Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So I’m not going to join John the Baptist and call you all a brood of vipers -- don’t worry. But I am going to start with a question that gets at what he is getting at, and that is, why are you here? What brings you to church this Sunday and all the other Sundays?
These questions put us in the place of the multitudes that have come to John the Baptist, because when you look at the first sentence of our Gospel this morning, you’ll notice the key detail that they are made up of those who want to be baptized by him. That means that many of them are likely faithful Jews who are doing what every faithful Jew should do when a prophet arises in their midst: go out to meet them and heed the warnings. To hear the word of God that the prophet has been called to deliver to the people. Or, in the case of these multitudes, to be baptized. The point is that these are people who are already members of the people of God who are doing their best to act accordingly. And that makes them a lot like us: a group of ordinary church-goers.
But how does John the Baptist greet them as they approach him? “He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His question drips with sarcasm. He knows full well that it was probably not out of any fear of the wrath to come that the multitudes have come out to meet him. And so he basically asks them, why are you here? You might have expected him to at least pat them on the back a bit for coming out in the first place. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, after all; hardly a convenient day trip. And no doubt that there were countless others who didn’t even bother to come to him at all. Doesn’t their presence count for something?
But that won’t cut it for John. He is not satisfied with a merely external display of piety or religious duty. And so he tells them to “bear fruits that befit repentance,” for “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It seems that the only way for them to flee from the wrath to come is to embrace the wrath with humility and repentance.
The problem for the multitudes, however, is that they can’t bear the fruits of repentance until they’ve had their sense of security shaken. Repentance begins in crisis. John knows that many find their confidence in their ancestry from Abraham, so that whatever wrath that is coming is of little concern to them; the wrath is certainly meant for other people. But John’s not having that either. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’” John tells them, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Their ancestry by itself counts for nothing, because their ancestry was only ever a sign of what God had done in creating a people for himself. To be a child of Abraham was always to be a child of God first: a child of the covenant and the promise. So, reading between the lines, the irony of John’s claim that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” is that Abraham’s children had always been raised up from stones, so to speak. Abraham was advanced in age and his wife Sarah was barren when God promised him that he would bear a son and become the father of many nations. He and Sarah were the “stones” from which God would raise up a son for them. And Isaac was the son of promise because it was only by an act of God that he was born at all. In a sense, Isaac therefore prefigures those in St. John’s Gospel “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
So, John’s reminder to the multitudes is that their confidence and security as members of the people of God does not rest in their natural relation to Abraham alone. Because the children of Abraham are a covenant people, the only relation that matters is the one between them and God. And the ultimate mark of that relationship is repentance and obedience.
Now, even though most of us here are Gentiles -- and are thus most definitely the stones that God has raised up into his children -- it’s not difficult to see ourselves in these multitudes. We can ask John’s question of ourselves. Why are we here? And what is the foundation on which our confidence as Christians is based? Where do we find our confidence that the wrath of God is not coming for us?
If we were to ask ourselves these questions, I would expect a few standard answers to come to our minds rather quickly: “well, this is where I go to church; I’ve been a faithful member of this parish for decades”; “I was baptized on such and such date”; or, perhaps something less specific than those, something like “well, I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember and, besides that, I think I’m a pretty good person, most of the time.”
If these would be our answers, or some version of them, the reality is that we probably wouldn’t ever feel the need to ask ourselves these questions in the first place. If the walls of your house seem solid and there aren’t any cracks in the walls, then there’s no good reason to doubt the stability of your foundation. Likewise, it’s only in a moment of crisis or doubt that we likely find ourselves questioning the state of our relationship with God. In those moments, all the external routines of religion we go through can prove to be inadequate by themselves to secure our confidence.
And yet, this sense of crisis is precisely what the season of Advent intends to induce within us each year. All of the apocalyptic readings that we’ve been hearing these past few weeks -- the fear and foreboding, the signs of the end, the impending judgment and the wrath to come -- all of this is meant to unsettle us. To rock the boat and disrupt our false sense of security. Now, this might make Advent sound like one of those old time tent revivals, where it’s all about the wrath of God and saving the lost. I mean, I guess it could be like that, because that’s always a possibility at any gathering of the Church. When the Gospel is preached, souls tend to be saved as a result. But that’s not primarily what Advent is about. Again, just as the multitudes were made up of people who were already members of the people of God, the Church is made up of people who are already members of the Body of Christ. That’s just what the Church is. And Advent is a season for Christians.
Nevertheless, the reason why John the Baptist is the definitive character for the season of Advent is because he calls us to bear fruits that befit repentance. The call to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light is one that he would have wholeheartedly endorsed. For Advent is about the wrath to come, the day of judgment. It is the when we look to the day when “the axe is laid to the root of the trees” and when “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Again, if we have been raised up as children of God by our adoption into his people, then we, like the Jews of the Old Testament, only have one relation that is of any significance: our relation to God. No performative gesture, no external observance of religion or piety, can alone count for anything. However vital and even necessary they may be, they are not the mark of our security, for our security is not based upon flesh and blood, but upon the will of God. And the will of God is that we bear fruits that are worthy of repentance.
At this point, you might be asking yourselves the same question that the multitudes asked John: “what then shall we do?” What does it look like to bear these fruits that befit repentance? Well, John the Baptist responds with some rather straightforward suggestions that can basically be summed up by almsgiving and conducting ourselves according to justice. It’s not some mystical revelation and it might have been a bit of a let-down to the Jews who were there, because John was mostly just repeating the law and the prophets. But these works are nevertheless the fruits of repentance commanded by John the Baptist because they all have one thing in common: they keep us from rest in a false sense of security. They are acts of humility that welcome the judgment of God – for this is simply what repentance is – and we are obligated to do them no less than the multitudes were.
But in the end, Advent ultimately provides its own answer for why we are here: we are here to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; to prepare for the life immortal within the struggle of this mortal life. And taking John the Baptist’s words to heart, we do that by cooperating with the grace that God has given us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. This is what makes his preaching “good news” for the multitudes and for us. For repentance refuses to find any consolation in this mortal life, the things that are passing away, so that it can find its ultimate consolation in the only thing that can truly comfort us and give us security – which is God. The only security to be found in this season -- and in the whole Christian life, for that matter -- is therefore the security of conversion. As we speak, we are being gradually illuminated with the light of Christ that overcomes all our darkness, for Christ has brought his winnowing fork within our very souls, to clear the threshing floor of our hearts. Advent is when we flee from the wrath to come by welcoming the wrath that has come, in the sure and certain hope that the baptism of fire that Christ is taking us through will not destroy us, but perfect us. Amen.