Brood of Vipers (Part 1 of 2)

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7, NRSV).

When I first read this verse, I wasn’t sure what to make of the thought that a bunch of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, just to be turned away rudely. It seems kind of wrong, kind of disturbing. Isn’t John’s message of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven for everyone who wants to take part in it? Sure, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the groups of religious leaders who ended up opposing Jesus in various ways throughout the rest of Matthew’s book…but we haven’t gotten there yet. This is the first time Matthew has mentioned them.

Sometimes when Bible things are confusing, I find it helpful to look at some different translations. And, regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees in this verse, different translations say some pretty different-sounding things.

Were the Pharisees and Sadducees coming “for baptism,” like the NRSV says? The CEB and The Message sound similar: they were “coming to be baptized by John” (CEB); or, more dramatically, they were “showing up for a baptismal experience” (The Message). The way these translations tell it, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John with an honest desire to be baptized. And their reward? They got called a brood of vipers!

Some translations are more ambiguous. According to the NIV, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just “coming to where he was baptizing”; in the NET, they were “coming to his baptism.” In these translations, the Pharisees and Sadducees were just showing up, and we are not really sure what their intentions were. Maybe they wanted to be baptized; maybe they wanted to lay down the law and put a stop to the madness; maybe they didn’t know what they wanted.

Alternatively, in the NLT’s words, maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees came “to watch him baptize.” Maybe they were curious spectators, standing back, arms folded, looking on to see how things would unfold. Maybe they had been instructed to bring back a report to their Pharisee supervisors so that the religious bigwigs could decide among themselves where exactly John fell on a scale of one to dangerous menace, and what to do about it.

As it turns out, the original Greek is about as ambiguous as some of the more ambiguous English translations. Very literally, it says something like this (with the ambiguous word left untranslated): “But, seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming ἐπὶ his baptism…”

The ambiguity is that ἐπὶ could mean “to”―as in, they came (with unclear purpose) to the place where John was baptizing. It could mean “against”―as in, they came with the intention of opposing John’s baptism rather than receiving it. (It also could mean “for”―as in, for the purpose of receiving John’s baptism―but this would be an unusual use of ἐπὶ; there are other words Matthew uses all the time to express a meaning like this.)

So, in my pondering about whether there may have been whole groups of people who came hoping to be baptized by John but instead found themselves being called some choice names, it was helpful to realize that the language of “coming for baptism” is actually a bit of a stretch―“coming to his baptism” is perhaps more faithful to the original text, and “coming against his baptism” is a very reasonable possibility.

The point of all this being, I don’t think John turned away anyone who came to confess and receive baptism. And this is a good thing to think about whenever we might feel justified in manufacturing boundary markers that place whole categories of people―even if it’s the religiously obnoxious, self-righteous ones like the Pharisees―outside the lines of who can confess and be cleansed, who can turn toward God and receive forgiveness.

I think John only spoke against the Pharisees and Sadducees because they had not actually come to receive baptism, but, more likely, to oppose it.

They may have stood silently in their fancy religious robes at the side of the river, looking down with judgmental frowns. They may have mumbled things among themselves. They may have even spoken out loud to John.

Maybe one muttered to another: “He says the kingdom of heaven is near to who, now? I don’t know…”

Maybe a bolder one called out: “John, have you met these people? Don’t you know that they have not been tithing and fasting and following the religious rules, like we have?”

The Pharisees and Sadducees must have been unnerved to see this uncredentialed, unauthorized, weird-looking preacher, drawing such a big crowd out there in the wilderness, so far from the religious power centers in the city of Jerusalem. John the Baptist was enacting an important religious ritual without bothering to ask for their permission, and they didn’t like it.

Here I think of John MacArthur’s recent quip that Beth Moore should “go home.” MacArthur is an influential pastor, and Beth Moore is a popular Bible teacher and women’s ministry leader (with whom no one seemed to have a problem until she started speaking up in recent years against sexism and sexual abuse in the church).

