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? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Compared to this alarming bulletin, our 24-hour news cycle seems downright soothing.
With many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
By “good news” Luke means rhetorical hellfire.
Yet crowds thronged and clamored to hear John. His words and water rained down on their heads even as he deferred to the coming one more powerful than himself.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Liken this scene to a present-day crowd. An After-Midnight Blowout on Black Friday comes to mind. Sleep-deprived multitudes with tryptophan and Cold Duck hangovers storm Macy’s doors to get more and save more in order to give more. Lab-coated cosmetics hawkers spritz shoppers with spicy elixirs. An alleluia chorus erupts from a flash mob, the singers in parkas on up and down escalators harmonizing in excelsis Deo. The crowds below and crowds above raise their luminous phones in awed assent. Expectation seizes Associates in all Departments, even the plainclothes Theft Prevention Team Members keeping watch this night. The people collectively forget how small their paychecks, how great their debts, shall be, and are satisfied with their wages. All they know for now is this mercantile mass, this merry surge toward something wanted, bright and costly.
How different are we, really, from Abraham’s descendants and Sarah’s, those ancients who rushed to the river to be doused by John on a tirade? Our hearts may thud stone cold at the thought of one more winter, one more season of obligatory cheer. But something in us loves a crowd and even loves the dread the Advent scriptures foment. Week upon week of dire prophecies and dwindling shopping days heat our hearts and raise them to attention in December: Someone’s coming. Someone’s running out of time.
We are Abraham’s children, indeed. We are the choir John preaches at. Deeper down than our annual desire to give and get presents, we need what John’s baptisands needed: to forgive our debtors and be forgiven by the God who demands we make some fruitful changes.
The axe blade in all its edgy heft is poised to root us out. It implies a threat yet promises a world in which the righteous will produce and the surplus will benefit those who have nothing. It seems the bargain-hungry holiday hordes are on to something more than they may realize. They are agents of abundance and redistribution. After all, the Kingdom according to John looks like an urgent crowd stocking up on overcoats and foodstuffs, then giving them away. He said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Or, Kingdom Come looks like the barn burner John foresees. He cannot even speak the incendiary name of the Lord. At the thought of his mere sandaled feet, John looks down at his own and confesses his puny humanity: “I am not worthy to untie the thong.”
John anticipates the glorious cremation of unnecessary things, including his own life, should his annihilation serve God’s greater purposes. We may see John as either mad or sane depending on how deeply we’re attached to our unexpurgated selves, how reluctant to see our chaff burned off.
Think of John when you strike the match to light that third Advent candle. Its rosy hue, its wick, the air surrounding it, and everything that breathes is subject to the burning John sees coming. We will be made good by messianic fire. Or John’s all wrong, and our redemption will come easy.