"You brood of snakes! Why are you slithering down here to the river? You think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God's judgment? Don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as 'father.' Children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. If it isn't green and fruitful, it goes on the fire." - Luke 3:7-8
There are many sure-fire ways to start a sermon, but tagging your audience as a "brood of snakes" isn't one of them. Neither is dissing their pedigree. I doubt John the Baptist got many invitations to preach at weddings or funerals or to pray at city council meetings after that.
Instead of being provided for by his congregation, John lived in the desert. His lifestyle made average ascetics look like wannabes. That way he felt perfectly free to serve the raw truth for Christmas: Turn or burn.
Season's greetings to you too, John. Jeepers.
To understand John the Baptist we have to appreciate his old-fashioned idea that everyone has been compromised by that slithering serpent in the garden and is deserving of God's wrath so we better repent as if our lives and our planet depend on it, because they do. In our age of ecological crisis, "turn or burn" takes on new meaning.
John wasn't worried about losing his job. He wanted to lose it, the faster the better. He hoped his current sermon would be his last. He had a fierce hankering to see a new family tree spring up from the deadwood of Jesse; a family made up of redeemed belly-crawlers who eat from the tree of everlasting life and dance on the heads of serpents, one in particular.
Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.