Summary: [John] said therefore 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 in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ’We have Abraham as our father.’ F
Last week we welcomed back to the Christmas stage that most unlikely of Yuletide figures - the gaunt and rather unjolly figure of John the Baptist.
He emerges from the background shadows of the Nativity scene each year at this time, and last week I focused on just what an unexpected and unwanted intrusion his arrival is for us. He was not the prophet we expected or were in any way wanting to hear from. This week I want to focus on more specifically on the unique form of Christmas cheer embodied in the Baptists’ message:
It’s a message that never fits easily with the climate of the silly season, and this despite my initiative of integrating it into a Christmas card.
As I said last week, I’m not making any broad distribution of my John the Baptist Christmas Greeting Cards this year, but you can download them (in PDF) format here:
It’s beautifully straghtforward: the happy figure of the Baptist with "Seasons Greetings in the words of John the Baptist" on the front of the card and the message inside: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Merry Christmas."
I remember dear old Marge Yarham (God rest her soul) eagerly getting one of my John the Baptist Greeting Cards from me one year and saying, "I know just the person to send that to!" I don’t think she quite got the point.
Even so, the Baptist’s message is a long way from the "God bless us one and all" message of peace and goodwill to all that we hear Tiny Tim and his mates sprouting this time of year, On the contrary, it’s an exhortation to put down the bottle of plonk, wipe the smile of your face and take an icy cold dip in the Jordan, repenting of your sins.
It’s an unseasonable message. Moreover, it’s a radically conservative message! It’s what your father said to you when you were a child: "what do you kids think you’re doing? You’re not going out dressed like that. Don’t tell me that Abraham is your father. God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!"
The Baptist is like an angry dad, and it does make you wonder why people flocked to hear him? In Matthew’s account of John it says that "Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him" (Matthew 3:5). Why? Why when we are told that John’s initial greeting to those who came to be baptised by him was, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
I remember a guy who told me once how he’d stopped going to church, and the reason was that ’sometimes I’d come out of church feeling worse about myself than when I went in!’ Well … maybe the Baptist had been preaching that Sunday? I try to explain to people like that that the Christian Gospel is not all sugar and spice and all things nice, At the same time though, I appreciate that people are not going to flock to church if all they are going to be told is that they are miserable worms or a bunch of snakes!
The contrast between John’s ministry and the ministry of Jesus couldn’t be greater in some ways. I can understand completely why people travelled great distances to hear Jesus speak. His words were beautiful, His stories were engaging, and He regularly performed rather spectacular miracles. How many miracles in the New Testament were attributed to the Baptist?
Is that not a fair question? Miracles were part and parcel of the ministry of Jesus, and the Apostles after Him likewise performed multiple miracles in His name. Yet as far as I can tell no one was even healed of their baldness by virtue of their visit to the Baptist!
And in terms of the strength of his prophecies regarding the coming of Jesus: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." It’s hardly a conventional summary of the earthly ministry of Jesus, is it?
You really get the feeling that John expected Jesus’ approach to people to have been a little more explosive. And so it shouldn’t surprise us really that by the time John is arrested, and Jesus’ ministry has been happening for some time, John is having doubts about whether he got it right about Jesus in the first place? "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?" (Luke 7:20)