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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Brood of Vipers Baptism - 12/13/2015

We don't hear from this prophet Zephaniah very much. This is only one of two times in three years of lectionary readings that we go to this short book of a man called by God to warn the people of the danger of their indifferent attitude toward God. You'd never know it from just the reading we have today, but this is the very end Zephaniah and it's a far cry from the beginning in which he talks about the terrible day of the LORD … when God comes among the people to punish everyone, especially those "who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, 'The LORD will not do good, or will he do harm.'" (1:12)

Where we join Zephaniah today, the picture is a tiny bit rosier. Yes, God will come and "utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth," but there is reason to rejoice, sons and daughters of Zion, because in that destruction, those who stay true to God's law and embody the love of God for the sake of others will be brought home to God and restored to wholeness.

And that, perhaps sums up our Zephaniah course correction for Advent … the injustice and suffering that may doggedly pursue God's people on earth is beaten in the end because our souls have been wiped clean by God's plentiful forgiveness. If you are anything like me, when I think about my own sinful ways and the experiences that have broken my heart in this life this far, there is a lot of comfort in knowing that God has the last word in this realm.

Moving from Zephaniah's tough-love message and returning to the story of John the Baptizer this week, one may wonder if perhaps John modeled his sermons on a study of Zephaniah.

"So, with many other exhortations, John the Baptizer proclaimed the Good News to the people." (v 18)

Gee, thanks John. Your people skills are astounding.

Can you imagine us beginning the Liturgy of Holy Baptism like John? I would invite the family of the soon-to-be-baptized to the font. And then I'd call all the children in the congregation too ... so they can be right up at the font, get a good look and be reminded of how they were once welcomed into the faith community. And as soon as everyone is in place around the font … "You swarm of hornets! Who warned you to escape from the madness to come!? Bear fruits worthy of repentance! And don't you dare invoke the name of Abraham! It doesn't matter if your family has been been part of this church for generations ... or if you give your extra change to the jingle jar collection every week. God could raise up children of Abraham out of all the broken pieces of sandstone around here!"

Pretty soon the children would be shrinking away to the safety of their parents. Babies would start crying. Visitors would stare wide-eyed and confused … is this how these Lutherans baptize people? It just doesn't have the same warm and loving feel as the way we began our Thanksgiving for Baptism today. "We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight."

No, that's not John's style. He's a lot like those cantankerous characters in the movie Grumpy Old Men – some odd combination of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Even if you don't know the movie or the actors, you know the type … fairly uncouth, maybe his grooming habits leave a little to be desired, there's not a whole lot of social skill going on. He's the relative you're obligated to invite over during the holidays, but as soon as you see him open his mouth your stomach tightens and you cringe a little wondering what he's going to say next.

But that relative of yours, he's fierce. Whatever his convictions and whether you agree with them or not, he is going to stand fiercely in them.

And we have to give John the Baptizer a little credit for courage and fierceness too, don't we? He is telling everyone – broods of vipers, tax collectors, soldiers, the faithful gathered on this third weekend of Advent in Munising and all around the world – that the Messiah is coming. John knows what he knows, you're a captive audience and he's going tell you what he thinks the only way he knows how – in a cacophony of breath-catching images and startling warnings.

And yet, people are flocking to that fierceness at the river. Maybe it's precisely this overwhelming picture he's painting that's drawing them: stones become flesh and blood, menacing axes and falling trees. The Messiah is near and he already has the winnowing fork in hand and stands ready to gather the wheat and throw the chaff into an unquenchable fire! Even his depiction of baptism is rather alarming – "While I plunge you into the brisk, moving waters of the Jordan, this one who is coming will set you on fire with the Holy Spirit."

But the people don't shrink away … in fact they seem to lean in. "So are we wheat or chaff?" "Are we bearing good fruit or is that ax coming for us next?" "What may we do keep from being chopped down and tossed into the fire?" "Tell us what we may do!" Well, John says … if you have two coats, offer one to the poor, and by the way if they are cold AND hungry, feed them too. Tax collectors …. collect only the taxes that are due. Soldiers... stop taking things from people and terrifying them, be satisfied with your wages.

To us, feeding and caring for the poor and controlling the urge to extort and terrorize our neighbors might seem like common sense, but it really is a bold request in John's world. Those in power kept that power by keeping others down and nurturing a system of profit-seeking tax collectors and mercenaries. A hungry, cold and terrorized public doesn't have the energy and wherewithal to rise above what oppresses them. It's an age-old tactic.

John is asking them to buck that system. While a few more full bellies, and individual soldiers and tax collectors here and there may not make too much difference, John does recognize that the number of people coming to the river seeking forgiveness through baptism could undermine the balance of power ... and that is precisely what John is suggesting people do in response to the Good News that the Messiah is coming. And John's challenge to be bold and fierce really still applies for us today too. If you have two coats, you should give one to someone who has none, even though you yourself may need that coat someday. If John were down at the lake baptizing people today, he'd probably be telling us to reach out to those who have less, those who seem to make bad decision after bad decision and not worry so much about who deserves what. Leave that sorting out to God. And I suspect we'd flock to that fierceness too and turn our ears and hearts away from those who support today's oppression by being fear mongers and alarmists. Those with big budgets and loud voices who work very hard at whipping us all up into frenzies by pitting us against each other – neighbor against neighbor, instead of neighbor for neighbor.

As tough as John's response to the question of "What may we do?" may have been for the people gathered with him at the river, at least it offered some way for people to respond in anticipation of this coming Messiah and the days of judgment ahead. And, we have the advantage of knowing how this story unfolds from here. John didn't expect the Messiah who was about to come see him at the Jordan. He knew the way of the Messiah would be different, but he didn't know just how different. In fact, later in Luke John hears about Jesus while he sits in his prison cell … how Jesus is casting out unclean spirits, healing people, teaching and preaching, challenging those in power.

But John isn't entirely convinced that this gentle person – with no ax, no winnowing fork, no warnings of wheat and chaff and unquenchable fires – is the Messiah he was so fiercely foretelling. From his jail cell he sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask: "Are you the one?" The man who was so sure of himself while talking to the soldiers and the rich and the tax-collectors in the Jordan is now in the same position they were. "Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?"

John was getting at the heart of it – he just didn't have the whole picture. Jesus is something entirely new, something never even dreamed before. It was Good News of judgment and repentance, but it was much more expansive, inclusive and eternal then any human could come up with. Everything that oppresses us was about to be turned on end.

What John couldn't have known was that Jesus would soon change the lives of everyone beyond imagination. What the people leaning in to hear John's warnings and scary images couldn't have known was that Jesus was about to alter the landscape of judgment and redemption forever. Because this Messiah John was preparing us for would do much more than simply turn earthly things on end.

Through his death on the cross and resurrection, forgiveness and redemption became the order of the day and bondage to sin and suffering lost its hold. Taking hold instead is the eternal promise we hear in Paul's words to the Philippians today. "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (v 7) Taking hold in that day of the LORD that has come and will come again, are the words we use at the font when we welcome a child of God into this Christ-centered community … "In the waters of the Jordan (Jesus) was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. By the baptism of his own death and resurrection (he) has set us free from the bondage to sin and death, and has opened the way to the joy and freedom of everlasting life."

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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