Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!
This is Gaudete Sunday on the church calendar when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath and rejoice. Two of the lessons read in churches worldwide speak at length about our joy that our salvation is drawing near and even repeatedly use the word “rejoice” in their text.
But this Gospel… well, it goes a different way. John uses language that Jesus uses as well to describe the leaders of the people who live in and around Jerusalem. They are described as a brood of poisonous snakes, the sort of thing that needs to be destroyed or at least avoided lest they harm us. And John tells how the Messiah is coming with fire and his winnowing fork to sift the grain and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
It’s hard to fit this lesson in with the others.
And yet, when you think about it, there’s hope here. Because when the people who make their living by extortion and violence go to John to ask what is expected of them, John gives them hope. He tells them they need to curb their excess and seems to recognize that even as welcome as their vocation might be, they have a role to play in the world God is transforming.
And perhaps we shouldn’t just focus on others, but ask ourselves if we too might have something to hear in this challenging Gospel. Jesus comes with fire, but it is a refining fire. The fire that Jesus brings with the Spirit burns away the pollution and sin in each of us and burnishes the best parts so that we glow with the reflected light of God’s love.
And that’s something to rejoice about – even if the transformation may require more of us than we want to give.
So rejoice, all of you! Your Savior is coming near.