I’m not sure why people are still taking MacArthur seriously after all of the ridiculous things he’s said and done over the years―including fabricating an elaborate set of lies about having been in an office with civil rights leader Charles Evers on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered)―but MacArthur and other male pastors seemed to be just fine with Moore’s ministry as long as she more or less played by their rules. But as soon as a woman starts speaking “out of line,” giving the powers-that-be any reason to fear that their sense of control over women might possibly be tenuous and shrinking, they turn against her.

Fortunately for Moore―and for all of the other women doing their best to preach and teach faithfully, and for everyone else who falls outside (or on the wrong side) of the structures of institutional church power in various ways―we do not need the sanction of religious power structures, dominated by a handful of white men, in order to do and keep doing what God calls us to do. As my brilliant friend Joyce put it so well, “I’m not asking for your permission, Piper” (referring to John Piper, another prominent male pastor who seems to think he has some business trying to weigh in on what women can and can’t do).

John the Baptist did not ask for the permission of the religious power brokers, and he did not need to―even when those powers lashed back against him like a brood of vipers. They saw him as a threat to their authority, but he kept doing what God called him to do. Unlike the religious leaders who tried (and continue to try) to draw lines around who was in or out, John offered baptism for anyone who wanted it, and he had harsh words for those who opposed this practice. (More about the “brood of vipers” tomorrow!) May God’s Spirit fill us with courage to do the same.

Unsatisfying Apologies

And they were baptized by John in the Jordan river, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:7)

Confession can be a vague thing. It might sound like someone is confessing to a crime, or confessing their love. It might conjure up images of a confessional booth in a Catholic church, where a priest listens through a little window as someone talks about their sex life or how they haven’t been to church in a while. It might bring to mind a moment in a Protestant service for silent, individual soul-searching and prayer. (For me, this moment is often too short. I’m just starting to bring my mind back from wherever it was wandering and maybe just beginning to think about asking God to reveal my sin to me…and then the too-chipper pastor moves the service along to brighter and happier things.)

Confession can mean a lot of things, but at its core it just means to name something, and to do so openly. The Greek word translated as “confessing” in Matthew 3:7 is a conglomeration of roots that mean something like “out,” “together,” and “word.” (The meanings of Greek words, like English ones, are not always exactly equal to the sum of their parts, but the parts usually still provide some useful clues.)

A close relative of this word, which is made up of just “together” and “word,” is used more often in the New Testament. It is what Jesus uses when he says, whoever acknowledges (confesses) me before others, I will also acknowledge (confess) before my father in heaven (Matthew 10:32). It is what Paul uses when he writes, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). Jesus wants to be named and acknowledged before others, and Paul wants people to speak and believe that Jesus is Lord.

Similarly, the people who confessed by the Jordan river were just naming their sins. They were acknowledging the wrongs they had done, in all of the ugly, awkward, painful specificity of these wrongs. I don’t know exactly how public these confessions were. I don’t know if people mumbled under their breath, ashamed, or if they shouted out so that the whole crowd could hear―or maybe some of each, depending on things like personality or perceived gravity of sin―but the confessions were put out there in some way. It was not just a silent time of personal prayer but, in some way, a shared communal experience.

When I think about these people being baptized by John in the Jordan and confessing out their sins―braving acknowledging and bluntly naming the specific ways they had failed to love God and people―I think of the courage it takes to do that. And, in contrast, I think of confessions I have heard, or heard about, that are not at all brave or blunt. Attempts at apologies that are in fact completely inadequate and unsatisfying.

I think of the various “apologies” high-profile men have offered when confronted with their actions over the course of the #metoo movement. Things like “I’m sorry if you took my comment that way,” or “I’m sorry if so-and-so didn’t think that what we did was consensual.”

