Who told you to Flee the Wrath to Come?

A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

I love John the Baptist. Not because of his haircut and wardrobe.  He was known as a prophet, and indeed he was. But let’s get clear what that term “prophet” means. Biblical prophets were not guys who sat in a room with Ouija boards and made predictions.  They weren’t predicting the stock market or the outcome of the Super Bowl. When the prophets spoke, they were holding people accountable to God. They pronounced God’s love for God’s people. They reminded the people, especially the rulers and the wealthy, that God’s love included justice for all the people God loves. The prophets pointed out that God was not there to protect the gains of the proud, the privileged, or the wealthy, but rather God protects and heals those who have suffered and lost, and is with every person in their grief.  When the prophets pronounced the judgment of God, it was with the ferocity of God’s love for justice for all people.

So that’s what we hear from John the Baptist this morning. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John was doing was calling people to repentance, to a change of heart, a change of how they lived their lives, and he baptized people as a sign of that repentance.

So it says, “the people of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him.” It was quite a trek, going out there into the desert by the Jordan River, down a steep mountain trail, from the hills down almost to sea level. It would take some commitment to do that—you must be repentant if you went all that way! Right?

In many cases it was, but it also became a trend: the thing to do, the right place to be seen. Take a few days off work, get some sun, meet up with the right people and get all the social credit for being woke for going down and taking a little bath with this John guy.

So John looks up and sees a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees—that is to say, the religious establishment. They were there to receive baptism and demonstrate that they had ticked off every possible box of pious behavior, just as they had been doing all along. John says to them: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” A prophet can be harsh. Certainly, that’s how John came across.

What does this have to do with pronouncing God’s love? The key thing in John’s presentation of the word of God was Repentance. That is to say, a change from how you have been, a transformation of life. A transformation into the compassion of God—this is why John is pointing toward the one more powerful than himself, to Jesus who is the compassion of God, incarnate. The thing about being pious and religious is that we have a tendency to get comfortable and complacent; patting ourselves on the back for observing one respected practice or performing an act that will gain approval from all the other pious folks.  Sometimes, even the term “faith” or “love” becomes a check box for the complacent, a way to defend against the need for transformation, the need for repentance.

In the context of first century Judea, John says to these people, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’” Today he might say, “Don’t presume to say that you are a Christian, or that you say you have faith, or that you have received the sacraments of the church duly and in order.”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

What fruit? This sounds complex and out of this world! No. It is quite simple. The fruit of repentance is humble respect for others, it is compassion that gives up on being self-interested and takes up being interested in the well-being of others instead, it is generosity that seeks not return, it is good news to the poor—that they are respected—not as objects of charity—but as the true children of God, from whom we learn of God’s Kingdom.  Repentance. Transformation into a life of compassion happens throughout our lives, we are constantly called back, because heaven knows, we are constantly tempted to turn inward to self-interest and complacency.  John the Baptist reminds us that no one is entitled to be smug, no one can dismiss the dignity of others and claim to be righteous. Everyone is called to be transformed into the generosity of Christ.

Our lesson from Isaiah describes the ideal king of Israel. It was written at a time of difficulty—invaders had conquered and taken away much of the population—it was a time of desolation. The image is of a stump of a tree that has been cut down or destroyed. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Life emerges from that desolation, hope in the midst of discouragement.  But this prophet then explains what the characteristics of that new hope, that anointed king, that Messiah, will be: “He shall not judge by …what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity FOR the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”  Justice, equity, for the meek, the poor, the powerless. And that same justice is fierce judgement against the wicked—those who profit from exploiting those with no power for their self-interest.

Advent is a season which is focused on the judgement of God, the final coming of God’s kingdom. Some people think that it is separate from Christmas, but I don’t think so. We are preparing for that season where God came into this world, not just as a human being, but as an infant in a poor family. Before he could properly walk, they became refugees in Egypt, because of the violence of a powerful king. It is in him, that we are called to transformation, to respect those who we might dismiss and to live in generosity in every season.

Let us once more pray our collect for today:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Who sinned?

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent- St. Paul’s Ossining, March 30, 2014

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Funny how some of Jesus’ disciples are so quick to jump to conclusions, isn’t it? These guys are following him around, and they see somebody, some sort of homeless type guy, he’s blind. Yuck, that’s not good, somebody must have done something wrong, because it doesn’t fit how they think their world should be. So who’s the sinner? Is this guy being punished for living a bad life? Oh, he was blind when he was born?—then it must have been his parents that were the sinners, right? It appears that they were using religious logic—that somehow there is justice, so if there appears to be something bad in somebody’s life that must be punishment.

It turns out as we go through this story, that the only one besides Jesus that isn’t blind is the man who was born blind. Everybody wants to make a quick judgment on behalf of God: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”—then they said to the man, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” This man who had been blind, and a beggar, had a lot of starch to him—in the midst of all these judgments and accusations he responds: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”


He spoke with rationality, and was the ONE who did not confuse his observations with his judgments.

Human beings are generalizing and categorizing kinds of creatures. Certainly in my job as a librarian, I’m used to quickly assigning things to categories and making generalizations about things—we all do. As an employer, a supervisor, and a faculty member, I also have to make judgments about people, and so might many of us. When you sort things into categories, there may be consequences for making a mistake, like when the wrong search term is assigned to a book, but those consequences are limited, and they can be corrected.

Generalizing and making judgments about people is a far more serious thing, harder to undo and often with lasting effects on the people judged. I think I am right to approach those kinds of judgment and generalizations about people with care.

But in today’s story the judgments and generalizations are not only not careful, but they are blind. The blindness comes, not with a defect in the eyes but in choosing to judge before they look, in presuming to know without seeking to understand the people involved, and in presuming to know God’s will without seeing his Son.

So our guy, having recovered his sight, answers the religious leaders: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes!” And those religious leaders resort to pure personal attack: “You were born entirely in sins and you are trying to teach us?” Their blindness is in refusing to see.

As we move along the path of Lent toward Baptism and toward Easter, we have another step forward in the preparation of the catechumens, that is to say those that are preparing to receive the sacrament of baptism—and really all of us as we discover more deeply the meaning of our baptism and life in Christ and get ready ourselves to renew our baptismal vows.

Last week we had the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, who was in her own way on the margins and outcast, yet she professed her faith and became the apostle to her people; this week we have a beggar, blind and outcast, who once he regains his sight is even more firmly cast out. He, at that very point, sees Jesus and professes his faith. His witness is to what he has really seen, and those who claim to see are blind.

We are often misled by our inclinations and what we assume is the way things should be. In the old testament lesson, the prophet Samuel, gets the call and heads out to anoint the new king of Israel—and he, like everyone else, assumes that one of the tall, older, more developed and stronger sons of Jesse would be the one. But it turned out to be the youngest, who had been dismissed and sent out to mind the sheep so the real candidates could be present, it was the young David who God had chosen.

With God, things are often turned upside down. To be enlightened, we have to give up thinking we have everything figured out, and be like this once-blind man, who describes exactly what he sees, and he sees Jesus in all his love.
“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14