Summary: "You brood of Vipers!" and still they come.
What do we do with this John the Baptist? Here is the third Sunday in a row with him. Such a strange man. "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Heaping abuse on the people. And still they came in droves to be baptized.
John had that charisma that attracted people even if what he say is hard to listen to. Leaders that have come upon the world stage from time to time who force us to look at the world in a different way, to challenge us to live differently, to imagine a world that is better.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau was such a leader. We didn’t always agree with him and sometimes became rather angry with him but he called us into a Canadian identity that was more than what we were before. He was important in placing Canada on the world scene as he fashioned his vision of a "just society".
Nelson Mandella, even as he was imprisoned for years, called the people of South Africa to a new way of living, one of equality, a society in which worth does not begin with race. He is a man who has lead that country and the world into the possibility of peace and reconciliation that wasn’t dreamt possible only years before.
Tommy Douglas took a vision of health care that all could afford and watched as the people of rural Saskatchewan built a reality copied and envied around the world.
Princess Diana in her humble contact with people in need challenged the rest of us to care for invisible people around the world and made making a difference in these lives seem achievable.
Often leaders arise in dark times -- Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt -- and they help us imagine a higher level of life, imagine hope when it seems so fleeting. In times of moral decay they help us imagine a more ethical, more just way of living.
Here we have John the Baptist calling those who came to him a "brood of vipers." Not very pleasant but they stayed to hear more and asked, "What shall we do?" He gave them a vision of what is possible and the courage and desire to pursue a new way of living, a new way of living in harmony with the kingdom of God, living as people of the kingdom even that day. To exhibit goodness of behaviour flowing from goodness of attitude.
John says to them as he says to us, "Don’t hide behind flimsy excuses! Repent!
Flimsy excuses for how things are will not work. "You think Abraham as an ancestor will excuse you? Hah? There is no religious privilege. God can make ancestors of Abraham out of these rocks! You are here looking for more. Don’t fall into old excuses."
He calls us and them to repent. To turn from old ways of doing things, from old securities that don’t work any more. Turn from old ways of relating to one another that aren’t giving the life we need from our relationships. Turn from allegiances that are flimsy and false, allegiances that betray us when the going gets tough.
Flimsy excuses that somehow justify ourselves as we are now. "I’m happy enough now." "I live a good life, I hurt no one." "I’ve been a Lutheran all my life."
John speaks hard words, asking for tough decisions not flimsy excuses because in reality we know the excuses to be just that -- flimsy. The people listening to John knew that. They stayed to ask questions and to hear hard answers. They were looking for life with meaning, life that had some snap to it.
John says, "Repent, turn from the old ways. Is it time to fish or cut bait? Get at it!"
"What shall we do?" They asked. "Prepare the way of the Lord. Look around, see the Kingdom of God happening and join in". John gave them manageable tasks that are a part of the Kingdom. Tasks which reflect their new orientation in their daily lives. If you have two coats share with someone who has none. To the tax collectors -- only collect that which is right. To the soldiers -- do not abuse the position of power in which they find themselves. Act ethically, honestly, make your actions beyond reproach -- actions that fit in the kingdom. Holding firm to principles that will set an example of living which will influence others. Moving to ask what it is that these people have that causes them to behave like this?
What shall we do? A good question for us as well. Lot of examples from Scripture. Living as people of the kingdom. "Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly." "Love one another as I have loved you." Or as a church’s mission statement puts it, "Live God’s love, tell what you have heard and seen."