I think about Matt Chandler, who is the lead pastor at an influential megachurch in Texas called The Village Church. A few months ago, Chandler addressed fellow Southern Baptist church leaders regarding his church’s gross mishandling of a woman’s accusations of child sexual abuse by a church leader, saying that The Village Church is “an imperfect church with imperfect people,” and “I’m not sure what we could have done different” (quotes are from this article).

These kinds of statements are so distant from any sort of real confession. They don’t actually name any wrongdoing. The people who speak and write them care much more about trying to clear their own public image and avoid legal repercussions than about taking ownership, understanding how they hurt someone, changing their ways, and, in the cases where it makes sense and is possible, seeking actual reconciliation and restoration of relationship.

By the time I read Christine Pohl’s book Living Into Community, I had heard of―and experienced firsthand―enough confession-avoiding, truth-bending, misleading, manipulative communication from churches and church-y leaders that I was struck by Pohl’s emphasis on truth-telling as one of four key components of Christian communal life. (The other three are promise-keeping, hospitality, and gratitude. It’s a good book.) 
Pohl’s words were refreshing and healing for me: We do not need to save face for God by ignoring certain relevant but problematic aspects of truth or reality (p. 136). Lies, small or large, undermine integrity, discipleship, and fidelity to God’s word (p. 144). It is wrong and irresponsible when colleagues, supervisors, or congregations allow a leader who has been involved in some form of grave misconduct to leave quietly and go to another congregation and continue ministry (p. 134).

These might seem like some very basic, obvious things; but in a world teeming with examples of just the opposite, they need to be said. Where there is no real confession, no real naming of the wrong and acknowledgment of the trauma it has caused, there is no integrity, no discipleship, no fidelity to God’s Word―none of the things Christians and churches and Christian leaders say they are all about.

The little faith community that formed around John the Baptist by the river did not require anything from people, but invited them to confess―really confess―and experience the joy and relief that comes from naming sin and facing up to it. Even, and perhaps especially, when confession might have held real and significant relational or social consequences, setting some of these people on a difficult path.

Some confessions might have continued in the form of hard conversations back in people’s villages, or on the journey home with friends and family. But they started there at the river. John’s announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2) brought brave words out of his listeners: words of truth, words of justice, names of hidden sins that were now no longer swept under the rug as if they didn’t hurt people.

God is still near to those willing to speak these kinds of brave words. The kingdom of heaven still comes near.

Paul the Idol

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan went out to him. (Matthew 3:5)

One of the church-y things churches sometimes talk about (because church-y people like to make up new words) is being “attractional” vs “missional.” Sometimes it feels like there is a kind of tension between the idea of focusing on faithfully worshiping God as a community centered in a place, open to outsiders coming to that place if they want to join―being “attractional”―and the idea of leaving the four walls of the church building to get out there in the community and do good things and perhaps (depending on the kind of church) evangelize―being “missional.”

If we want to try to fit John the Baptist into one of these categories, I suppose it would be attractional. His life and words and actions presented themselves as a weird sort of attraction out in the wilderness, and people from everywhere―the bustling capital city to small villages and remote rural areas―went out to him. “All Judea and all the region along the Jordan” may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but that must have been what it felt like. John didn’t travel from place to place to preach; he just stuck by the river and let people come to him. Lots of people.

When I think about all these people going out to John, I think about the contrast between John and Paul―Paul being the dude who traveled all around the Roman Empire to plant and help lead a bunch of new churches in a bunch of different cities, and in the process ended up writing a lot of the New Testament. And I think about how, at least in some Christian circles, people tend to look to Paul as an example of a good Christian life.

Sometimes people say and/or think things along these lines:

Look at Paul’s life! Paul got out there. He was so bold and courageous in traveling to all those different places to talk about Jesus and invite people to be Christians. He was on FIRE. If each of us mustered up a tenth of his energy for evangelism and missions, locally and globally, think what we could do! So many people would commit their lives to Jesus. So many people might join our church.

