Now that’s some kind of Good News isn’t it? “You sons of snakes!”
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time thinking of being associated with a brood of vipers… having my heritage belittled… and being threatened with an edged bludgeon and with unquenchable fire… as good news! I guess John the Baptizer was not one to mince words when it came to telling people what they needed to do to “get right” with God. It wasn’t enough to be God’s Chosen People… it wasn’t enough to obey the Law… it wasn’t enough to be part of the Temple establishment, especially if that meant helping to maintain the status quo through violence or graft. “No,” said John, “you must repent of anything that separates you from God!” And not only that, but you must be active in bearing good fruit, the kind of fruit that helps bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. And the people were, perhaps not surprisingly, confused and alarmed! “We thought we were doing OK… we thought that our Jewish-ness and our faithfulness to the Law and the Temple would save us. If not that, then what? What then should we do?”
John knew that the people standing around him, knee deep in the Jordan, were guilty of the original sin of selfishness: of putting their faith in their own ability to provide for themselves, rather than putting their whole trust in God. And I expect John knew that the people’s selfishness was a product of fear, pure and simple… the fear that somehow, God’s Providence would not be enough. The sin of selfishness had dogged the steps of humanity since the time of Adam and Eve, and it continued to be a barrier between the people—and God… and John was on a mission to replace the fear of things temporal with the fear of God Almighty! So, he told them, in terms they could understand what they needed to do: “share what you have… don’t steal from folks… be content with what you’ve got”—and also what would happen to them if they failed in this charge. Implicit in John’s message was that when we put our whole trust in God, good things happen… great things… and that we will bear amazing fruit to help bring the Kingdom! That’s the Good News! And of course, this message would be central to Jesus’ ministry for the next three years. You remember what he said: “No one can serve two masters . . . don’t confuse what is truly important with that which is peripheral: consider the birds . . . and the lilies. God looks after them, and God will look after you. Your striving should be first for the Kingdom of God and its righteousness” (cf. Matt 6:24-34). God will sort out everything else.
There’s a lot to tempt our fear going on in the world today: threats of physical and cyber-attack by our enemies… the threat of instability in the world economy… the threat of a changing climate… and those are just some of the external distractions! What about all of our personal “stuff?” Lord knows there’s plenty of that! There’s so much to distract us from the Good News of God’s Kingdom. And, like those seeking the reassurance of John’s baptism in today’s Gospel, we are caught between our fears… and the unthinkable consequences of failing to make God sovereign in our lives. What then should we do? For the past couple of months, all the buzz has been about whether or not we should offer asylum to a caravan of political and economic refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are attempting an unauthorized crossing of this country’s southern border to secure a better life for themselves and their children. People on both sides of the issue are quick to scoff at opposing viewpoints, which isn’t very helpful, and masks the underlying moral dilemma for people of faith, which is: do we trust God to inform our hearts and minds about the right thing to do, and then give us what we need to do it? Or do we rely instead on our own fear-based analysis of the matter at hand… and try to make the decision on our own? Well… “God helps those who help themselves,” some might say. Not in the Bible! Try the 1757 edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” if you’re looking for that old chestnut.
Look, I’m not here to talk about the ethics, or even the feasibility, of secure vs. open borders… or immigration control vs. immigration reform or paths to citizenship or amnesty. My own thoughts on these issues are complicated… the whole situation is complicated. Heck, if it was easy, we’d have licked the problem decades ago. I’m not telling you what to think or which “causes” you should take on. But I will say this: I’m pretty sure that any action we take based upon fear and insecurity about the future is likely to be in straight-up opposition to God’s movement and purpose in our lives. Our God is not a God of the status quo. We have work to do. And, by the way, God never told us that our lives would always be comfortable… or safe. We are told, however, over and over throughout the Old and New Testaments, that if we trust in God we will be upheld (e.g., Psalm 34:17-19, Isaiah 41:10 and John 14:16, just to name a few). God will be right beside us… just as he was with his Son on the cross.
None of this means we won’t sometimes be scared and tempted to take matters into our own hands. But that’s just fear (and the “original sin” of selfishness) talking. And it’s in overcoming such temptations that we live into being the creatures that God created us to be. It’s okay to be scared… it’s not okay to give in to our fears. Better that we give in to God, and trust him to guide our feet in the way of righteousness. Giving in to God is the only true path to grace and salvation and peace. I’d like to share a song with you that has given me great comfort during some of the difficult and fearful times in my life. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, as well, as you wrestle with your own fears, whatever they may be… continuing your Advent journey of self-examination in preparation for the rebirth of the Prince of Peace.