The preaching of John the Baptist is hard to take. As one writer put it, “The words of John the Baptist go down sideways in the throat.” (Elizabeth Kaeton).
The full impact of John’s words to the crowds is still somewhat muted by the
biblical language. Here’s a freer, paraphrased, rendition by Eugene Peterson.
“When crowds of people came out for baptism because it
was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes!
What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?
Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect
God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin.
And don’t think you canpullrankby claiming Abraham as
‘father.” Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor
there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make
children from stone if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it
green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the
The crowd asked him, ‘Then what are we supposed to do?”
“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the
same with your food.”
Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what
should we do?”
`He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is
required by law.”
Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be
content with your rations.”
The interest of the people by now was building. They were
all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”
But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river.
The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand,
will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you,
changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean
house—make a cleansweep of your lives. He’ll place everything
true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out
with the trash to be burned.
There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to
the people, words that put heart in them.”
Or as our more traditional text puts it: “So with many other exhortations he proclaimed Good News to the people.”
To whom is the message of vipers, judgment, and chaff being thrown into the unquenchable fire—to whom is this Good News?
After 2000 years it’s easy for us to be oblivious to the context. John the Baptist and Jesus were followed primarily by people who were on the edges of first century society. And that was just about everyone, because there was no middle class to speak of. Either one was in the upper ranks of the Temple elite or a high official of the Empire (the top one or two percent), or you were among those who had to go along to get along.
The tax collectors, soldiers, and other folk in the crowds that came out to the Jordan were basically powerless. For most of them, life came at them and they either endured or succumbed. Some got a leg up on their fellows by collecting taxes and adding a little bit on top for themselves. Soldiers sometimes shook down or blackmailed the people of the land in order to supplement their rations. And many in the crowds hoarded clothing, food, or other commodities against the almost certain time when their fortunes would take an ugly turn.
John exhorted people to return to the basic principles of their religious tradition by sharing what they had, by treating others fairly and with dignity. And then he went a step farther. He told them that God was now ready to do a new thing. God would save them from lives without meaning. He would fill them with Spirit and fire. And they would be enrolled as citizens of the realm of God. They would be the beloved of God. And God would remember their sins no more.
This is the heart of the message of John the Baptist. It’s not what the people doto earn / win / achieve salvation. Rather, the focus of the Baptist’s message is what Godis doing.
The same is true of the other prophets. Today we heard Zephaniah proclaim:
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
And I will change their shame into praise . . . .
One of the realities of downtrodden, abused, and repressed folk is to feel hopeless . . . and to experience shame. Shame isn’t just guilt. And it’s not the simple “Shame on you!”, guilt-inducing, comment known to escape the lips of parents, teachers, and other adults from time to time. No, shame as a psychological phenomenon is taking the blame for one’s own abuse . . . . shame tells us not only what we have done is wrong, but we are wrong.
The battered woman begins to feel that she’s at fault. The victim of sexual assault is often made to feel as if she were responsible for the attack. The abused child begins to believe that he’s to blame for dad’s tirades. The prisoner of war and the kidnapped journalist start to think that their captors are righteous, and that the suffering they’re experiencing is somehow deserved. (Please don’t misunderstand. Sin is real. We all do, or not do, things that hurt God and others and ourselves.) But not all hurt, pain, and diminishment result from, nor are the just deserts of our brokenness.
Even religion doesn’t escape. There’s a theology that claims that all the bad that occurs in our lives is a result of our sin. It’s the theology of Job’s friends who relentlessly try to convince that righteous man that all the disasters that befell him were the outcome of his sinfulness.
What a contrast to hear Zephaniah proclaim: “I will . . . gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise . . . .” Isaiah: “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” And John the Baptist, announcing the advent of the Messiah . . . despite the sinfulness of God’s people. This is good news, indeed. Salvation is a gift, not a reward!
But what then should we do? Throughout the text, the crowds and tax collectors and soldiers are asking, “What should we do?” If salvation—if being in God’s favor—is not dependent upon us, but upon God, then is there anything we cando? Besides sharing our excess, refraining from taking advantage of others, respecting the dignity of everyone— what can we do?
We can rejoice! We can give thanks! We can say, A-men! We can break out of the self-blaming, we can leave shame behind, and we can claim the blessing that God intends for us all!