Lovers or Vipers?

Advent 3 – 2015

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into a relationship that is honest, mature and above all, life-giving.  Amen.

Relationships – with family, with friends and with lovers -can be complicated. They require a delicate balance between giving each other enough space and taking each other for granted. Healthy relationships rely on mutual trust and respect, a recognition of difference and a willingness to encourage each other to grow. All relationships require a certain amount of effort, of consideration, of good communication.

Perhaps the most difficult relationship to manage effectively is that of marriage. Marriage is the relationship in which we place the highest expectations, in which two people are thrown together for the greatest period of time and in which we can be confronted with extraordinary stresses and strains. Those who enter into matrimony do so with great anticipation. They are so full of love that they believe that nothing will weaken the bonds between them. In most cases each partner is sufficiently confident in their affection to promise that their commitment to each other will weather all kinds of changes in circumstance including sickness and health, wealth and poverty. Sadly, for a great many people, this does not prove to be true.  Statistics tell us that in 2014 alone, 46,498 divorces were granted in Australia and in America almost 50% of marriages end in divorce.

There are many reasons why relationships do not last. Surprisingly, according to Dr Mark Dombeck, a primary cause of marriage break-up is familiarity. He suggests that over time passion diminishes and at the same time couples become more used to each other. If this continues without some attempt to address the issue, couples can find themselves drifting apart and taking each other for granted. Situations such as this can lead to resentment or to one or both partners being tempted by the attentions of others and falling into an affair. Longevity in marriage cannot simply be taken for granted.

At the other extreme are partnerships in which one or the other is unable to truly believe that they are loved. They simply cannot take the love of the other as a given and as a result either smother their partner with attention or demand evidence that they are loved and valued. Unfortunately, nothing can satisfy their need and their unrelenting attention or their constant need for reassurance may wear away the patience of their partner who may seek solace in being with someone who is more secure and less demanding.

What is required of a good relationship is holding the tension between being over-confident and lacking in confidence such that there is mutual trust and a mutual commitment to keep the relationship alive.

When we think about relationships – what makes them strong and what causes them to break apart – it is not often that our relationship with God is included in the mix. This is unfortunate, because the Bible in its entirety deals with our relationship with God. The Old Testament in particular describes God’s reaching out to us and God’s desire for a relationship that is honest and whole, mature and responsible, loving and confident.  At the same time, the Old Testament describes God’s frustration and anger that humanity consistently goes its own way either taking God and God’s gifts for granted, or its failure to trust in God’s love and believe that God will be true to God’s promises.

Into this mix comes John the Baptist urging God’s people to rethink and renew their relationship with God, to stop taking God for granted and to stop selfishly going their own way.

As Steve Godfrey says: “John must have missed the Seeker Sensitive Message”.[1] Instead of commending those who have come out to listen to him and be baptised, he attacks them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

What John is really saying is that the restoration of relationship requires more than just outward show. John can see what we cannot – that those who have come to him, still think that being a child of Abraham is all that it takes to win salvation. They are reliant on their heritage and do not understand that their relationship with God requires some effort, some commitment on their part. For John, it is not enough that the crowds have come to the wilderness seeking baptism. They must intend to change their lives. They must demonstrate their love for and gratitude towards God, they must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” they must stop taking God and their relationship with God for granted.

At the same time John, is anxious not to frighten the crowds. He cautions that a healthy relationship must maintain the balance between doing enough and doing either too little or too much. When asked: “What shall we do?” his response is measured. He suggests that there is no need to go over the top, no need for them to be so lacking in confidence that they feel a need to earn God’s love. They don’t need to work themselves into a frenzy or to worry themselves sick about doing enough to please God. Maintaining a healthy relationship he suggests is a simple as not taking advantage of others, not practicing extortion or blackmail and not holding on to more than one needs but being content with what one has.

John the Baptist reminds us that our relationship with God cannot be taken for granted, it requires openness and honesty, trust and respect, and above all a constant re-examination to see whether on the one hand we are doing all that we can to keep the passion alive and to avoid the over-familiarity that would allow us to take God (and God’s love) for granted and on the other hand that we ensure that remain sufficiently confident in God’s love for us that we do not fall into the error of failing to trust God and that we are able to resist the temptation to over-compensate by doing those things that we mistakenly believe will make God love us.

Our relationship with God is the most important relationship that we have and yet for many of us, it is the one into which we put the least effort. Perhaps this Advent is the time to reconsider how much we take God for granted and to ask ourselves would John the Baptist include us among the brood of vipers?

[1] churchintheworld.com “Brood of Vipers”

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