Doan and I went to our first Pre-Cana session this past Thursday. Father Lane Davenport, our priest down in DC went over all manner of marriage-related items, including the procuring of a marriage license. Father Lane told us that when you go to the imposing DC Court building on Indiana Avenue to get your license, you have to go up to the top floor and walk down a long corridor. The office where you get the license is at the end of the long hall, and there are several offices you pass along the way, all with frosted glass doors with titles on them, titles like the Office for Divorce, Office for Alimony, Office for Child Support. The hallway itself serves as a warning to all who presume to get married, a physical reminder of what happens when the best laid plans go awry, when a couple who plan to get married go cockeyed. When Father Lane told us this, I couldn’t help but think of the Gospel lesson we just heard, about how the Scribes and the Sadducees and the Pharisees and the tax collectors and the soldiers had gone a bit cockeyed. Like a couple who forgot to look together to God, the rulers standing in front of John the Baptist had forgotten where to look, and John the Baptist gave them a harsh reminder.
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?” How would you like it if I started out every sermon like that? You brood of vipers, you pit of poison, you slithering mass. Maybe some of you might like that every once in a while, but a steady diet of reproof can leave us all feeling a bit undernourished. But sometimes, every once in a blue moon, the Word of God comes to a man like John the Baptist out in the wilderness, and sometimes God tells His prophet to tell off His people. You brood of vipers: John calls the whole crowd standing around him a family of predators. Vipers are horrific animals: sneaky and aggressive, they commonly feed on each other. Some vipers have venom that paralyzes their victims, others have venom that causes flesh to die off almost immediately. So John the Baptist was calling out his own people for being sneaky and aggressive, for feeding on each other by way of greed and manipulation, for paralyzing each other with faulty interpretations of the Law; John told the crowd that they were killing each other slowly.
And so they were, and they knew it. The educated amongst the crowd argued that God was with them because they were sons of Abraham, but John didn’t buy that argument, saying that God could raise up sons for Abraham from the rocks at their feet. John told them that their time had come, that the Once Who Is To Come, that is, Jesus, was coming all too soon, and the only way out of calamity was to repent. The crowds seemed to agree, and asked John, “What then shall we do?”
Now, at this point in the story, you might expect John to give a learned treatise on the economy of salvation or on the finer points of Incarnational theology, perhaps give some new insight on the efficacy of the Temple sacrifices. Instead, John the Baptist said this: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” And even tax collectors came to be baptized, and so they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Almost seems too simple, right? Don’t be a jerk is the basic answer, perhaps better said as “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” John the Baptist didn’t demand that the crowds leave their homes and live like him out in the wilderness, he didn’t tell them to sit shaking in the Temple, instead he called the people “to fidelity in the very circumstances of their lives: Those who have more than they need, share with those who have less; tax collectors, be honest; soldiers, do not take advantage of the vulnerable; parents, cherish your children; spouses, be faithful; neighbors, live in peace.” Repent from the evil you were causing in your own lives, straighten up and fly right, and look to God, because God’s about to do something radical.
And so it is with us. Even if this is the only Mass you’ll ever come to or even if you come Mass every day, God is still doing something radical; in the sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus comes to us just as physically as He came two-thousand years ago. And if Jesus is coming, we all must ask “What then shall we do?” John the Baptist’s answer is still the answer to that question, to repent from our manifold sins and wickedness and to bear fruit worthy of that repentance. Be honest brokers, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Be cheerful givers; out of your gratitude to God, give to those who have nothing. Be content in the Lord, be satisfied with what the Lord has given you and don’t attempt to gain more by way of corrupt dealings. Don’t be a jerk, love the Lord and love thy neighbor as thyself, and when Jesus comes, and He is coming to us in mere moments, He will come not with an ax in His hand but with outstretched hands, those same hands that bear the wounds that bought us everlasting life with Him. Come Lord Jesus.