Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!
Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!
What a downer! C’mon, John ….
At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.
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Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.
And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)
So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!
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I mean, what’s going on here?
What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?
Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).
(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)
The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.
They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.
They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.
The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!
But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.
He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.
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But that’s not the end of it.
Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.
In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.
As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)
It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.
Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.
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I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:
In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.
The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.
But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.
It seems the authorities have won.
But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.
You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).
The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.
The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.
The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.
Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.
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“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)
The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:
John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.
Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.
Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.
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Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.
So bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.