John the Baptist points. John points away from himself toward God. It’s a crucial part of being Christian—point to God—and it’s why John gets his own Sunday, the second Sunday of each Church Year. John makes claims about God and expresses opinions about how to follow God—and we will talk about those—but John demands that all people depend utterly upon God, who is not John.
St. Matthew’s gospel links John to words from Isaiah. John’s own words echo another passage from Isaiah, which we read today. I’m talking about John’s most famous line, “You brood of vipers!” It was an instant hit. It’s not a quote from Isaiah but it touches on the imagery Isaiah uses, when Isaiah says, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” These snakes are like the other predatory animals Isaiah mentions: wolf, leopard, lion, bear. These are animals that in various places symbolize arbitrary and unjust use of power. Isaiah speaks of a time when the people these animals symbolize will not act arbitrarily or unjustly. Instead, the “branch of the stump of Jesse” will rule with wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. The idea, in Isaiah, is that there will be an equitable distribution of justice.
Equitable distribution of justice is a common Near Eastern theme. Across cultures in the ancient Near East, people expected government to deliver equitable justice. (It didn’t always happen, surprise surprise, but it was the ideal.) There’s nothing distinctly Hebrew about it. And there’s nothing unusual about John the Baptist expecting it. When John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers, he’s accusing these two major religious and political groups of unfairness. We know the Sadducees controlled the Temple and the Pharisees controlled grain distribution. So, you can imagine one group of people controlling access to religion and culture, the other controlling access to food: there is an opportunity for arbitrary and unjust use of power. John the Baptist is quick to attack such abuses in God’s name, and throughout scripture this sort of thing is what ticks off God more than anything else. But you don’t have to be Christian to be upset that you’re starving and marginalized.
If we’re talking arbitrary and unjust use of power, the Pharisees and Sadducees are small potatoes compared to Rome. Matthew writes, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” words from Isaiah. For Matthew’s first readers, this happened in their lifetimes. When the Jews of Judah revolted in 66, the Roman General Vespasian invaded Palestine with a massive army. In order to move his army freely through Palestine, he literally had his engineers make the crooked places straight and the hilly places level. In 69, with the war still going, the emperor died. Vespasian’s army thought he should be emperor and helped him seize power. (He left his son, Titus, in charge of destroying the Temple and the rebellion.) As emperor, Vespasian went beyond the usual demands for obedience. He censored, punished, even murdered critics. He outlawed philosophy, because philosophers preferred the republican institutions of the past to the dictatorial institutions of the present. As high priest of the Roman imperial cult he was treated like a God, and, when he died, he was made a God.
When you’re an emperor, you may promise (or even occasionally deliver) what John the Baptist, Isaiah, and all the ancient world desired: equitable distribution of justice. But you demand utter dependence upon yourself, and that always leads to arbitrary and unjust rule. History abounds with people demanding such. It’s typical behavior of abusers: make the abused depend utterly upon you. It’s typical of cult leaders: make the members rely upon you for what is real. There are world leaders who fashion themselves as the ones who decide what is true. Anyone who keeps things unsettled so you can’t make sense of life and must depend upon them as the sole trustworthy interpreter of matters.
There are less easily identifiable things that demand our utter dependence. We’re asked to depend upon Market Forces: the mysterious, all-knowing, benevolent powers that move the economy and must never be questioned. As part of my Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program we heard a major corporate executive, who has the ear of the statehouse, tell us that in Indiana we trust Market Forces to take care of everyone, and reality shows that they won’t. The executive also told us not to identify them or quote them. Their life would be ruined if they were caught critiquing the market. At this time of the year we’re asked to depend utterly on Christmas Spirit. We must never question the purpose or cost of any light, decoration, ornament, present, clothing item, or movie. We certainly must never feel blue, inadequate, stressed, or even just plain bored, or we might ruin Christmas and will certainly call down the wrath of the multitudes. We must be in proper holiday mood and purchase the correct gifts and what’s correct changes with each commercial or YouTube clip, so you’re never sure and must keep watching.
John the Baptist crashes this imperial Christmas party. That’s the stressor this time of year: it’s not Christmas; it’s imperial Christmas. It’s the ever-shifting, confusing, overwhelming demands the world puts on us. John the Baptist kicks in the door, wearing camel fur and a leather belt and smelling of honey (which, given the circumstances, is both pleasant and disturbing). And if someone did that to our imperial Christmas, I know some of us would be eager to hear if he has an alternative plan for the season. Matthew says that Pharisees and Sadducees—people with power—were fed up enough to come to John to be baptized. They came to John hoping John might makes sense of things. It’s a human thing to need to make sense out of life. We don’t seem to be able to function without meaning. There are competing meanings. Right now the most obvious example is the impeachment hearings. The leaders of the two parties agree on the facts, and disagree on the meaning of the facts. Well, in the Gospel, some members of each party come to John asking for the meaning of the facts.
John, well, he calls them a brood of vipers—unjust and arbitrary rulers—who, like snakes before a brush fire, have come to the river for refuge. John tells them they will not find it. They will not find a meaning in which they can rest. The ax is lying at the root of every tree: Jew or Gentile, friend of Rome or enemy of Rome, Pharisee or Sadducee—you are all utterly dependent…on Christ. Right when it looks like John is another voice asking too much, John points away from himself toward God. If a human demands for themselves what John the Baptist demands, they are a Vespasian, an abuser, an out of control demonic holiday spirit. John the Baptist, however, does not demand such surrender to himself, but to God who is coming.
God is coming. Jesus is noticeably absent from today’s readings. The First Reading and Psalm cry out for him, the Second Reading talks about what he once did and what he now does out of sight, and the Gospel talks about what he will do when he gets here. All the texts—with John the Baptist—point to Jesus. None of the texts possess Jesus. None of the texts allow us or anyone else to be Jesus. Jesus’ absence may be worrisome, but considering all the damage done by people falsely demanding we depend on them for everything, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that the only person who can legitimately demand my utter dependence is God, the maker, savior, and life of the world, and no one can claim to be God.
God, yes, demands equitable distribution of justice, and, yes, calls me to work for justice in God’s name. But I must not take that name in vain—claim that I am God (or on a par with God) or demand we treat someone else as possessing what belongs only to God. God is not my interpretation of God. God is the Spirit. The Spirit is someone with me but who I cannot control. She is the same Spirit who shows up in baptism and of whom Isaiah writes. The Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding—things you need if you’re gonna work for God’s justice. You gotta be able to understand what’s going on, and wise to know when it’s God and when it’s something claiming to be God. The Spirit’s got that. The Spirit of Counsel and Strength—it takes creativity and endurance to get through this life of faith. Spirit’s got that. The Spirit of Knowledge and Fear of the Lord—Lucky for us, the Spirit is The Lord, God. So, we know God. If we know God is Spirit, we “fear” God, or, put differently, we get that she is God and we are not. Spirit’s got that. By the power of the Holy Spirit we join with Isaiah, Paul, the psalmist, and John the Baptist. We point. We point away from ourselves to God. It’s a crucial part of being Christian. Point to God. It’s why John the Baptist gets his own Sunday: to remind us, we point to God.