So how many of you have ever heard of the lectionary? How many of you actually know what the lectionary is? How many of you have no idea what I’m talking about? The Lectionary is a schedule of assigned readings for every Sunday of the church year, that all Episcopal churches use. You can go to any Episcopal Church and hear the same gospel reading, the same Psalm, reading from the Hebrew scriptures, etc. (In fact many of the other mainline denominations like Lutherans and Presbyterians have the same lectionary that we do). We go through most of the Bible in three years.
My point is that the preacher does not get to pick the reading she or he preaches on. This morning, we are going to celebrate the baptism of a beautiful baby boy, Harrison Jones. So you can imagine how I felt when I picked up the scriptures for today to prepare to preach, and saw that the gospel text begins by John calling people a brood of vipers. John obviously flunked PR 101. I mean read it: the gospel story says, and I quote: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Then he goes on to talk about axes and throwing bad trees into unquenchable fire and all kinds of other light topics like that. The most amazing part of the reading to me is how it ends: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” To which most of us would just respond, Ah-ha.
But it’s the third Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season where we prepare for the coming of Christ, which means we get John the Baptist, because he was the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord, as the scriptures say. Not only that but our church is named after him. So what are we supposed to do? Just take what we like and leave the rest? You can do that if you need to. But I wonder if we dig a little deeper if we might find something good in what John is teaching.
John’s main concern, in this passage, is to shake people up, to wake them up to realize that merely inheriting tradition, merely having the bloodline of the people of Israel, will not give them life or healing or justice. To use old fashioned language, just belonging to a particular religious group or people would not grant them salvation, whatever salvation meant to them then, and whatever it means to us now. Instead, he was urging people to repent, which simply means to turn around; to move in a different direction; to change their minds and their paradigms and their actions in life. As part of his teaching, he baptized people. Have you ever stopped to wonder where John got the idea of baptism? Y’all are a pretty sophisticated and educated crowd so maybe you already know all about this. Was baptism just a ritual John made up to symbolize the repentance was talking about? Actually it wasn’t. Baptism was a pre-existing ancient Jewish ritual that was used when a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism. In other words John was offering Jewish people a ritual that would symbolize becoming in heart what they already were externally: a people truly, actively devoted to the God of Israel. He was saying that intention and action had to match; tradition had to be lived out with justice and integrity. His ferocious rhetoric just named the hypocrisy in the religious system of his day, and I think we can all understand that. We see plenty of religious hypocrisy today, in fact we are probably guilty of some of it ourselves, if we’re honest.
So John the Baptist is saying, our innermost intentions and heart, and our external actions, must align with the religious beliefs and traditions to which we aspire, or we aren’t worthy to claim any religious identity at all. Even though that’s kind of intense, I’d say we mostly agree with him. In fact that was good news to the people who struggled with too many religious requirements from clergy who were hypocrites. So why wasn’t John the Messiah? What else was there to do or hear?
John talks about bearing fruit; that our lives must bear fruit to be worthy of being called children of Abraham. I suspect most of us skip right over that and think we know what he means, – something along the lines of producing good outcomes, doing good things. But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. What is fruit? Fruit, precisely, is the part of the created order that guarantees future life, that guarantees generativity. Fruit contains the seeds of future life in it. I had the wonderful chance to study with a Jewish Rabbi named Alan Ulman. We studied the very first chapter of Genesis, the beautiful creation poem where God creates the world in seven days, and calls each thing good. During that poem, God tells the earth to bring forth plants bearing fruit with seed in it. Rabbi Alan said that from the very beginning, God embeds each of us with seeds for future life in us, that we are meant to bring forth for the life of the world; and that this generativity is what God is referring to when God calls the creation good. This does not mean mere procreation. Some of us are called to have children and some of us are not. It means that we are meant to bring forth the sacred future, and that each of us has gifts from God to make this happen. It means that the kind of good deeds we are meant to do should produce more life and more justice beyond our own capacity. Native Americans do this when they talk about living to benefit seven generations beyond us. The Earth Matters folks are thinking of living generatively when they play the movie forward on climate change and ask each of us to make small changes in the way we live, for the sake of the earth. And each of us is asked to live generatively in the way we respond to each other. If we don’t live this way, John is saying we are the equivalent of a dead branch on a tree that any good gardener would simply prune away. But to have the life and vitality and wisdom to live generatively, we need more than a prophet or a nag or a teacher to remind us what the right thing to do is. We need the power of the living Christ within us. We need baptism with water and the Holy Spirit—to go all the way back to creation itself and receive our identity and purpose in a new way.
So for us, in the 21st century United States, John’s message is relevant. We are in the postmodern era, which whatever else it may mean, implies the end of Christendom. For the first time in sixteen hundred years in the West, you can actually choose whether or not to be a follower of the way of Jesus, instead of simply being born into this religion, because we’re now in a pluralistic culture where many people have never set foot in a church. We have new awareness about how much American Christianity has been tainted with the distortions of white supremacy, and how much we have to unlearn about the faith we thought we knew. But just like the crowds coming to John in the wilderness to be baptized by him, mere intention to change our ways is not enough; tradition isn’t enough, knowing and striving for the right things aren’t enough. We need transformation, both personal and societal, and for that followers of the way of Jesus seek power of God made manifest in human form, the person of Jesus the Christ. This was the one whose mission was to give sight to the blind, liberation to the captives, good news to the poor. He is the one who does more than command us to good ethics; he embodies love, and empowers us to love, because the love of God is what is generative.
Today, we celebrate baptizing Harrison into the life of love in the way of Jesus. And we renew our own baptismal covenants as well. In it we receive our identities as God’s Beloved. And the love of God heals us, transforms us, and empowers us to live differently. It is ordinary people like you and me, following the Way of love in the power of God’s Spirit, that will bring about the sacred future.