"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree."Apart from Jesus himself, the most vivid figure in the Gospels is probably John the Baptist. He is depicted in all four versions of the Gospel, and is more widely referenced in non-Biblical literature than Jesus. In Luke's account, he is the son of a Temple priest turned religious radical. The other versions (including Matthew's, which we hear on Sunday) omit any reference to his birth and family and just give us the unvarnished image of a "voice crying out in the wilderness." He wears hair garments and eats wild food, in the manner of someone rejecting human society. His location in the wilderness, and his characteristic activity of crying out, became proverbial: someone is called a "voice in the wilderness" when they are lonely heralds of an urgent message that mostly goes unheeded.
The interesting thing about John is that his anti-social manner of life and his stern, aggressive Messianic proclamation seem not to have repelled people but to have caused people to seek him out. "The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him," Matthew records, to be baptized. He rewards the religious specialists who make this journey with a particularly stinging rebuke:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire
I have always been captivated by that phrase "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." There was a time when I felt that I was just such a stone, transformed into a living child of the promise. And then, as I progressed in my vocation and as my faith solidified around certain ideas of the reliability of God's grace made available through my work, I heard it as a warning: If I won't allow God to use me, to work through me, God can just as well dispense with and work around me. We need to rely on God's promises and God's covenant with us, but God plants living trees, not static monuments.
It's a hard word. It's no wonder that his contemporaries (including Jesus) identified John with Elijah the prophet, who was taken up to heaven and was expected, in the days before and during the life of Jesus, to return as a herald of the Day of the Lord. But even Elijah, as Episcopal priest and scholar Fleming Rutledge says, "is positively lovable and cuddly in comparison" to John. Elijah fled the city for the wilderness, too, as Moses did centuries before and as Christian ascetics would later do, often in explicit imitation of both John the Baptist and Elijah. There are times when the Word of God needs to retreat to the wilderness places and go forth again from there. There are some voices than can only be heard if they cry out in the wilderness.
But in the end, it's not John's job to be fascinating, though he is. It's his role to point to Jesus with his preaching of repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and the coming kingdom of God. When John dies, Jesus's ministry really begins.
On Sunday we also hear one of the more vivid and beautiful prophecies that we see fulfilled in the life of Jesus, Isaiah's oracle of the "shoot" that shall "come out from the stock of Jesse," on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest and whose words will judge the world, defending the poor and meek and punishing the wicked. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf with the lion. This potent combination of warning and hope is what Advent is all about.
God's Work. Our hands.