Sunday, December 5, 2010

"You brood of vipers"

The text from St. Matthew's Gospel was read today in many churches.

I once read a monograph that, not without some profit, concentrated on the past and current cultural connotations that clung to the jarring and disquieting phrase, "You brood of vipers!"

Vipers were thought to eat their parents, and so on.

Though this may begin to aid us in seeing what the Baptist was on about - (the children of God destroying their patrimony?) it isn't really where my mind goes as I hear this text read.

I wonder why the Baptist is so hard on these Sadducees and Pharisees.  Aren't they there to repent and be baptized?  What is wrong with this?

I think it is clear from the polemical war that Jesus will soon be waging against these groups that something serious is at stake here.  Jesus himself confirms the Baptist's charge later on (12:34).

I think the Baptist knows that they are acting falsely, or without conviction.  It seems he knows that they aren't after what he is offering.  Whether it is vain curiosity, group think, sabotage, or something else entirely - the Baptist declares that they aren't after repentance.  And he calls them out on it: "Bear fruit worthy of repentance," that is, actually repent and have actions that testify to the profound change in your person.

Parallel to this concern is another.  Some Lutherans (and others, I'm sure) have called it "false security".

"Say not that we have Abraham as our Father".  No appeal to credential - however impeccable - will count without the change.  God can create immediate credential from nothing, so these things aren't really all that compelling (as if God could be "compelled"!).  It's not what He's after.  The necessity of repentance relativizes everything else.  Next to this immediate and unavoidable call everyone is a beggar.

It should be clear that this is no mere exercise in history, nor is it a place for those who claim the name of Christ to set up some divine sanctioning of our unique status as such, a sanction that would only serve to give rise to sanctimony.  This is a message not merely to some fall guys from a previous dispensation.  I think it is a sign of spiritual sanity to hear the Baptist's call as a summons for us, and as a condemnation of our own appeals to credential (whatever it may be), our own ridiculous posturing, and of our lack of conviction in the face of the consuming (and edifying!) truth of the Gospel.

Of course, most of us who hear this message in churches are not able to lay claim to a supposed blood line to Abraham, but we have our own ingenious methods of credentialing ourselves before God.

I have a pure church.  I have a strong historical continuity with the Apostles.  I have beautiful sanctuaries and beautiful liturgies.  I have superior education.  I have the benefit of the "progression" of history.  I have this or that token that, surely, counts for something before the Holy God of Israel.  More ingenious than this sort of credentialing is the sort that points to works of justice, mercy, and charity (or at least works purported to be such) and holds them out as even shinier tokens. 

Now, many of the things I mention are without doubt very good, right and salutary in many ways.  I happen to like a number of them and recommend them to others often.  Yet, the relative purity of our doctrine (so essential!), church body, historical placement, etc. are not themselves what the Baptist calls for here.  Here, the Baptist's cry is not "present your doctrine, church, etc. so that I may distill it" but bear fruit worthy of repentance.  And what of this fruit?  Can we not legitimately hold up our fruits before the baptist?  Granting for the moment that we understand what these would be, I would hesitate to do so.   This latter class of credentials - let's call them good works (purported or genuine) - must always be the sort that are "worthy of repentance".  They must be in keeping with the immediate and persistent call to turn toward God and His coming Kingdom.  They can never rest secure in themselves, nor estimate their own value.  They must exist, but their existence is but the testimony and concrete manifestation of the soul that is suffering the call of God to His Way.  They issue forth from the one who is constantly hearing the call to pay attention to God and His work in the World.  They do not have a self-consciousness about them that would mark them as quasi-divine currency.

To be infatuated with works in this manner is to risk being "falsely assured" of one's standing before God.  And when in this state, one loses the true assurance that is present when turned toward the Coming One - the Christ who is the true work of God in us and for us.

Perhaps the Baptist's more immediately distressing judgment is seen when the soul is allowed to be confronted with it's own duplicity: it's double-mindedness, waffling, hedging, and prostitution.  "You know what?  I can actually serve God and mammon.  I can think of Christ as something other than what he describes Himself to be, I can hold back this area of my life from God's disrupting and healing touch, I can have it all!  All I want, and God doesn't really see... or if He does, He's not too concerned..."  So says the sinner, and so also does he earn the Baptist's reproach.

We are in the hard hitting days of Advent.  And these texts are the baseball bat.

As the Baptist scolds, cajoles, and prods the Saducees and Pharisees who gather at the Jordan, so too are we being scolded when we gather in the nave before the lectern and pulpit.  When we gather there, let it be with single minded devotion and with a holy insecurity.