Preaching Luke 3:7-18 Part 2
I think the gospel writers would have been wise to leave out the stories about John the Baptist. It seems in poor taste to mar this season of warmth and joy with a misanthrope like John. He is an unpleasant, impolite, impetuous, and crudely spoken man: "You brood of vipers" he says to the crowd. Honestly now, didn't his mother and father raise him to show respect? Calling people "vipers" is no way to greet anyone. It is surely not a recipe for church growth. Imagine if John were standing at the door today as our greeter and you said "Good morning, John," and he retorted "You brood of vipers."
On top of his rudeness, John has no respect for the past, for family pedigree and social connections. The things he says about Abraham's family! He knows that Abraham and his clan were the founders of the community of faith. Usually, when people identify Abraham's heirs, they make room in the pew for them, they tell newcomers, "Yes, that family over there: everyone of them is a descendant. They go back so many generations you can't keep them straight, but if you look at the old portraits in the founders' corner of the parlor, you will find there is a family semblance that has never faded away."
Rudeness and disrespect are bad enough in themselves, but who would want to listen to sermons like John's? Doom and gloom. Hell fire and brimstone: "Even now the ax 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…the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Enough, enough. Lighten up, John.
You would think that Luke, the evangelist who gives us the hauntingly beautiful stories about the shepherds and the angel choirs would know better than to frighten people off with John's tirades against sin. At the very least, Luke could do what Matthew does. He could picture John directing his curses at the religious authorities rather than invoking them upon the entire crowd, and therefore, by implication upon us.
If I were going to have a party during this season and I could invite any of the characters I wanted out of the Advent and Christmas readings, I would be eager to have the angels and Mary and Joseph and the magi, but John the Baptist: forget it. He would be worse than the office clown who gets looped and puts a lampshade on his head. I could dismiss that behavior as stupidity and silliness. But John the Baptist is different. He's not stupid. He's not silly. He is unrelentingly serious, filled with passion that things are rotten to the roots, and everyone has got to change. How can we claim that "gospel" means "good news" and then give the pulpit to a curmudgeon like John?
Scholars say that the evangelists probably had to include these passages about John the Baptist because he, like Jesus, had his own followers, his own disciples, and it was essential that the early church establish that Jesus, not John, was the messiah. This explains why Luke writes that the people questioned John if he were the messiah and why John responds: "One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals."
The scholars' explanation makes a lot of sense. Then why not leave it at that? John's humility in the face of Christ's coming is his loveliest moment. It is a shame he could not have adopted that attitude earlier. Instead of "You brood of vipers," he could have found some gentler words: "Now, none of us is perfect, we can all improve." That would fit in so much better with the season. With New Year's just around the corner and our annual resolutions binge, we would be able to quote John, citing him as an authority for our efforts at self-help.
John also might have modified the harshness of his imagery: "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." It would be less threatening if he tried something like this: "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit will be given a new treatment of fertilizer or transplanted to new soil." We all need a change of environment sometimes, something to pick us up and stimulate us in the right direction. It would have been so easy to package his message more attractively, to present it as the kind of thing that would play well as a sound byte on the evening news.
None of this evidently ever occurred to John. He never tones down his message to make it more palatable. He announces without flinching: that we are vipers that we face severe judgment if we do not change, and that it does not matter what our family connections are.
There is simply no need for John's extremism, unless, unless of course, the world is in fact in need of radical transformation.