The video of this sermon being preached appears at the bottom of the post.
This morning’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, his account of the ministry of John the Baptist and remarkably brief telling of the baptism of Jesus, starts with a litany of governmental leaders. Luke tells us who all the powerful people are in the Roman world and in the regions that will be important in Jesus’ ministry – Judea, and Galilee, and more. He mentions by name not only the governmental leaders of the leaders of the Jewish community who work in some relationship with the governmental leaders, a relationship that will become important to remember several years later when all of these empire leaders conspire to put Jesus to death.
Luke starts with this time stamp and this recognition of the “powers and principalities,” but then very quickly pivots and in the same sentence says the word of God came not to these, but to John, the son of Zechariah, who was in the wilderness. The word of God, Luke is telling us, the words that John delivered, the ministry he was about, is for and among the people of God. John’s words that we heard, and will hear more about, are kind of harsh, right? They do not tiptoe around and make the people feel good. They do not allow the people who hear them simply to cast judgement on the evil empire or those corrupt rulers in Rome (or liars in Washington) and absolve themselves from any guilt. They confront us, and they call us to listen up and pay attention. This repentance stuff starts at home.
John’s father, Zechariah, outlined John’s ministry on just the eighth day of his life when in singing and praising God for the birth of his son, he told the world that this child “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for [he] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” John’s ministry, we learn before it even starts, will get the people ready for what Jesus will be about. It will straighten the paths, fill the valleys, lower the mountains and hills, smooth out the rough patches, so that all people will see the salvation of God.
Where do we sign up? Right? I want to be a part of the salvation of God! I want to receive it and share it, don’t you? How do we get in line for that blessing and that vision?!? It is as compelling today as it was back then when crowds of people followed John out of their cities and towns and villages into the wilderness, and waited expectantly for him to tell them the way. He had an audience, a congregation, ready and willing to hear him and follow. What would he say? What would he proclaim to them to prepare them for the Messiah?
“You brood of vipers!” John’s voice boomed to the people.
“You brood of vipers!” he spoke to them.
I wonder how that landed.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” What do you think you’re doing down here??? Are you just trying to find a “get out of jail free” card or are you going to be all in with what I’m about to say?
John is not very gentle. John is preaching the one that might get him fired. And, in fact, this whole account of his ministry ends with the reminder that John got himself thrown in jail for speaking the truth to power. John is not very gentle, but John is truthful. He confronts the lies that the people, that we, are tempted to tell ourselves, but that will block our ability to be a part of the saving ministry of Jesus Christ.
John wants as much as the rest of the people for all flesh to see the salvation of God, but John knows that
- the way to prepare the way for Jesus,
- the way to make our lives and our world ready for what Jesus is all about,
- the way to know God’s love and receive God’s Beloved Son,
- the way to be covered in the powerful gift of the Holy Spirt is to hear and speak the truth, repent from wrong-doing, and turn toward the way of justice that alone will bring peace.
I think our world, our nation, and all of us in it need some truth right now. Like being called a “brood of vipers” the truth does not always make us feel good in the moment, but truth-telling is absolutely crucial, it is fundamental to the building the beloved community. A strong and healthy and peaceful society cannot be built on or tolerate a steady diet of lies. As Dr. Esau McCaulley, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College wrote this weekend, “To be on the side of truth is to be on the side of peace and the flourishing of this country, because lies can only be maintained by violence.”
What we saw this last week was violence borne of lies. Lies told in the immediate past by none other than the President of the United States, Donald Trump – that elections were rigged, that ballots were counted illegally, that thousands of dead people voted, that a presidency was stolen, that the Vice President can overturn election results. These lies riled up and incited a crowd of supporters who had come from all over the nation, who had been talking about and planning a storming of the Capitol in the wide open on social media, who were encouraged by the President to march from the site of their supposedly peaceful gathering down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol grounds. These lies fueled their actions as he told them to “stop the steal,” “show strength”, and “Never give up. Never concede”
Other speakers gave them their marching orders. The president’s son told them to “fight like hell” and “take back our country,” warning opponents “we’re coming for you,” having called for “total war” in the weeks leading up to the rally. The president’s lawyer called for “trial by combat,” that is the practice of settling disputes and accusations by duel.
