John and the Long Arm of the Law

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
(Luke 3:14)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 2 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

In yesterday’s post, I shared the first of three stories that come to mind when I think about John’s statement, he must increase, but I must decrease. That story was about a situation in which I do not think it was actually right or appropriate for me to seek to “decrease.”

Here’s the second story.

About two years ago, I spent a snowy January weekend in Denver at the annual conference of Q Christian Fellowship (formerly called the Gay Christian Network), along with a handful of college students from the LGBTQ+ affirming Christian ministry where I was volunteering. I went to the conference because I thought it would be encouraging for these students to be able to meet and spend time with a bunch of fellow LGBTQ+ Christians from all over the country.

For my part, I was one of not terribly many straight people at the conference. It was really great. I learned a lot and felt really privileged and grateful to see and (briefly) be a part of an amazing, resilient, beautiful family of LGBTQ+ people of faith.

The weekend left me more deeply aware of the broader church’s impoverishment as a result of its exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. I was also inspired by seeing some of what the church can be when LGBTQ+ people are really free to use their gifts to serve, speak, sing, minister, and otherwise lead. (Would highly recommend the conference, both for LGTBQ+ Christians looking for an accepting community and for anyone willing to sit in and learn.)

At one point during the weekend, I went out for dinner with a group of people from the LGBTQ+ Christian community of the greater LA area. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us.

As we sat around a long table at Yard House, there was a moment in the conversation when one person shared an observation he had made about tendencies in gay relationships. Other people laughed and agreed.

I, however, was not at all convinced that his observation was unique to gay relationships. I felt like it applied to a lot of straight couples I knew as well.

So, I said something along those lines…and then instantly regretted it. I saw immediately from people’s faces that the comment was not appreciated.

Reflecting on this moment, I don’t think my comment was necessarily wrong or bad, but it was out of place. In that moment I was a straight person surrounded by LGBTQ+ people who had worked so hard and given so deeply of themselves to create, in this community, one of just a very few truly safe spaces―anywhere, really, and especially in the Christian world―to be openly gay. One of just a few truly safe spaces to reflect on and laugh about some of the things that might characterize gay relationships.

The people sitting at that table with me had graciously welcomed me to join them in this space. But when I, as a straight person, spoke up with something contradictory to say―and something that was about straight people rather than gay people―I was trampling on a sacred moment. 
I can talk about straight relationships anywhere. I see straight relationships modeled everywhere, all the time, from TV shows and movies, to friends and mentors, to church. I can reflect on straight relationships and make observations about them however and whenever I want.

But this was a space where gay experiences and relationships were actually, for once, centered and considered important. And when I brought my own straight-person judgment into it, I was turning the attention away from their experiences and back to my own.

In that moment, I really didn’t need to speak up. In that moment, I needed to decrease, making room for other people to be able to share perspectives that often get trampled on, or just aren’t safe to share in the first place. Or, if I had spoken up, it could have been to ask questions and learn something, not to judge and contradict.

I don’t mean to make too much of a brief moment that passed quickly, or beat myself up over a well-intended but (understandably) poorly-received comment. I just share this story as an example of a moment when I needed to decrease. I needed to step back and let others shape the conversation.

I also share this story as a counterexample to yesterday’s story. Taken together, I think the two situations illustrate just a little bit of how complex things can get when we think about John’s statement that he must increase, but I must decrease, and what it might mean in our lives and contexts.

Tomorrow’s story will offer one more angle on all of this.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 1 of 3)

Finally moving on from Matthew 3!

Here’s a story about John the Baptist from the book written by another dude whose name was also John:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

I’m going to sit on this passage for a minute―and by a minute, I mean this post and the next two as well. I particularly want to stew on the last sentence. John the Baptist, speaking about Jesus, says, he must increase, but I must decrease.

I could probably spend a while waxing poetic…or just preachy…on the virtues of humility, of decreasing our own power and need for control so that Jesus might increase, of laying down our own rights and needs and very lives so that the gospel might go forward and flourish.

