In the Gospel appointed to be read in Advent, John cries out to the crowds: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?!” Then he goes on to say the Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with 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.” Strong words as we prepare today to baptize a sweet little girl in God’s name. Over the years preachers have unpacked this passage and looked upon baptism as a time to rail against the inherent sinful nature of man, to address the doctrine of original sin, the belief that we are born with an indelible spot or stain that carried down through the ages from the disobedience of the first human beings.
In the last several hundred years, the understanding of who Jesus was and what his life meant for the world has been debated and refined; because of the work done in the field of theology as theologians engaged with psychologists, biologists, sociologists, the understanding of the nature of humanity, of sin and evil, has shifted from understanding ourselves as inherently depraved, to understanding ourselves as made in the image of God — and “God saw that it was good”—with sin and evil entering our lives as a result of the freedom of choice we have been given by God. In the Episcopal tradition, we do not believe that we are God’s puppets, chosen at birth to be saved or damned, but God’s beloved children, invited into relationship with God and given the freedom of choice. The child Jesus grew into a man who showed us that the nature of the love of God is unconditional, but that it also includes choice. Over and over again, Jesus invited people to follow him. He invited people to change lives that were self-serving or self-destructive into lives that were kind, and generous and just. We never see an instance of Jesus forcing anyone to do anything. The nature of the relationship with him and– through him– with God, includes the freedom of choice. And just as the first humans did, just as people in the time of Jesus did, just as humans over the last 2000 years have done, we continue to struggle with making the right choices, choices that are life-giving for us and for those around us.
Sin continues to be defined as acts we do, or fail to do, which draw us away from the love of God and each other. Whether or not there exists an actual being, which we often call Satan, has been– and continues to be –debated among various groups of Christians. But that evil continues to exist as a destructive force which results from a collective manifestation of a series of choices, affecting whole groups of people and cultures and nations, is undeniable. We have only to turn on the news, or to look around us at the injustices that exist within our own cities.
What, then, of John’s fiery words? How did the people of John’s time understand his words and what do they mean to us today? What do they mean for this lovely little girl named Gretchen? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?!” At the time, John was using a figure of speech appropriate to the geographical setting where John preached. The brushwood and stubble which covered the rugged area of the wilderness would sometimes catch fire and flames would quickly leap through the dry nettles. When this happened, snakes and vipers would scurry from their hiding places to escape the flames.*
John later commented that the One to Come would baptize them with the
Holy Spirit and fire. Notice that John was not talking to the Pharisees here; he was talking to everyone in the crowd who had come to hear him. In essence, John was pointing to Jesus as the fire that drives us from our hiding places & out into the open. Then we have to face ourselves. But even out in the open, God gives us choices. Once we are faced with the truth about ourselves, the truth that we sometimes choose things that are not of God, we can deny our wrongdoings and flee to another hiding place, or we can chose to lose ourselves in regret, or we can choose to repent—to turn our lives around.
Chosing to deny the truth about ourselves puts us right back where we were before, going nowhere and hiding from God. If we hold onto regret, it only leads us into a sea of misery in which we can wallow and fret until it drowns us. Perhaps that is why people were drawn to John in spite of his harsh words. They felt hope when they heard him preach because he offered another way of responding to seeing the truth about ourselves, repentance.* The act of repentance offers us a way to do something about the course we have taken. If we are on the wrong track we do not need to ignore it, keep going, and fall off into the abyss. If we are on the wrong track, we can admit it and switch tracks. We may not be able to undo the past, the miles we have already traveled, but we do not need to stay on the same track. Jesus is the crossroad where we can change direction. Jesus invites us back into relationship with God. By his actions, Jesus illumines the path to God, a path that includes acts of kindness, fairness, and justice.
As we baptize Gretchen today, we will surround her as a community– parents, godparents, relatives, and fellow Christians, offering the love and support that is needed in order to learn about the path Jesus walked, and to witness to the perseverance it takes to walk that same path in his name. We cannot always make good choices on our own. We cannot engage in discernment about good and evil unless we have others to engage with! Today we will ask God to grant her the gifts she will need for her journey. We will ask for God to open her heart to God’s truth and grace, to fill her with God’s life giving Spirit, to teach her to love others, to witness to the world about God’s love, to fill her with joy and peace. Rather than pouring water over her head to wash away some cosmic dark stain, we pour water over Gretchen’s head to instill in her the life-giving Holy Spirit of God. It is this Spirit that will enable her to grow into the full stature of what God desires for her to be– a loving, kind, fair, and just human being.
By our actions, we confess our faith that through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus we are promised that nothing can separate us from the love of God and that, through our baptism, we are forgiven of our sins even before we commit them. By our words and actions in the ritual of Holy Baptism, we affirm that we intend to choose God’s way, that we know we will sometimes fail, but that we will do our best to show Gretchen what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the way we live our daily lives and in the choices we make to be kind, and loving, and just.