A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt
Sunday 8th December 2019
John the Baptist is very angry!
Something has certainly got under John’s skin to make him so angry with the Sadducees and Pharisees. Here they are, coming to join the hordes of people who have gone out into the wilderness to see what all the fuss is about, what John is up to. And John singles them out with some extremely strong language, ‘brood of vipers’, deadly and poisonous in other words. There seems to be no basis for him to say what he does to these two groups. After all, they’re the ones supposed to be setting examples of proper behaviour so that others can learn from them. Aren’t they entitled to come and ask for baptism for forgiveness of sins, just like everyone else?
It’s somehow unfortunate that the reading this morning introduces the themes of both repentance and baptism without much mention of their context. And what John was doing under the name of ‘baptism’ wasn’t at all what we might consider a Christian form of it. There were already groups of people practicing ritual water washing for purifying themselves; the one most of us have heard about are the Essenes, wilderness dwellers obsessed with purity, who were very active around the time of both John and Jesus. And ritual washing was expected before participating in some Jewish worship, so the idea wasn’t completely foreign to the Jewish community. No – John’s baptism was something else entirely, as he says ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ John’s baptism was a preparation for an event he believed would change the world. As it certainly did!
Remember that all the New Testament was written well after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Nothing is what we would recognise as factual documented history. The Gospel writers and editors in particular needed to explain the Jesus event by using examples from the Hebrew scriptures to illustrate who Jesus was, and the people and events surrounding him. It wasn’t eye-witness testimony, nor was it intended to be. What Matthew’s Gospel does is to take John and make him into a figure fulfilling a prophecy from a combination of Old Testament texts – scripture which Matthew’s Jewish readers would have been well aware of. John is presented as Elijah, the one who must come before the Messiah, to prepare the way for people to recognise him. Elijah wears clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. John does the same. John isn’t actually Elijah, but he represents what Elijah means. Matthew sets John up as the amber light, warning that something significant is about to happen and everyone needs to get ready for it.
And one of the essential things needed is for a change of lifestyle. What we read as ‘repentance’ is a poor translation of something called metanoia – not the breast-beating grovelling admission of our total unworthiness which too many manipulative Christian preachers endlessly harp on about – but a call to change the way we’re going. To change the direction of where we look for our guidance, our inspiration, our wellbeing; and how we build a lifestyle in line with the requirements of the Kingdom of God. Be sorry for the things we’ve done wrong and promise to try living differently. Repentance needs to be both personal transformation and creation of a common life that reflects God’s righteousness and peace, which is what Jesus teaches us.
But back to the brood of vipers. Why the Sadducees and Pharisees in particular? We could understand if John was directing his venom against the Romans, but the Sadducees are the Jewish Temple elite, the ones who should be the most accomplished at holy living and providing guidance to others. In John’s eyes this just isn’t the case. The one more powerful than John, the one he announces, won’t come from the Temple nor from the palaces of kings or governors. Nor from the institutional organisations of either the religious, secular or political parts of society. As with so many organisations which have been around for a long time, what the leaders preach and insist on as the rules to follow often aren’t quite what they themselves do in practice. This is especially true of religious and political institutions. It’s archbishops demanding strict adherence to a set of moral principles while their own bishops fail to report clergy who abuse children, because the institutional Church is desperate to protect its reputation and covers it up. It’s political leaders denouncing discrimination while deliberately failing to expose and discipline its own members who practice it. It’s hypocrisy, a word Jesus uses a lot, particularly when talking to and about the scribes and Pharisees (somehow the Sadducees miss being the target of his attacks.)
To better understand why John takes the Sadducees and Pharisees as his target, it’s helpful to look a bit further along in Matthew, chapter 23 in particular; where Jesus expands on their behaviour.
‘Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “do whatever the scribes and the Pharisees teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”’
No wonder John was having a go at the religious elite! Their behaviour falls well short of the standards which God’s Kingdom demands. John denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers”, calling them chaff, waste, which will be burned up; and he will later be killed for speaking out against the corruption and decadence of Herod’s court. Jesus also calls the scribes and Pharisees a brood of vipers, and pays with his life on the cross.
We all fail at various times to genuinely look at the way we live and how it affects others. How we all need to change the way we’re going, practice metanoia in preparation for the One who is coming in the Incarnation. But should we take close notice of what John has to say? He issued a wake-up call to the social, religious and political environment of his era, but it could easily apply to our situation today. Are we guilty of the same hypocrisy as the Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees, in not practicing what we preach – or say we believe? In his own gentle but direct, effective way, David Attenborough has become a sort of John the Baptist figure in making us look at just how horrifically we’re abusing God’s creation. When we carry around our single-use bottles of water and buy little pots of salad for lunch do we agree that ‘something has to be done about plastic waste’ …but go on buying and discarding single-use plastic? How we present public facades of what we think people expect us to be, instead of being genuine about who we are…because people might not like who we really are. That’s just two examples, but I’m sure we can think of others.
It’s interesting though…did John refuse to baptise the Sadducees and Pharisees who came along for his type of baptism? Or did he eventually wash them in the Jordan after giving them a long mouthful of verbal abuse, and hope that they did eventually change their lives, change the direction they were going? The Gospel doesn’t say…but I wonder. Could God have touched them in that ritual washing? God comes among us, touches us and invites us to become better people? It’s our choice how we respond to that invitation.
Leslie Spatt ©2019