I could say these things, and I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

But I also think it’s very complicated. And so, over the next three days, I want to share three personal stories that relate to John’s statement and (I hope) might help draw out some of the complexities that come up as we think about it.

Here is story number one:

I used to lead the college ministry at the church that I was a part of for a long time in the Bay area.

At this church, there is a pastor―whom I like, respect, and look up to a lot―who sometimes makes self-deprecating comments and jokes, in staff meetings or otherwise. I appreciate his quick wit and his humility, and I think others do too.

This pastor is also male, about ten years older than me, and much more well-established in the structures of institutional power at the church. Given all this―his social location, if you will―I think his self-deprecating humor helps people feel comfortable around him rather than intimidated. It helps people see that he is relatable and human.

At some point, I realized that sometimes I would make similar kinds of comments and jokes―but for me, they weren’t really working in my favor.

I was young, female, and not at all well-established in the church’s leadership structures. And I had to deal with things my male, well-established pastor colleague didn’t have to deal with.

For example, I would be surprised if my colleague has ever had a conversation with a male stranger in the church parking lot that went like this:

Male stranger (seeing me getting food out of my car, about to head toward the college breakfast meeting): “Hey, could you tell me, who’s leading the college ministry these days?”

Me (with a friendly smile): “I am!”

Male stranger: “No, no. Who’s leading the group?”

Me (the smile starting to fade a bit): “Right, that would be me.”

Male stranger: “No, I mean, who’s the college pastor?”

Me: “Oh, well, Scott is the pastor who supervises me, but I’m the one responsible for leading the college group. Did you have a question about the group or anything?”

Male stranger: “Ah, okay, it’s Scott. Great. Thanks!”

My unfortunate reality was that, no matter how much I might have wanted to make self-deprecating jokes, and how appropriate they might have been for my colleague, it wasn’t the same for me. When I said self-deprecating things, people would take them at face value. I knew that I was more capable than I was speaking about, but that wasn’t always obvious to others. 

As a young woman, fairly new to my job, with a lot of responsibilities but without the title of pastor―and all this in a church that did not fully approve of women in leadership―I was in a situation where I didn’t really need to “decrease” any more. I didn’t really need to be any lower than I was already.
I needed to step forward and step up, bringing the best of my talents and passions into a challenging role. I needed to confidently embrace my own belonging and appropriateness in that role. I did not need to try to “decrease” myself by downplaying my gifts or abilities. Doing so―through self-deprecating humor or otherwise―only hindered my ability to do my job, using my gifts fully and freely to lead the college ministry.

I think this is a common tension, and an important one. John the Baptist’s words about decreasing and increasing don’t always apply in our lives and communities in straightforward ways. In fact, the ways in which they do or don’t apply has a great deal to do with social location and power. And, on top of that, the amount of power and kinds of power each of us has can be very different in different contexts and situations.

Tomorrow I’ll share a second story that keeps exploring these kinds of thoughts, from another angle. 

Authority Issues?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

A month or so after I graduated from college, I started working for a small start-up company. Very small―four people, to be precise.

Often, when the company faced an important decision, the founder and CEO, my supervisor, would bring the decision before the team and ask for our input. Sometimes he would ask us to say what we thought, one by one―although among just four people there wasn’t much chance of hiding silently anyway.

It was one of those things that I didn’t always fully appreciate at the time. Sometimes I wondered why I had to weigh in on decisions for which I held little to no relevant knowledge or experience.

But then, after two years at this start-up, I began working for a Christian ministry organization. I very quickly found myself feeling blindsided by how differently authority operated there.

I realized, over time, that I came in to the ministry organization with some unspoken expectations. I expected that my supervisor would ask for my opinion, along with the opinions of the rest of our team of five, as part of the process of making key decisions. I expected that my ideas would be considered based on whether or not they were good ideas, not based on the newness (and resulting low status) of the person who offered them.

But it turned out that this ministry organization―like many churches―was structured in a highly hierarchical way. Authority cascaded down the layers of the food chain―with me, of course, awkwardly situated at the very bottom without quite being fully aware that that’s where I was. (After all, in my one previous post-college job, there hadn’t really been a bottom).