This kind of thing is not totally bad. After all, love Paul or hate him, it would be hard to argue that Paul was anything but a remarkable person who was deeply passionate about God. But when we talk about Paul as if everyone should be like him, it can easily turn into an odd sort of idolatry―an idolatry of someone who was, in the end, just a human like the rest of us, with his own unique personality, strengths, weaknesses, and sense of calling from God.

Paul went to meet people in their different cities. People came from their different cities to meet John. Thinking about this helps me remember that Paul’s style of life and ministry was and is by no means the only way to be faithful to God.

I even wonder if what Paul did might have made more sense in the context of Paul’s first-century world, when Christianity was an entirely new thing―a previously unheard-of way of life that many people embraced immediately when they saw it, because it was clearly good and different and promising. These days, I suspect that my friends who are not Christians are just glad I’m not interested in holding up anti-gay signs or campaigning for Trump 2020.

A lot of people, at least in the US, have so many assumptions about the God of Jesus―assumptions which are usually, unfortunately, quite fairly earned by Christians―and have had so many negative experiences with Christianity. Jumping from friendship to friendship and community to community in a frenetic effort to tell as many people as possible about Jesus may have made sense for Paul, but I wonder if the default now should involve staying in a community, staying in friendships, getting to know real people and letting them get to know the real us, investing deeply in a neighborhood and city, and letting God do what God does―bringing healing and hope and mercy and grace, in and around us, in God’s time. This might not look particularly “missional” in the Paul-like sense, but it is good.

John the Baptist did not make any effort to do the Paul-like thing of becoming all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22). He was completely himself, boldly himself. He ate weird stuff (see the previous post), said harsh-sounding things, told everyone they needed to repent, and preached out in the wilderness by the river, letting people come to him if they were interested. John was an all-around seeker-unfriendly, not-exactly-“missional,” kind of person.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all be more like John and less like Paul. John was also a unique human with a unique kind of calling. I wonder, instead, if there are ways we might better honor the unique callings, gifts, personalities, passions, and styles that we see in one another. I wonder how we might learn to notice and fight against our tendencies to hold up any human life―that of Paul, or John the Baptist, or any other pastors, missionaries, or mentors we might look up to―as the way to live a good Christian life.

I wonder how we might better see, acknowledge, and be grateful for the people we know who, like Paul in his travels, are excited about visiting new places and talking with new people and starting new things―and how we might do the same for people who, like John the Baptist by the river, do one thing that they feel God has given them to do, in one place―and how we might do the same for the billion people who wrestle with God and faith and the Christian story in a billion different complex and beautiful ways, ways that don’t look much like either Paul or John.

May John’s example inspire us this Advent season to ditch any efforts to make anyone, including ourselves, more like Paul or anyone else, rather than more fully the person God made them to be. May John inspire us to see God in one another in new ways.

A Weird Dude

And John wore clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4).

This is pretty much the only physical description we get of what John’s life looked like out there in the wilderness. And to me, the camel’s hair and leather belt make a lot of sense. They match the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, word for word. John was taking up the persona of Elijah, the strange but powerful prophet of old who spoke truth to political leaders and revealed the power of God.

The locusts and wild honey, on the other hand, seem a little less clear. When I took a preaching class that involved reading some essays and sermons by fourth-fifth century theologian St. Augustine and then trying to mimic his preaching style in a sermon of our own, I had a field day with this description of John the Baptist. Augustine liked to find a surplus of meaning in every biblical text, often waxing poetic with allegorical interpretations of the most seemingly ordinary things―interpretations that are interesting but often feel like a bit of a stretch.

So I tried to do likewise. This is what I wrote about the locusts and wild honey (after some similar thoughts about the camel’s hair and leather belt, which I will spare you, for now), in an attempt to sound like Augustine:

Locusts are agents of destruction. But John ate them! You might say, disgusting! You might query, why would John eat locusts? I say to you that John ate locusts to show that in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, God has defeated every agent of destruction. God has given us victory over everything that tries to destroy us. For if God is for us, who can be against us [Rom 8:31]? John ate locusts as a sign that we are indeed more than conquerors in Christ [Rom 8:37], and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ [Rom 8:38-9]. Where, oh death, are your plagues, and where, oh grave, is your destruction [Hos 13:14]? God has swallowed up death forever [Is 25:8]. Every kind of destructive agent, every kind of locust, is swallowed up by God’s love and victory. When we trust in God, we too share in this eating of locusts, this destruction of all agents of destruction.


Finally, we see that John ate honey. The people of God were promised, and then given, a land overflowing with milk and honey. And so, the honey is the joy that we have, as people who have been given a new land, the land of salvation and hope and justice and everlasting life in Christ. We too know the joy of Christ and the citizenship in heaven that Christ offers us [Phil 3:20]. John ate this honey. John subsisted on this honey. He did not put his hope in earthly things but in the honey that came from God. May we too subsist on this honey―on the word of God that tastes as sweet as honey in our mouths [Ezekiel 3:3].

Pretending to get into Augustine’s head was fun. And I do think that the stuff I wrote―about God destroying the agents of destruction and about us as humans subsisting on God’s sweet-as-honey words―is true and good. But I would be pretty surprised if my Augustine-impersonating words were really what John’s diet was about.

More likely possibilities? Maybe the gospel writers tell us about John’s food as a way of showing that God provided for John, out there in the wilderness―not unlike how God provided for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness after God freed them from enslavement; not unlike how God provided for Elijah by sending ravens with bread and meat during a famine (1 Kings 17:6) and then later sent an angel with cake and water while Elijah was hiding from powerful people who were trying to kill him (1 Kings 19:4-8).

Or maybe the writers tell us about John’s food because icky locusts out in the wilderness contrast so sharply with the tasty steaks that powerful political figures like Herod were probably eating in their comfortable palaces. John’s life clashed at every turn with the lives of people like Herod.

Or maybe the writers tell us about John’s food because it just illustrates the fact that John was kind of a weird dude. He was a little out there. Who eats bugs―outside of slightly disconcerting youth group games?

It could be all of the above, and more. But thinking about John the Baptist as kind of a weird dude―the kind who eats bugs―is especially helpful, and challenging, for me, because it makes me think of people I tend to write off as weird. Would I have written off John if I had met him (or heard of him) at the time―described as he is, with his camel’s hair and wild honey and locusts? By the time rumors got back to town, who knows what I would have heard about him. “I heard his tunic is made out of neon pink camel hair. And its cut is so last year’s fashion.” “Oh yeah? I heard he ate seven hundred locusts in one mouthful!” (Chubby bunny anyone? Speaking of youth group games.)

Thinking about John as a weird dude also makes me think of all the effort I’ve expended over the years to try to avoid being written off by other people as too weird. Trying to fit in; noticing how people around me dress and eat and talk and interact, and trying to be the same. I might not always be very good at fitting in, and it’s definitely something I care about a lot less now than I used to―but I have often spent some effort trying, and I often still care.

John didn’t. He kept doing the things he needed to do and saying the things he needed to say, undistracted by worries about what people in the villages might be saying about him. And the people who came out into the wilderness to listen to him were the ones who didn’t write him off because he was weird. The ones who were open to seeing God’s Spirit in strange-looking people who ate funny things.

What words from God might we miss out on when we write off weirdos like John the Baptist? When we listen, instead, only to those who fit our society’s image of a respectable pastor―skinny-jeans-wearing, charming, articulate, social media-savvy, usually-white, usually-male, usually-35-to-70-years-old, usually-middle-to-upper-class, usually-straight-or-pretending-to-be?

Here’s to God’s weirdness, strangeness, and utter other-ness winning out over own own ideas of respectability. And here’s to experiencing more of the freedom of being unapologetically our own weird, unique selves in the process.

