Today, we’ve all received a Christmas card from our good friend John the Baptist, and it reads: “Happy Holidays, you brood of vipers!”
We laugh, but that’s actually what’s going on. John is speaking to us; and his words cut. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
What would your reaction be if you opened a card like that? We’d think, How judgmental can you get? And then throw the card in the trash without a second thought because we don’t need someone hating on our good intentions. After all, we’re mostly nice, law-abiding, God-fearing people. Isn’t that enough?
But what we forget is that John’s original audience was also made up of decent, law-abiding, and God-fearing people — who were just as complex, just as good and just as bad as we are.
Humankind hasn’t changed. Beneath the surface, every one of us is a mess of pride. Of jealousy. Of idolatry. Of “me first and then we’ll see about everyone else.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that. Think of the story in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says, whoever is without sin can cast the first stone — and what happens next? Everyone leaves because everyone has sinned.
John knows this, knows that “no one is righteous. . . . All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He knows this, and he won’t rest until those who hear his message will accept it as truth — because the stakes are higher than anyone realizes. Hope is on the horizon, and if we could but raise our eyes from the ground, we would see it.
“For behold, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples; but the LORD will rise upon you, and His glory will appear over you.”
A light is dawning in the east, and in the grey shadows of morning, the world is changing. Valleys are being filled, crooked paths are made straight, and rough ways are smoothed. The one crying in the desert is preparing the way of the LORD, then and now. For what must be prepared, what must be brought low, what must be set right but our hearts, our hearts that are restless and wandering and confused until we find every good in God himself?
John challenges us to grapple with the fact that we are just as broken as the soldiers and tax collectors and sinners gathered in the desert that day. We are just as desperate for Emmanuel as Israel was of old. In the classic words of our last Prayer Book: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. . . . And there is no health in us.”
There is no health in us — but the physician is coming. Our savior is coming. Not as a baby boy in weakness. Not as a man bound for the cross, but as a conquering king.
In righteousness he will judge. Before him, nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. “All power is his, all glory! All things are in his hand, all ages and all peoples, till time itself shall end!”
And yet the one who is coming, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the conquering king. . . . he is like a Lamb who was slain. His robes are dipped in blood. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have a great high priest who has been made like us in every respect, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near the throne of grace, for Mercy himself is found there.
For this we sing. For this we shout. For this we rejoice and exult with all our hearts, for the LORD will save the lame and gather the outcast. He will proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind. He will change our shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
And this is not just a promise we are looking forward to. It is a gift we are given now, for Christ came in weakness that he might rise in strength and return in glory. And on that day, all will be set free and all will be made right and all will obtain the freedom of the glory of God.
Therefore we will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD God is our strength and our song, and he has become our salvation. Cry aloud, inhabitant of Zion, ring out your joy, children of God, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel. AMEN.