Christmas Letter from the Brood of Vipers
“You brood of vipers!”
I had to practice that in the mirror to make sure I said it with suitable drama.
It is one of the great lines in the Bible, a thrust and a twist of the knife from the original fire and brimstone preacher himself, John the Baptist.
And if you ask any preacher if they haven’t fantasized about thundering that line from the pulpit themselves they are either A. lying, or B. catastrophically boring. Well, today was my chance. #ministrygoals.
I love John. John is brilliant because he cuts directly across the saccharine images of Advent and Christmas that saturate our culture today.
John does not coddle us with visions of a tender child in the manger, lambs sleeping sweetly in the stable, or even a serene and peaceful Blessed Virgin making her stately and elegant way toward Bethlehem with beautifully coiffed hair, clean skin, and unruffled robes.
John the Baptist is having none of it.
John’s Advent is rude, abrupt, and disorienting.
His primary message is, “Wake up, people! Your life is not working! You are going to rue the day if you don’t face up to the fact that God is about to rearrange your life completely. Something is coming that will change everything. Winnowing fork! Unquenchable fire! Holy Spirit! Brood of vipers!”
So while I love John for his passion and apocalyptic angst, I also fear and dread his words a bit.
I know I need his wake up call as much as if not more than anyone else.
After all, John’s main target in this text is the religious professionals, so my number is up.
But I’ll tell you the fascinating truth about John the Baptist.
You could hardly find a figure in the Bible with rougher edges. He’s not the type of guy you could bring home to meet your mother.
He’s angry, and abrasive, and he probably smells bad.
I’ve never seen anyone eat a locust, and I honestly have no desire to.
But John’s fire, his call for immediate and sweeping repentance, comes out of a place of deep compassion and love.
It’s like when your toddler is about to run out in the street and you yank her back and scold her.
You don’t want to frighten her, you just need her to understand the serious danger she is in. That’s John’s role in our lives.
He’s cutting through the numbness of our consumerist culture to wake us up to the secret ache of our hearts, an ache that can only be reached and healed by getting really real with God.
So John the Baptist is a fiery prophet and a doomsday preacher, but I believe at heart he is a deeply compassionate pastor.
These terrifying texts are his way of caring for us. He actually loves us, we his brood of vipers that he’s trying to get through to.
How do I know this?
John and his heart were unlocked for me in a new way as I worked with one of his sayings in this gospel that has always mystified and intrigued me.
In the middle of his rant, John says something kind of odd. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
What does that mean?
One way of hearing it is a call to enter a state of repentance, and that state will enable us to bear fruits of the Spirit like compassion, peace, and service to others.
But my ear has always heard it another way, that confused me until this week.
I’ve always heard “bear fruit worthy of repentance” as “bear fruit that you’re going to have to repent for.”
As in, bear some really terrible fruit. Bear some fruit you’re just totally embarrassed about and probably need to ask forgiveness for.
And that, my friends, is an interesting thought.
I’m pretty sure I’ve been hearing it wrong all these years.
The primary interpretation that makes the most sense is, “Repent, and then you’ll be forgiven and healed to bear fruit.”
But what if? What if we do explore hearing it the other way?
What if we imagine John is asking us to bear fruit worthy of repentance as in “bear fruit that needs repenting of”?
Bear fruit that you have to say sorry for.
Bear fruit that you wish God and everyone else would not notice.
Do you know what I hear John saying in that interpretation?
I hear John saying, “Hey, folks, you know what? This discipleship thing is tough, and it is risky. In fact, if your Christian life looks like a Christmas card, you’re probably not doing it right.”
Where are your locusts?
Where are your smelly goatskins?
Are you risking offending other people because you long so deeply for the truth to be manifest in community?
What would it mean to approach our discipleship with the full intention of making great big messy mistakes?
With the full knowledge that if we really go all in trying to love each other, we’re going to hurt each other sometimes.
But if we remember that repentance part in “fruit worthy of repentance,” we already know the road out of that hurt and into new life.
Richard Rohr says that any time you agree to love, you agree to die.
Loving one another means supporting and cherishing each other, but sometimes it also means speaking hard truths and arguing and struggling to know and believe the best in one another.
And the price of true, deep, meaningful relationships—relationships that go far beyond the churchy niceness of small talk—is vulnerability. It is risk. It is taking a chance to love someone harder, even when it hurts.
This is the spiritual discipline John calls us to in Advent.
This is how we prepare the way of the Lord and make straight a highway in the desert for our God.
We start making mistakes with courage.
We start taking risks with boldness.
We start opening our hearts to one another right in the midst of the pain.