And while these recent lies are bad enough, they are just the most recent lies that have been allowed to circulate, allowed to form our national identity and fill our ethos. They aren’t the only lies that led to the violence we saw, the violation of the social contract that delicately holds our nation together. Some lies we’ve been telling ourselves for much longer – years, decades, centuries, even – and they were revealed in the people and the props brought to the insurrection on Wednesday.
- The cross that was erected by the rioters. The flags some carried with Christian symbolism and the words “Jesus saves.” – Lies that Jesus can and should be coopted by this ideology and mob.
- Confederate flags that were waving in the crowd and in the Capitol – Lying that the greatest division in this country wasn’t about trying to protect a group of human beings who wanted to own and completely control the birth, life, and death of other human beings.
- The Nazi and white supremacist symbols on signs, flags, and even tattooed on bodies – Telling the lie that people with lighter skin are more important, smarter, and more valuable than people with darker skin.
We have come to a point, frankly after centuries of mostly black and brown people telling us the truth about ourselves and our nation, when these lies cannot go unchecked any longer if we want to live in peace, because these lies are violent. We as Christians, with a spiritual responsibility as well as secular, cannot continue to tell these lies or let them be told
- if we want to proclaim with any integrity that we believe all people are created equal,
- if we want to be among those who bear fruit worthy of our repentance,
- if we want to live into our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit,
- if we want to witness to the salvation of God.
Ignoring them hasn’t worked. Pretending the problem is just people far away hasn’t worked. Throwing up our hands in frustration at a government we claim does not represent us hasn’t worked. On an individual level and a communal level we cannot turn in a different direction from what we saw on Wednesday until we face these hard truths and understand that we are a people in need of repentance.
The lies that created the conditions for Wednesday’s insurrection are not just the lies of politicians. They aren’t just being told in and by those in Washington. The lies that fueled the explosion of violence last week are told in verbal and nonverbal ways everywhere the privilege of lighter skin is enjoyed or supported, everywhere one class or race of people is allowed to profit off the oppression of another, everywhere individual comfort and power is idolized over the well-being of the community.
Right on cue we are already starting to see calls for unity and public figures, religious and secular, urging folks to hurry towards forgiveness for those who incited and perpetrated this insurrection and violence. I completely understand the deep longing for a new and better day, a day when we recognize and honor the humanity in each person in this nation and around the world, the day when we remember and honor the shared values that make a democracy work – like trust and mutual forbearance.
But we cannot get to that new and better day if we skip over
- the difficult work of acknowledging the lies that are being told, the lies that we accept,
- the intimidating task of telling and hearing the truth,
- the spiritual labor of examining our own lives for the ways we resist that truth,
then repenting and turning toward the way of justice that John that Baptist preached about, that Jesus made the center of his ministry – of a making sure that everyone has the coats, the food, the shelter, the clean water, the medicine that they need, making sure everyone is paid a living wage, making sure every life is treated with dignity.
I believe as people of faith, as followers Christ who submitted himself to John’s baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, of turning around of changing our ways…
I believe that as disciples of Jesus who never shied away from telling the truth who calls us to do the same, we can help lead the way to a new a better day. Not because we are superior. Not because we think our party, either party is the True Christian Party. Not because we are holier than any other religious or non-religious people in this country or on this planet.
Because if we take Jesus’ baptism and our baptisms seriously, we know that there is forgiveness for sins. We know that there is new life in telling the truth to ourselves into the world. We know that the chaff of lies in each of us and all of us can be burned away forever while the wheat seeds of truth can be planted and flourish. We know that there is resurrection after death. We know that truth-telling, sin-repenting, justice-bearing, self-sacrificing, enemy-including love conquers all.
Simply put, we know that the truth will set us all free.