Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 You brood of vipers! Last Sunday, our guest preacher, Ádám Bak, of our Saint Margaret’s Chaplaincy Council, asked himself at the beginning of his fine sermon how he might best address us, his listeners. He mused for instance about an elderly Hungarian priest he knows who regularly begins his sermons by calling his listeners sweethearts or darlings, as it might be expressed in English, a most unusual form of address indeed for a priest. Ádám finally decided to address us in a far more conventional form as Beloved Brothers and Sisters, an expression taken in fact from the Letters of John; the same John presumed to be the author of the Fourth Gospel, John the Evangelist. This morning, an entirely different John -- John the Baptist -- also confronts the question of how to address his hearers, and presumably us as well. And he clearly has different ideas on this subject than his namesake John the Evangelist or for that matter a certain Hungarian priest. No sweethearts, darlings, or beloved brothers and sisters for John the Baptist. Rather, he begins his sermon or homily as recounted this morning in the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke by calling “the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers!’” Now, I cannot speak for Ádám, much less John the Evangelist, but John the Baptist certainly seems not to have attended the same Seminary preaching classes as did I. For, nowhere in my priestly training fifty years ago was it ever recommended to us that the preacher begin a sermon by insulting the congregation; by calling them names. Yet, that seems to be just what John the Baptist does. “You brood of vipers,” he begins as did I a moment ago. Now, with the exception of this morning, I have never before tried this technique with any congregation I have ever served. Which may help explain why I am nearly fifty years later still in active ministry. We shall see if I still have a job tomorrow morning. You brood of vipers.
John the Baptist does seem to capture everyone’s attention with his abuse and effrontery, so maybe he is on to something after all; although calling someone a snake or viper was pretty strong language back then as it is still today. With all due respect to the family of reptilians, all of whom have their place in the world, John’s insult implies malice and evil intentions; an element of dishonesty and deceit. Which, I suppose, we have all from time to time been guilty of ourselves. On the other hand, if John had actually thought his hearers were so beyond redemption, he probably would not have preached to them in the first place. Why bother...? “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’" Good question. One we still find ourselves asking today, even without being called a brood of vipers. What should we do...? The temptations surrounding us nowadays are surely far greater in number and perhaps seriousness than those of John’s day. Discerning right from wrong, so simple in theory, is rarely such in real life. All of us wonder from time to time if we are doing enough; if we measure up. Like the crowds in Luke’s Gospel account, we wonder if we perhaps should be doing more. Or, perhaps something different. Are we being generous enough with our time...? Are we paying close enough attention to our children and the most vulnerable among us...? And all of these questions seem infinitely more complicated in times such as these, when even breath, the ancient symbol life, can itself bring illness and sometimes death; when any number of political and other leaders, as it seems, might justifiably be described as serpents or vipers if not worse; when means of communication themselves have become instruments of treachery and falseness. What should we do...? Now, John’s response to the crowds gathered at the Jordan is, to me, a bit surprising. Having made such a strong opening or start, John then seemingly makes few demands upon his hearers beyond what we ourselves might call common sense. He does not for instance suggest that everyone drop everything – as does Jesus later – and follow after him into the desert and lunch on grasshoppers. He does not suggest that everyone join a monastery, if there were any back then. Nor does he demand a life of self-sacrifice on behalf of others such as that lived by a Mother Theresa perhaps. No. Rather, his advice seems to boil down to two simple words. Be nice. No wonder the people were ready to declare him the Messiah. His demands are, quite frankly, pretty easy. At least on the face of it. Share what you have, says John. Okay, we think: We can do that. Take no more money from anyone than is your due. No problem. Do not extort or make false accusations either. Tick that box. All simple enough when you get right down to it. Even you and I can comply with John’s
demands. After all, his to-do list is pretty tame, a far cry from the message and demands of Jesus. Think, for instance, of the Parable of the Rich Young Man who approaches our Lord with essentially the same question as John’s crowd, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asks. Jesus’ ultimate answer is demanding beyond anything John asks or requires of his hearers; beyond anything they probably could have imagined. Give away everything you possess and follow me, says Jesus. Pretty tall order, if you ask me. Truth be told, most of us, myself included, are probably more comfortable with John’s answer than with Jesus’ challenge. “What then should we do?” The question remains as cogent and important for us today as it was for the crowd gathered around John so long ago. Sometimes it is important to return to the basics. To reaffirm what is obvious but not always accomplished or done. And, maybe that is the purpose of John’s message; to reset our baselines, to reset our moral compass. In a world such as ours, in which coarseness and incivility seem to run rampant in public and even everyday discourse and behaviour, being nice becomes more important than ever. In church life, today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is sometimes and variously called Gaudete Sunday, Rose Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday; depending upon your churchmanship and liturgical background. But the message behind the names is the same: No matter how seriously, or not, we take our preparations for the coming of the Christ; no matter how seriously we take the crises of the world and family life; no matter how seriously we take ourselves; sometimes it is important to return to basics. Sometimes just doing the common-sense thing is hard enough. So lighten up already. John’s vision of winnowing hooks and unquenchable fire have nothing on the reality of pandemic and world crises too many to count, even in the very days before Christmas. “What then should we do?” Sometimes it is enough, as John suggests, to share what we have with those who lack comfort; to treat others with respect; and to console the inconsolable. To remember the basics of faith and to love and respect for others. To do the right thing. Or, as the folk saying has it, to let go and let God. Not a bad way to proclaim, with John, the Good News to the people; the Good News of God’s love. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs