Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snake-Spawn: Sermon on Matthew 3:7-8

Murmurs rumbled throughout the ornate chamber with the two doorways. It was the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple complex, with one door to the inner court and one to the outer. Within the room, seventy-one elders in their soft, supple robes tried to hew to the rules of decorum as they argued and disputed. In the heart of their arc, high priest Yosef ben Kaiapha – 'Caiaphas' – tried to keep order among his party, while the quite older man, stern Shammai, aimed to do the same among his, with aid from his sometime rival, gentle Gamaliel. The Great Sanhedrin, Supreme Court of the Jews, wasn't always easy to keep working smoothly. So many dignitaries were there. Representatives of all twenty-four priestly courses. Elite scribes and teachers of the law. Former high priests, even, like Yosef ben Kaiapha's father-in-law, Hanan ben Seth. Those two, Annas and Caiaphas, seemed inseparable. The issue that had arisen among the court today was how to handle a particular innovator, an alleged prophet out in the desert, whose popularity was on the rise. Few in the assembly gave much credit to the likelihood of his actual validity, but more to the point was how dangerous he might be, this Johanan of the Jordan – this 'John.'

Clearly, someone needed to investigate – to gain an eyewitness perspective on the affair and report back. But deciding who to send from among their number... well, that was a harder matter. Hence the subdued bickering. For there were two factions perpetually wrestling for control of the court, and had been for over a hundred years. On the one hand were those called the Sadducees. Annas, Caiaphas – their sort. The Sadducees were aristocrats, blue bloods, dealers in the status quo. Moneyed interests, they tended to be. Sticklers for reading the law as-is – if you can't prove it from the plain words of Moses, it's inadmissible. So much of what most Jews expected after death – the Sadducees couldn't find it in Moses, so down the tubes it all went. And then, on the other side, were the Pharisees, carriers of unwritten traditions they claimed stretched through Moses and the other prophets, letting them flexibly apply the law to new situations. They loathed the status quo, under the Roman thumb, but had a vision for purging the nation. If they could build such a broad buffer around every rule in the law that following their program would preserve one from sin, and if they could persuade all Israel to join their program, then a sinless day might come, proving they at last deserved deliverance and blessing from God. All they needed was for the rest of Israel to get with their program.

Well, someone needed to investigate John. And clearly it wouldn't do to have just Sadducees go and return and give a Sadducee take on it. And clearly it wouldn't do to send Pharisees alone. So a tense truce was struck, and a joint commission – Sadducees and Pharisees, not so different from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, bickering and grasping for power endlessly – well, such a joint commission was appointed.

In time, off they went. Out of the temple precincts. Out of the city. Out through the footpaths. Out to the bank of the Jordan River. Slipping in among the crowds. They tried somewhat to blend in, to not be noticed too readily. But members of the Sanhedrin – tall, striking – well, they tended to stand out above the rest. But they had a place to watch John – who by all rights should've been accepting his priestly duties in the temple, as a son of Zechariah and thus a member of the priestly division of Abijah – watch him rave and listen to confessions and take people out across the river and bring them back through, baptizing them by... by what authority? That, maybe, was all the question.

This is where Matthew lets us in on the action. He tells us that, as the crowds from “Jerusalem and Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” so John one day noticed “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism” (Matthew 3:6-7). The phrasing is deliberately different. A large group of Pharisees and Sadducees – who were rival factions in politics and religion alike, and probably wouldn't have tended to mingle except on official business – had arrived, not to be baptized, but at the site where he was baptizing others. They had infiltrated the crowd of earnest hearers, so a less discerning person – and maybe quite a few in the crowd were so – might've thought that they were there for the same purpose, with the same motive. But no.

No, these Sadducees, these Pharisees, none of them had come with any thought of actually ever participating in what John, the camel-hair-clad, locust-and-honey-eating renegade son of a priest, was up to. None of the members of this Sanhedrin delegation had a sense of personal need. They were not beggars, not supplicants. They were not seeking such a radical renewal, not out to humble themselves. They came as judges. They came to observe and evaluate, and then to go back home and render a verdict and decide whether action might need to be taken to put an end to John's career.

As we find out throughout the rest of the book, their verdict wasn't a positive one. “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'” (Matthew 11:18). “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). They didn't place much stock in what John was doing, these elite Sadducees and Pharisees.

Now, for most of us, if the big-shots come to see what we're doing, we might try to make a good impression on them. Might tidy house. Put on our best suit. Keep a firmer grip on our tongue. Put our best foot forward. If you're under observation, that's a common way to react. But John has other ideas. See, the first thing out of his mouth when he sees them is to call them out. These are the men who are there to perform an official evaluation of him – but John insists on giving them a harsh dose of reality.

John yells out that they're all – Sadducees and Pharisees alike, these members of the highest court in Jerusalem – that they're a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). And I'll give you a hint: that was not a gentle thing to say. If little John had said it to the neighbor boy, his parent's might've tried to wash his mouth out with soap. But the insult found its mark. And John wasn't wrong to say it – two times in the next few years, Jesus would call the Pharisees the exact same thing: “You serpents, brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33; cf. also 12:34). Sadducees and Pharisees both prided themselves so much on being good. They both prided themselves so much on being clean. After all, priests had to maintain their ritual purity, and Pharisees anyway were obsessed with spreading strict observance of purity laws even among commoners. Both parties were focused on squeaky-clean living. And John goes and calls them filthy animals, not fit for any lawful use. Snakes were hardly kosher. Instead, they reminded everyone of the one in the garden who slithered on forbidden trees. The Sadducees were proud of their priestly ancestries, and in fact one main function of the Sanhedrin was to scrutinize prospective priests' family trees to prevent any less-than-noble heritage. The Pharisees were proud of their fathers, from whom they handed down traditions linking them, generation by generation, back to the days of Moses. But John says he's sniffed something rotten in their background, Sadducees and Pharisees alike, for it's the Snake in the Garden to whom they bear the most family resemblance. And indeed, Jesus would later say to maybe some of the very same Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires” (John 8:44). Of the enemies of Israel, it was said of old, “their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps” (Deuteronomy 32:33). The tribe of Dan, disinherited by Jewish tradition for total corruption, was described by Jacob as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse's heels so that his rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17). And the Sadducees and Pharisees have become such poisonous enemies of God's people.

But what John called these elite inspectors was so much more cutting than that. For he didn't just say 'snakes.' He said 'vipers.' And when most people in that time thought about vipers, there was one popular rumor that always came to mind first of all. A Greek historian, centuries before, had spread a story that baby Arabian vipers were born by chewing their way out of their mama's womb, devouring and killing her in the process at the moment of their birth. So when John – and later Jesus – calls this crew a “brood of vipers,” it's one of the harshest insults there is. It insinuates that these Sadducees and Pharisees are mom-killers. They're spiritual matricides, the real murderers in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, who devour her guts and leave a corpse in their wake. The Sadducees and Pharisees are all upstanding citizens, the cream of the crop; they have never in their lives considered themselves as having anything to do with whatever's wrong in Israel. But John accuses them of having everything to do with what's wrong in Israel. They are the violence ripping apart God's bride from the inside-out. They are the death of her. So when John comes to point the way to life, he can't point to the programs of the Pharisees or Sadducees, but away from them. For from them flows the poison that outrages God and will call down Elijah fire. Their tradition, their pretense, their pride – it's the new Baal priesthood, the new work of Jezebel, and this whole place is a Mount Carmel waiting to be scorched.

For they are the violence. They are the poison. They are the corrupting impurity that slithers and gnaws. They pretend to be so great, but they're “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). And so John asks them sarcastically: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). See, showing up on Jordan's banks, filtering in among the crowds, they look the part of those who know there's fire on the way. They look like they know what's coming. But they're clueless and in denial. If they want a real clue, they need to repent and bear fruit (Matthew 3:8).

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have objected to what John called them, what John told them. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees both aimed to follow the Law of Moses. They had different ideas of what that meant, sometimes, but they surely considered themselves as devout, Torah-observant Jewish men of the highest caliber. They weren't out drinking and partying, weren't out brawling and vandalizing. Each one was circumcised in the covenant of Abraham, each one kept to a life of moral rigor, each one was religiously scrupulous. They had the best of works just flowing out their ears! So what are all these works, if not good fruit?

But John would've seen right through that. You can have all sorts of pretty finery, you can be upstanding, you can have society-approved achievements... and it can be a pile of splinters of lifeless construction. But fruit is organic. It grows from something alive. In this case, 'repentance.' And we talked the other week about what a strong word that was for John. 'Repentance,' in his mouth, means a radical turn to God, as if meeting God for the first time as a complete outsider and then being drastically converted and brought into the Land of Promise for a fresh start. And to that end, before they could start again and regain healthy covenant standing, people in the crowd had to openly accept responsibility for Israel's problem and give a list of evidence, confessing the sins they themselves had committed that had contributed to the darkness. They had to name their own reflection as the shadow blocking Israel from God's light. And then they had to admit their estrangement, do an about-face, and let John wield the power of God to symbolically exclude and include them.

And none of that was something the Sadducees or the Pharisees were willing to do. Because they could never see themselves that way. They were too invested in how good they thought they were, how pure they thought they were, that the notion of humbling themselves to convert to their own religion was just absurd. But only from repentance, only from conversion, does the right fruit grow. The right fruit has to grow out of a heart that has taken a cold, hard look at itself; realized its desperate need; turned toward God; and called out for grace. The right fruit is the fruit of conversion. And someone who really got John's message, who stepped out and in again, would be overawed. Everything about Israel's faith and life would seem shiny and new. They'd approach everything with a dewy-eyed gratitude, because they'd see more clearly how dank and dark the alternatives are. And for that reason, none of the works of the Sadducees or Pharisees can be “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Because theirs is not a life of gratitude – at least, not for the right things. For what kinds of prayers might they pray? “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). And that's fruitless.

John invited members of the Jewish supreme court, it seems, to renounce their status and their self-conceptions, and to see themselves as the ones who should be on trial. But they couldn't bear to accept that ruling from John. They felt themselves good. They felt themselves confident. They felt themselves apart. So they were there to observe. And they were there to investigate. And maybe they might even softly approve – perhaps, after all, this message could help improve the rabble in need of its help. But they were hardly there to join.

And then we come to us. Ourselves. And too often, professing Christians have continued the legacy of those Sadducees and those Pharisees. We have seen ourselves as upstanding religious consumers who, at the most, just need some management tools. We consider the problems facing the church, or the problems facing the country, and it scarcely crosses our minds that the heart of the problem might be us. We've at times loved to see others get brought from vice toward virtue. But we consider ourselves already virtuous, hence in no need of being converted. And so it's easier for us to judge our neighbors for not measuring up to us. It's easier for us to see others out there as a social contagion – a criminal element in society, or a depraved element in society, or a simply lower-class element in society – and consider ourselves the ones innocently injured – burdened, really – by being tied to them by the social contract.

And so, when it comes to John's message, at times we can stand on the banks of the Jordan... but why? What for? Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Friends, it's so easy to come as mere observers, there to consume and evaluate. Many throughout history have done it every Sunday, after all. It's easy. Sit in a pew, watch the show, instinctively grade it, then go out for lunch. That may be our default setting.

And a Sadducee or Pharisee could manage the same thing. For that's essentially what they did when they came to John. It didn't much matter if they gave him a bad grade or a good grade. What matters is that they left unchanged. They left unrepentant. They left unbaptized. They came as observers, they left as observers, they never became real participants in what had happened. And when we encounter God's work and remain observers throughout, the same is true of us. Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Do we come chiefly to judge or chiefly to join? Are we snake-spawn in the church, snake-spawn in the country, or will we be converted into something fruitful?

It's not enough to be upstanding. It's not enough to be decent. It's not enough to be moral. It's not enough to be productive. It's not enough to show up. The Sadducees did that. The Pharisees did that. And then John called them mother-killing viper-babies in Satan's image, asked them what they were doing there as if trying to escape from the judgment God was sending on their account, and called them to be converted and come to life and bear real fruit for a change. Real fruit – not just the mechanical motions of morality, but the living texture of a life of humble gratitude, like a convert seeing the world with fresh eyes after a clear glimpse of the darkness within, newly committed to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

No, it isn't enough to come as an observer. It isn't enough to hear a thought and chew on it. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We have to come as participants. We have to join and personally apply it. Or rather, we have to come to God again and again as beggars, laying nothing to our credit but what he'll give us, nothing to our credit than the cross and risen life of Jesus Christ our gracious Lord. Nothing to our credit but the good news announced to us. Nothing but the gospel of the grace of God, which comes to us as to a brood of vipers but makes us sons and daughters of God – not so that we can kick back, not so that we can become passive observers, not so that we can be religious consumers, but so that we can come as participants who stand by grace alone, who look at the world with fresh eyes, and who bear fruit from a thankful heart of true repentance. What will you be?

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