Into the Wilderness

In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea. (Matthew 3:1)

Of all the places John the Baptist could have gone to preach, the wilderness was an interesting choice. This was not a fun, lively, well-developed national park with a nice visitor center (my kind of wilderness). This was wilderness-y wilderness. It was an uninhabited place, a lonely place, a solitary place―the kind of place where Jesus liked to go to be alone and pray (Mark 1:35). It was not a place that a savvy and strategic marketing team would have suggested for a promising young preacher like John to make his debut.

John’s voice echoed in the wilderness, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold long before (Matthew 3:3). At first John’s cries must have rung lonely and hollow in his own ears, carried off quickly by the desert wind―perhaps picked up, at best, by a small group of tentative followers, still a bit unsure of what to make of him. John kept calling out anyway: Repent; for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2).

Then, a miracle: other people started to trickle in. In time the slow trickle became a massive flood, as people from the city of Jerusalem and the entire region of Judea crowded around (Matthew 3:5).

For these people, walking out into the wilderness meant disrupting the usual routines of their lives. And it meant stepping toward and into their own history as a people, a people to whom the wilderness meant something. They stepped into a history of forty years of wandering, a history of failure and difficulty and despair.

If we too are searching for a way to hear John’s message―a way to move toward repentance and renewed life and hope―perhaps we too must walk into the wilderness places of our lives and our world.

Perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness means honestly confronting our own personal past choices and present realities. Choosing to face the places in our lives where we feel lost and lonely. The partially-processed griefs, the hidden wounds, the habitual ways we hurt others.

And perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness also means honestly confronting our communal past choices and present realities. For white Americans such as myself, choosing to look straight at and regard seriously―and not downplay or skim over―a history and present-day reality full of death-dealing ways, ways of enslavement and genocide and internment camps and detention centers.

This is not an easy place to walk into. But it is the place where we find the possibility of repentance, baptism, new life, forgiveness, cleansing, grace―everything John the Baptist preaches about and offers. Where we find that the kingdom of heaven has come near and continues to come near.

And, as more and more people came out into the wilderness to hear John, the solitary place became less solitary. The lonely place became less lonely.

In that wilderness place there was no social club bound together by shared interests and experiences. The people who gathered together did not all sign the same statement of belief or agree to abide by the same codes of conduct. They did not all like and follow each other on Facebook and Instagram. They were just there, in the wilderness together, united only by a common awareness of their need to hear from God, their need for repentance, their need for forgiveness―just, their need.

The gift of the wilderness is the gift of honest, holy confrontation of oneself and one’s world, and the gift of the unlikely community that forms in that place. Like John the Baptist who preached in the wilderness and the people who went out to hear him, may we bravely walk into our own wilderness places in the hope that God might meet us there.

Introductions

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, I embark on an adventure of writing and sharing daily reflections on the life and story of John the Baptist.

True confession: I have not written any of these reflections yet. Not even tomorrow’s! I have no grand master plan. I just think John the Baptist is an important and underrated person in the biblical story of Jesus, and I think he is worth reflecting on.

What does John the Baptist have to do with Advent? John’s life goal (#lifegoals) was to prepare the way for Jesus. And Advent, a tradition which guides Christian worship in the four(-ish) weeks leading up to Christmas, just means “coming,” or “arrival.”

In Advent, we are waiting for the coming of Christmas―waiting to celebrate Jesus’ arrival, when the God of the universe was born in human flesh, in a stinky animal feeding trough, in a run-down barn, in the middle of our very broken world. And we are waiting for Jesus to come again and make all things new, which we need very desperately.

But (at least at our best) we are not waiting passively. We seek to prepare the way for Jesus―in our lives, our communities, our churches, our cities.

John the Baptist is a bit of a man of mystery, and it would be laughable to claim that I know (or will ever know) everything there is to know about him. This blog is not an attempt at an exhaustive (or exhausting…) commentary on John. It is just a series of haphazard, (hopefully) brief, (hopefully) brutally honest reflections exploring some of the beautiful, compelling, messy, disturbing intersections among John’s life and my life and our lives and our world.

Join me as I seek to join John in preparing the way for Jesus, this Advent season.