In the church of my childhood, the Methodist Church back in the early 60s, fire and brimstone preaching was all the go. Mind you as a little boy, it wasn’t so much what the preacher-man said that registered, it was how he said it. Now I have to say my old Dad, whose sermons were my normal Sunday fare, was pretty mild-mannered in his approach - but I do have some spectacular memories of sitting through some proper tub-thumping preaching when we visited somewhere else. I remember one Sunday honestly wondering why the minister was so angry. God wasn’t very impressed with any of us, was the best interpretation I could put on it. At worst, it appeared God was so personally offended by absolutely everything I had ever done, and especially the fact that I wasn’t sufficiently sorry about it, that it was as much as the minister could do to convince God not to zap me on the spot. I remember furtively looking around at the faces of the grown-ups in the congregation, wondering why they kept coming week after week for such a right proper telling off. I’m not sure when I first started to hear the message that God loved me to bits, but it certainly wasn’t that morning.
Well, but what’s a preacher to do? Here we are, a week and a half before Christmas, the festive season is cranking up all around us, we’re already planning Christmas lunch, dusting off the Christmas tree decorations and singing carols in the shower – then we get to church and get a right proper telling off from John the Baptist, the scary cousin (or possibly early mentor) of Jesus. ‘You lot’, John assures the crowds who walk a day’s journey from Jerusalem out into the desert to hear him – and by extension, us too – ‘what a bunch of poisonous snakes you lot are’. I think even the monstrous preacher of my childhood memories would have baulked at calling his congregation a brood of vipers. But that’s what John calls them and for some reason, according both to the Bible and to the 1st century historian Josephus, John is wildly popular.
Zephaniah, one of the grumpiest of the Old Testament prophets writing about six centuries before Christ and maybe 30 years or so before the Babylonian invasion that brought the political and religious structures of ancient Judah crashing down, builds his prophecies around what he calls the ‘day of the Lord’. John the Baptist would have liked Zephaniah. Zephaniah sees clearly what’s wrong with Judah – its public servants are like roaring lions, its judges like scavenging wolves, its priests have profaned the holiness of the Temple and think they’re above the Law. Israel is going to get its come-uppance from God because the poor have been denied a fair go and the powerless have been abandoned. It’s pretty strong stuff. For Zephaniah the ‘day of the Lord’ is a day you’d rather not turn up for work on, a day on which self-serving elites and hypocritical religious leaders get what’s coming to them with a fair bit of collateral damage which Zephaniah describes in fairly vague terms: God’s indignation is going to be dumped on you, God’s anger is going to be like a fire that burns up not just Judah but the whole earth. And then, says Zephaniah, you won’t be quite so cocky. Mercifully, the lectionary writers decided we didn’t need to hear all that today.
But then in verse 14, where we started, the mood abruptly changes. After three chapters of giving us a right going over, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice!’. Not, please notice, rejoice because, ‘oh, I was wrong about that, I just got another communiqué from God and now he says he isn’t going to do it’. Not, ‘well that was just what was going to happen if you didn’t listen to me, but fantastic because you did listen and now it’s all good’. But rejoice because – ‘Guess what? You’re about to get overwhelmed by God’s holiness and God’s righteous anger, and all your rottenness is going to get blown away but the skerrick of goodness that’s left – the poor and oppressed – are going to be my humble and holy people’. The image Zephaniah gives us is an image of a putrid wound being cauterised: ‘Rejoice, because it’s going to hurt like heck, but the burning is going to leave only healthy flesh’.