When decisions seemed to float down magically from on high without any effort to obtain input from the team, I didn’t know what to do. When I didn’t like these decisions, which happened fairly often, I didn’t know when, whether, or how to push back. And my supervisor, new to his role (but well-acquainted with and on board with the modus operandi of the organization), didn’t know what to do with me.

When I think about Jesus coming to John to be baptized, and John telling Jesus, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?―in other words, “what? No way, dude; that’s ridiculous, and wrong!”―I think about this kind of thing. I think about the awkwardness of authority structures, and the tensions and conflicts that ensue when people on the underside of these structures challenge their superiors.

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? On the one hand, John has some nerve. What is he doing, trying to prevent Jesus from being baptized? Jesus wasn’t just any regular supervisor or authority figure. He was the authority. The Lord of the whole universe. What on earth would give John the idea that it was okay to contradict him, and to do so publicly, for all to see?

Operating under the logic of many workplaces, churches, and other power structures that humans create and maintain, Jesus might well have taken John’s comment as insubordination. John could be fired on the spot. Jesus could find another baptizer. (I probably know a few unemployed recent seminary graduates who would take the job.)

Instead, Jesus says, let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. And John says, all right, then, let’s do this. John baptizes him.

I wonder what this interaction might suggest about how we function within the authority structures in our lives―and how we influence the structures in which we have some sway.

When John thought that Jesus was doing the wrong thing―when he thought Jesus’ idea was a horrible one―he said as much to Jesus, to his face. John knew who Jesus was―or at least that Jesus was someone more powerful than him, whose sandals he was not worthy to carry (Matthew 3:11)―and still he tried to prevent Jesus from doing what Jesus wanted to do.

John did not cower in the face of Jesus’ authority. He took a risk to speak up about what he felt was right. He expressed his confusion, voiced his questions. This was a risk. We can read the story and know how Jesus responded; John, in that moment, did not. But he spoke anyway.

Jesus, for his part, showed no sign of offense. He is not the insecure kind of leader who blows up or implodes when someone seems to question his authority. Jesus explained his reasoning to John, hoping to persuade him to see things from a different perspective.

Jesus is not offended by questions. He did not want mindless loyalty from John, and he does not want that from us. Jesus looks for people to wrestle with him, for people who wrestle with God just as Jacob did so long ago (Genesis 32:22-32). Jesus does not turn away people who come to him with honest questions, doubts, concerns, and pushback.

In the case of this particular interaction, Jesus is successful in convincing John of his perspective. John ends up agreeing with Jesus and baptizing him.

On the one hand, we might say here that John just gives in to the power structure and lets Jesus do whatever he wants. But to me, the fact that John did speak up, and Jesus does legitimately convince him to change his mind, makes a real difference.

Because John spoke up, now, when John baptizes Jesus, he does so wholeheartedly. Jesus helped him see something he didn’t see before: that this baptism, odd as it may seem, is what fulfills righteousness.

If John had not spoken up about his concerns, he might have ended up baptizing Jesus, but doing so resentfully. He might have baptized Jesus the way subordinates sometimes do things just because their supervisor asked: with grumbling rather than joy, muttering behind Jesus’ back about how this wasn’t his idea. He might have started quietly looking for a new job, rather than continuing to be fully engaged in the work God called him to do.

John’s interaction with Jesus opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with all sorts of authority figures. These interactions are not without risk, but, nonetheless, they are marked by honesty and openness rather than resentment and fear.

And, on the flip side, Jesus’ interaction with John opens up possibilities for new kinds of interactions with people we supervise or have some authority over. These interactions are not without difficulties, but, nonetheless, they are marked by responses to criticism that are appreciative and thoughtful rather than defensive and destructive.

May we let John’s boldness and Jesus’ response to it percolate through the authority structures in our lives, workplaces, and churches.

Fire Baptism

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12)

I still remember the baptism song we would sing at the church I grew up in, even though it has been thirteen years or so since I have attended there regularly.

Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king. Born of the Spirit, we are God’s children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.

