You brood of vipers

Advent 3 2009
Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose love for us is never withdrawn. Amen.

You may remember that last week I argued that John the Baptist urged us to be ready by accepting God’s forgiveness and therefore God’s salvation. The quotation from Isaiah provided a very positive and affirming view of God’s coming. According to Isaiah, the task of the one who prepares the way is to give to God’s people: “knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins”. Today’s reading from Zephaniah continues this theme – “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” These two quotes indicate that the prophet’s understanding was that God’s intention was not to come in wrath and judgement but with healing and peace.

This vision and expectation is in direct contradiction with John’s words in this morning’s gospel. Today John preaches judgement and damnation. The crowds who have come out to hear him and to be baptized by him are greeted with: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” and “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.”  They almost certainly were not expecting that sort of reception and it is not the language which might encourage the people to trust in the mercy of God or to look forward with joy to God’s coming.

What are we to make of the apparent contradiction? Is God coming in peace or in judgement? Is God going to welcome us with open arms or accuse us of hypocrisy? Should we look forward to God’s coming with joy and anticipation, or should we live our lives fearful that God is going to punish us if we do not come up to standard? Should our prophets and priests fill us with terror or with confidence? Tensions such as this exist throughout scripture. On the one hand the prophets threaten all kinds of dire consequences for the people who turn their backs on God, on the other they assure the people of God’s compassion.

The contradictions are not accidental. In the first place they tell us something about the nature of God. A righteous God cannot help but to be dismayed at the waywardness of God’s people. A God who allowed or condoned wicked and evil behaviour would not be a God in whom we could trust. So God’s wrath and frustration must be expressed against the disobedient and the unjust. God’s righteousness must expose and denounce unrighteousness. The contradiction lies in the fact that this righteous God is also a loving God, a God who called a people to be his own. So the prophets declare God’s anger towards those who have turned their backs on God, while at the same time reminding the people that God never turns his back on them.

The contradictions created by God’s righteousness and God’s love not only reveal aspects of God, but they also carry a warning. While God never turns his back on us, scripture records that time after time, the people of God have turned their back on God – by trusting in other gods, by behaving in unjust ways and by failing to believe in God’s goodness. Turning away from God, we are told, can result in all kinds of trouble because ultimately, God’s love cannot save us from ourselves. If we choose to trust in the things of this world, if we place our confidence in ourselves instead of relying on God, then we must face the consequences of going our own way – depending on our own resources instead of allowing God to do all that is necessary for our salvation.

When we are determined to go it alone, we turn our back on God and therefore on God’s ability to save us from ourselves. In the end it is what we do, not what God does, which leads to trouble and strife. God’s allowing us to go our own way is a form of judgement – we have to accept the consequences of a life directed by ourselves and not by God. John, in the tradition of the prophets warns against this sort of independence or failure to trust in God which is based on an over-confidence in our selves. John’s anger seems to be particularly addressed to those who, instead of relying on God, rely on their descent from Abraham. They don’t need God, because they believe that their descent provides all that they need for salvation.

John knows that the problem with this sort of self-reliance is that it creates a false sense of security. Worse than that, a belief in our selves and our place in the world builds a barrier between our selves and God which God’s love may not be able to penetrate. If we are over-confident of who we are and what we can achieve then we have no need of God. We squeeze God out of the picture. In other words, when we place our trust in the things our own abilities, we turn our back on God and on what God can and does do for us

The tensions between God’s love and God’s righteousness as recorded in scripture help to keep us on our toes. The prophetic expressions of God’s anger remind us of our dependence on God’s love and goodness. On our own we simply cannot live up to the principles of a righteous God. We cannot earn salvation on our own merits, by our own endeavours. We will always fall short of the righteousness of God.  However, the reminders of God’s love (which is also demonstrated in the life of Jesus) ensure that we do not fall into despondency and hopelessness, but instead place our hope and our trust in God’s mercy.

John calls the people to “repent” to turn around, to re-turn to God. He attacks those whose self-confidence prevents them from understanding their need for and dependence on God.  John knows that if we think that we are on the right track, if we depend on what we can do rather than what God does for us then, whether we know it or not, we make the decision to turn away from God.

It is not that God turns his back on us, but that we turn our backs on God. John’s words are a warning against the arrogant independence which separates us from God, and a challenge to turn to God, to place our confidence entirely in God’s love for us – a love which may be disappointed, frustrated and even angry, a love, which should we chose, will let us go our own way and yet a love which ultimately will not abandon us if only we will turn our faces to God and allow ourselves to be loved.

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