And this radical surgery, Zephaniah tells us, is going to bring us back from the brink of the disaster of our own making. The very people now dismissed as a waste of space are going to be given dignity and honour, national shame is going to be transformed into a good reputation. It’s a vision of salvation, a vision of the good life that’s got to do not just with worshipping God and coming to church every week but about practical, concrete and everyday issues of social equity – salvation not as the individual practice of piety but the collective practice of justice towards the poor, the mentally ill, the asylum seeker, towards indigenous peoples, towards the earth itself as the visible sign of God’s goodness. It’s a vision of the good life that actually leaves none of us unscathed, that when you think about it indicts all of us by challenging our priorities, the way we live, and whether we put our money where our mouths are. To be honest, we can’t assume that the rottenness to be burned away is just the politicians or the clergy or the money market traders – we know that selfishness and humility, hypocrisy and generosity compete every day within our own hearts, and what needs to be burned away is part of how we ourselves live.
But when God’s judgement is finished with us, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice! Because God himself will be with you and he will renew you with his love’. That’s verse 17, and the remarkable thing about it is that the Hebrew word, haras, that our Bible translates as ‘renew’ actually means to make quiet, or still, to give rest. The Hebrew verb has the connotation of a baby at rest, fed and sated, lying safe and loved on its mother’s breast – as in psalm 131 (v2, NASB) ‘I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against its mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me’. Right at the end of his gloomy and threatening warning that ignoring the demands of justice is a recipe for disaster, Zephaniah gives us this image of God as a mother who cradles and comforts us – whether we have been among the haves or the have-nots, whether we have been among the powerful of this world or the powerless, the righteous or the self-serving. God, according to Zephaniah’s vision, works redemptively to bring both sides of our divided world and our divided selves together, making us whole and at peace within God’s own self.
‘Rejoice!’, John the Baptist tells us, ‘you brood of vipers’. Rejoice because you’re being given the chance to repent. That’s metanoia, the Greek word that means to do a 180 degree turn. Rejoice because the one is coming into the world who is going expose your hypocrisy, the one who is going to baptise not just with water but with fire. Even now, he’s getting ready to chop out of you all the rotten wood that’s sapping the life out of you, even now he’s getting ready to burn up every part of you that is unholy and self-serving. Interestingly, in Luke’s gospel, John singles out two professions as examples of what he’s talking about – tax collectors and soldiers – administrative and military power – two professions and one theme – money. ‘Don’t take advantage of other people, be content with your pay, with what you actually need, and recognise that your role is to serve and protect others’. This is totally practical stuff – especially in Luke’s hands, the message of repentance John preaches is to a holiness that works itself out in practical actions, in balancing our own legitimate needs against the needs of others. And like Zephaniah, John says ‘Rejoice! Because the one is coming whose holiness is experienced as white-hot judgement’.
I feel like I need to be careful in commenting on John the Baptist, because it’s clear that his message, though similar to that of Jesus, is not exactly the same. Towards the end of his own life John sends messengers to Jesus that suggest he is in an agony of doubt: ‘Are you the one, or should we expect somebody else?’ (Lk 7.20) Jesus doesn’t seem to be bringing the winnowing fork, the axe or the fire. Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptising with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Jesus is revealing the profoundly transformative practice of forgiveness which extends, ultimately, even to those who nail him to the cross. Jesus accepts sinful, morally compromised and divided human beings on their own terms and in their own homes, but in so doing, issues an invitation that’s in profound continuity with the one John himself issued - an invitation to repentance and conversion.
John apparently never gets to hear the full message, but he isn’t wrong. Jesus practice of forgiveness and compassionate acceptance is every bit as challenging and scary as John predicted. Jesus radical inclusiveness exposes our practice of setting up boundaries. Jesus’ healing ministry exposes our vindictiveness, Jesus’ table hospitality exposes our lack of generosity, Jesus’ uncompromising practice of forgiveness exposes our hard-heartedness. When we really think about it, it’s the Full Monty: the winnowing fork, axe and fire rolled into one. The ‘day of the Lord’ happens with 100% certainty just as soon as we are prepared to take the risk of actually opening our lives up to the judgement of Jesus’ totally unreasonable practice of forgiveness.
So rejoice – you brood of vipers -12 sleeps to go.