It’s a lovely song. I like it.

I also think it’s interesting that in this song, and just in general, we like to think of baptism as baptism with water, but we’re not as comfortable with the image of baptism with fire. But baptism with Holy Spirit and with fire is what John the Baptist says that Jesus will do.

Literally speaking, baptism with fire seems a bit dicey. I’m picturing, I don’t know, singeing a couple of a baby’s hairs with a candle instead of sprinkling water on her head, or having an adult run across hot coals instead of dunking him in a baptismal tub.

I’m not saying we should do these things in church…although it could make for an interesting service. But I do think it’s important to ask some questions. Questions like, why is John talking about baptism in fire? What does baptism with fire even mean?

Of course, I don’t have all the answers…or much at all in the way of answers…but I do suspect that it has something to do with what John says next: Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The image is one of separating good from evil, healthful from poisonous, useful from useless.

In our world as we experience it, wheat and chaff are all jumbled up in one big pile, and it’s often hard to tell what’s what. Weeds and wheat grow side by side, and you can’t really root up one without destroying the other as well (Matthew 13:24-29). Evil things are hidden in darkness and smoothed over with nice-sounding language, and people love that darkness, not wanting who they really are and what they’ve really done to be exposed (John 3:19-21).

Yes, Jesus came to offer forgiveness. But that image―the image of forgiveness of debts, like having someone pay off your student loans for you―is only one image the New Testament offers us as we try to wrap our minds around who Jesus is and what Jesus does. As we see in this passage, Jesus came not just to forgive debts, but also to winnow. To clear. To gather. And to burn.

Jesus came to sort out and clarify what’s good and what’s evil. To name these things as such, in a way that’s completely right and accurate―which proves elusive for even the most discerning of humans. Jesus came to bring light that exposes the things done in darkness, so that justice is no longer obstructed, and people no longer suffer under oppressive systems and leaders.

We like to think that no one is above the law; unfortunately, and often tragically, again and again, that proves not quite true. But no one―really, no one―is able to avoid Jesus’ cleansing fire, no matter what kind of political office or other sources of earthly authority they might hold.

In Greek, the words used in this passage for “clear” and for “burn” are very strong. We might say that Jesus will “thoroughly cleanse” the threshing floor, and that the chaff will be “burned up completely,” or “utterly consumed.” Powerful people get away with doing evil things for now, but, in time, Jesus will bring judgment, with clarity and thoroughness―a judgment that is, finally, fully complete, and entirely good.

Of course, in our more honest moments, most of us can easily see that the line between good and evil does not run between Judean peasant and Pharisee, or between regular citizen and corrupt dictator or president, in any kind of straightforward way. We know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And so, John’s statements about Jesus―that Jesus baptizes by fire, that Jesus comes to cleanse the threshing floor thoroughly and burn up evil completely―offer both a hope that Jesus will judge people with power who do not do right by others and a hope that Jesus will cleanse each of us from the evil within us. The suffering we bring to ourselves and to other humans through our own selfishness will not last forever. Jesus is making us new and will make us new, burning up completely all of the chaff within us.

May we, like John the Baptist, see and welcome Jesus’ chaff-burning, baptizing-with-fire work, both in and around us.

Where have all the young people gone?

For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9b)

Right after John tells a bunch of religious leaders that claiming a lineage from Abraham can only get them so far, he declares that God is able to raise up children for Abraham…from stones.

John says, it doesn’t really matter what your bloodline is. You don’t inherit faith. Knowing God is a gift from God, offered to everyone. It is a gift that can only be received in humility and repentance, not by claiming any particular spiritual heritage or predecessor or denomination. God can raise up children from stones.

When I think of God raising up children from stones, I think of all of the concerned conversations about the vast numbers of youth and young adults leaving churches, across most Christian denominations in the US. One person inferred from a number of different studies that one million youth will leave the US church every year for the next several decades. He wrote a dissertation-sized piece about it. It’s kind of a lot.

These concerns are not exactly new―their most recent iteration has been around for at least two decades―but they are still growing.