We say that the Christmas card life is not good enough, and we’re going out into the desert together, because what we’re trying to do in this church matters.
How we’re trying to live together and serve the world is important.
It’s vital to the health and growth of our souls, and it’s crucial to the people we are called uphold and care for.
In some small but critical way, what we do here is having an impact on the coming of the Kingdom of God.
It is contributing to the Advent of the Christ.
And I think bearing fruit worthy of repentance is about more than taking risks and making mistakes with one another.
I think it is about taking risks and making mistakes with God.
The vulnerability inherent in living love out loud, in trying and failing and saying sorry and trying again, requires courage, and it requires faith.
We have to have faith in one another and faith in God that our efforts to love boldly will be welcomed, and valued, and trusted. It’s a two way street.
And if there is one thing the Advent season teaches us, it is that God is not afraid to be vulnerable with us.
God came to us in the most vulnerable way possible: a fragile human baby, here among us, the beloved people of God who sometimes act like a full-on brood of vipers.
So I talk a good game about all this stuff, but honestly vulnerability terrifies me too.
I hate when I know I’ve got to dig deeper and love harder, I’d rather just be lazy and angry.
I go to all kinds of lengths to try and avoid making mistakes and taking real risks, I’d rather everything just be nice.
In short, I live the Christmas card life too.
But here I am in this pulpit trying to practice what I preach, so I’m going to share something.
You know the traditional Christmas letter that goes in the Christmas card?
We use it to highlight all the wonderful things that happened that year, to brag a little bit, to present an image of a thriving, happy family.
We all know that it took thirty-seven plus shots to get that beautiful photograph, and that that letter is a selectively edited review of the year that is about as vulnerable and real as a full suit of armor.
So my traditional Christmas card letter would read something like this: “My 2019 began with the opportunity to meet with some of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s staff to share my ideas about evangelism. After celebrating the deep friendships I formed in 10 wonderful years in Indiana, I had the opportunity to move closer to my family by relocating to St. Louis and beginning ministry with a wonderful new parish, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves. I got integrated with the St. Louis swing dance community and have been teaching and competing with new friends, and celebrated the birth of my new niece on Labor Day.”
Rah, rah, sis boom bah, I could go on but I’m sure you’re nauseated already.
Now every word of that is true, and I’m profoundly grateful for how I’ve been blessed this year, especially for the chance to team up with Mother Jenny and start to get to know you all.
But there’s another side to the story that contains some fruit worthy of repentance.
Here’s my other Christmas letter, the one that gives you a more humbling and realistic look at my year.
I call it: “Holiday Greetings from a Card Carrying Member of the Brood of Vipers.”
“2019 started off with me really struggling to recover from surgery following a cancer scare. I was kind of a big baby about the pain. Bishop Curry’s staff turned out not to be that jazzed about my evangelism ideas after all. I grieved leaving my Indiana people way harder than I anticipated, and I had doubts about whether being in much closer geographical range to my family was even a good idea at all. I ended my relationship with my previous rector on awkward and borderline hostile terms. Then when I got to St. Louis, I started attending dances and immediately developed a massive crush on a guy I’m pretty sure is just not that into me. This wrecked my prayer life because I have spent most of my morning prayer time every morning thinking about him instead of God. One of my first jobs at Emmanuel was to retool the Christian Formation program, and I spun my wheels for a couple of months coming at it from the wrong angle over and over until the rector had to coach me in the right direction and I felt like a real dummy. At one of the Vestry meetings early in my tenure, I shared some concerns in a way that made several people feel really judged. I hurt them. I was trying to help, but I don’t think I did, and anyway that’s no excuse. My niece was premature and came very close to dying in her delivery, as did my sister, and I don’t think I was there for them the way I really wanted to be despite having moved closer. To round things out, I’ve gotten two parking tickets and a moving violation since I moved to St. Louis, and also I’ve put on 15 pounds. Seasons’ greetings, Whitney.”
Now of course that letter makes it all seem like gloom and doom, and the real truth is somewhere in between those two letters.
Life is a rich mixture of struggles and blessings, and John the Baptist is just helping us get a little more honest about those struggles.
So I actually encourage you to write your own “Brood of Vipers Christmas Letter,” and maybe even share it with a couple of fellow parishioners.
Know that they too have their pretty letter and their not-so-pretty letter, and let that knowledge help you love them fiercely, bravely, with the Holy Spirit and with fire as John commands.
Thank you for being people who will let me stand up here and tell you what’s in my heart and in my life, and thank you for being willing to share your life and heart with me.
We may be a Brood of Vipers, but I have faith that the fruit we bear, even the fruit worthy of repentance, will be infinitely worthy to lay at the manger as our gift to our newborn king.