, she needs to jump into the family’s swimming pool to prove it. Which she did. John’s call to baptism was something like that.

But there’s more. In ancient Judaism the closest parallel to what John was doing was something known as “proselyte baptism” whereby a Gentile, idol-loving pagan converting to Judaism first had to have the idol-loving paganism ceremonially washed off. Bad enough that being labeled sinners in need of repentance, John went on to question their very identity as chosen people by effectively labeling them pagan Gentiles. Any presumed privilege or status due to birthright was bogus. These children of Abraham were no better than anybody else.

Such an outrageous assertion was what brought the Jewish religious professionals down to the riverside. No way would the Pharisees—devoted as they were to a strict interpretation and observance of Torah—ever put up with some wilderness wild man saying they had it all wrong. Likewise for their rivals the Sadducees who tied their piety to performing proper liturgies in the Jewish Temple. Who was this ill-clad Baptist to question their station; their pedigree?

Pharisees. We vilify them as pompous, power hungry, self-righteous legalists who loved themselves much more than God, but in doing so we forget that most Pharisees started out as sincere, devout, God-fearing men who simply sought to do their jobs. The problem was not that they failed, but that they succeeded and that their success generated enormous pride, eventually warping them from being people humbled by God’s grace into people who didn’t need grace anymore.

In good prophetic fashion, John let them have it: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Maybe he was being sarcastic. For these self-sufficient folks to flee the coming wrath would have meant that they were coming to John for baptism, which they weren’t. How can you say you’re sorry when you don’t think that you’ve done anything wrong? Still, John gives them a chance. “Bear fruit that looks like repentance,” he said. Jump in the water and show that you mean it. Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as righteous as you pretend.

More than washing you clean, John’s water exposes the messes we’ve all made of our lives—the personal oil spills that have washed up over our relationships, contaminated our ethics and soiled our souls. John’s water is not water that saves, it’s the water that shows how much you need salvation. Where does the salvation come from? In time, John the Baptist will show us that too. He will point us to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Or to stick to the metaphor; the one who top kills our oil spills. The one who does for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

However what we can do is bear fruit worthy of repentance. We can confess our sins and show that we mean it and then trust Jesus for the rest. Thus my prayer for the graduates is a prayer for us all—and especially for myself as I humbly take on this calling at Colonial Church: that God will grant me/us wisdom to choose and do the right thing; but when we don’t, that by his grace we will make the wrong things right, for Christ’s sake, in his church, to his glory. Amen.

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