And the church leaders and others who fret about these things aren’t making stuff up. Church attendance in the US really is declining, and at an alarming rate. (Alarming, that is, if you think that church attendance is a reasonable measure of spirituality, or faith, or faithfulness to God―which, I would say, it may or may not be, depending on the person and situation.) More young people than in recent memory identify themselves as agnostic or atheist, or just don’t identify with any particular religious tradition. The rise of the “nones” is real.

So, church leaders get together to bemoan all of this…and to strategize.

They discuss the big, existential questions. Why are young people leaving the church? Where are they going? They take surveys and worry and go to conferences and write things and read things.

They also discuss the practical, hands-on questions. What can we do about it? How can these tender young souls be saved…by us and our efforts? (Answers definitely include a new sound system, more fog lights, better church coffee, and more skinny jeans.)

Some individual churches have been able to make some changes and attract more young people. But looking at the US church as a whole, it seems like there are plenty of strategies and lots of effort expended, but nothing really seems to be working.

And so, church leaders sometimes think, we need new strategies, more strategies, different strategies. We need to gather more people, smarter people, different people, to think about these things. We need more conferences, different conferences, better conferences. More board meetings, more books, more studies, more social media use, more podcasts. (Definitely more social media use and podcasts. That’s where the young people are. That’s what the young people want.)

Strategizing and meeting and surveying and thinking and tweeting and podcasting can all be good things. But church-y people’s fears around young people’s exodus from the church can often, all too easily, provoke efforts to control and manipulate young people rather than to serve and love them.

How might reflection on John’s words―that God can raise up faith-filled children from stones―impact and perhaps redirect our responses to the reality of a shrinking US church?

Maybe we would be more willing to seek God in the wilderness, and less quick to assume that God stops interacting with young people the moment they choose not to place their bodies within the four walls of a church building.

Maybe we would be more willing to be a little weird and different, and less obsessed with trying to be cooler and more attractive.

Maybe we would feel more free to be ourselves, and less compelled to follow someone else’s ministry model, grasping desperately onto anything that seems to work in some other community (but may or may not make sense in ours).

Maybe we would be more honest about our failures and wrongdoings, and less concerned with trying to protect our image.

Maybe we would find ourselves more intrigued by and supportive of young people’s movements that operate outside of church-y authority structures, and less suspicious of or defensive against them.

Maybe we would be more interested in listening to young people talk about what they experience as healthful vs poisonous, and less interested in telling them what we think is good (and demonizing them when they don’t agree).

Maybe we would think more about good fruit, and less about good marketing.

Some of these things might resonate with young people and prove “effective strategies” for drawing them to church and keeping them there. Or they might not. Either way, that’s not the point.

The point is to do right by young people, not to manipulate them into joining our communities and staying there. The point is to be who God calls us to be and do what God calls us to do, not to do whatever it takes to get more butts into pews.

God can raise up children from stones.

May we, as individuals and church communities, live like we believe this. May we set down our controlling impulses and opt instead for repentance―for a renewed commitment to love young people, and listen to young people, and seek to be the kinds of communities God calls us to be.

Brood of Vipers (Part 2 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).

(Same verse as yesterday, new thought.)

It must not have been very fun to be called a brood of vipers―the offspring of a venomous snake. I don’t know about you, but I have felt offended by words several shades more diplomatic than that!

A Christianity that tries to make people look more like some (not-particularly-biblical) image of a gentle Jesus―meek and mild and perhaps a bit anemic―has no place for harsh words like these. And yet, John says them. And, later on in the book of Matthew, Jesus says them. Twice. (See Matthew 12:34, 23:33).

I wonder where, or whether, there is a place for harsh words like “brood of vipers” in our world and in our faith communities today. Are we supposed to be nicer than that? I usually am―at least to people’s faces. It’s easier to say harsh things about someone than to someone.

When I think about harsh name-calling from Christians―things not entirely unlike John’s “brood of vipers”―I think about this recent article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Wehner thoughtfully addresses statements recently made by (author and radio host) Eric Metaxas and (evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse CEO) Franklin Graham, in which Metaxas and Graham agree that there is a demonic spiritual power behind opposition to Trump. They don’t exactly call people who oppose Trump demonic, but it kind of feels like it.

Wehner’s piece is worth reading, I think. He takes issue, and rightly so, with Graham and Metaxas’ implication that everyone who supports Trump is on God’s side, and everyone who opposes Trump is on the side of the devil. For Wehner, this is a “dangerous” worldview that “leaves no room for the democratic virtue of compromise” and “makes makes learning from others who hold different views all but impossible.”

Wehner has some pointed (and very fair) critiques of Graham and Metaxas’ harsh words about Trump’s opposition. But Wehner seems hesitant to use harsh words in return. Among the strongest things he writes, he accuses Graham and Metaxas of “acute political tribalism” and says that they are “acting irresponsibly and unwisely.” He specifically does not want to say that either of these men is “wicked, malevolent, or at the mercy of demonic powers.”

Wehner has no interest in doing what I think he would see as stooping to Graham and Metaxas’ level and arguing that people who oppose Trump are actually the “Children of Light” and that people who support Trump are actually the “Children of Darkness.”

Wehner wouldn’t say these things. I wouldn’t say these things. Most Christians wouldn’t say these things. But if John the Baptist were here in the US today, would he? Would he call Trump and his cronies a brood of vipers?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am wary of assuming too quickly that he wouldn’t. 

(Of course, in a case like this, I don’t know if there would even be a way to call out broods of vipers without the conversation devolving into a shouting contest of “you’re the brood of vipers.” “No, you’re the brood of vipers.” Brings back memories of “You’re the puppet!”)
I don’t know whether using words like “brood of vipers” is actually helpful in our context. It seems worth noting that John called the Pharisees and Sadducees―the religious leaders―broods of vipers, not the people who followed them or lived under their authority. So, if John were to call someone a brood of vipers, I imagine it would be Trump and the powerful people in his inner circles rather than every regular American who supports him.

There is also a difference, I think, between John’s “brood of vipers” and Graham and Metaxas’ “demonic influence.” While a viper, being a kind of snake, may bring to mind the devil (who is often called a snake in the Bible), the Greek word Matthew uses for “viper” is actually not the same word that the devil is called. “Viper,” as opposed to “snake,” seems to be more about the venomous or poisonous nature of the snake than about demonic powers per se.

It seems that John is saying that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition of his baptism is poisonous. It works against the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community.

Perhaps in this light, we are not to demonize our every opponent, but we are to discern and name what is healthy and what is poisonous. This discernment can be complicated and involves hearing both from the Bible and from a diverse group of people’s stories and experiences.

Even if the demonizing impulse is to be avoided, though, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just meet accusations of demonic influence with an “oh, well, people like Graham and Metaxas are mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, we’re all part of the same Christian family and we just need to be nice to each other and have unity.” (I don’t mean to accuse Wehner of doing this; I’m just reflecting in general on the state of things.)

John the Baptist did not meet the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition with “oh, well, I think you’re mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, it’s chill that you’re here trying to keep people from being baptized, all that matters that everyone’s nice and we all get along and no one gets upset.”

There are things that are in fact demonically influenced, like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Not in the sense that every person who says or does something racist, for example, is demon-possessed, but in the sense that racism is something God hates, something the forces of evil love. Racism, in all of its personal and structural forms, is evil, and there is no good that comes from beating around the bush and pretending otherwise.

To me, saying that there is demonic influence involved does not free us from responsibility for our own racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Rather, it acknowledges that part of why evil power structures like these are lodged so deeply in our experience and prove so difficult to root out is that their roots are not entirely merely human.

“Brood of vipers” may or may not be the best word choice for us in our time and place, but reflecting on these words that John chose reminds me that there are higher values than playing nice and trying not to make waves. There is real evil, real poison, that needs, with careful discernment, to be named as such.

And in the areas where well-meaning people disagree about what makes for poison and what makes for health, let’s talk it through, even if it means that uncomfortable words are exchanged. The cost of pretending poisonous things are healthy is too high.

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.

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.