"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? .... Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”"
Which is a version of the baptismal liturgy that, in the Church of England for instance, can be omitted "for pastoral reasons."
They don't seem over-stressed by it all, the crowds. Where a post-modern bunch of Brompton Hipsters would be all, "Easy, John dude! Let's have a craft beer and an artisanal locust and artichoke rice bowl! Then we can maybe take the fixies for a spin - there's these lovely wind-y roads just inside the Hebron Gate - chill out and have a chat about this whole "brood of vipers" concept. Nice beard, by the way."
No, the crowds just take it on the chin. "Brood of vipers? Well, John - you're the Baptist. You should know. Careful with that axe, mind. Got sensitive roots, we have, at this time in our race's history."
Which is a heck of an intro for what becomes a fairly uncontroversial list of instructions, What must they do? Share their coats with people who need coats. Share their food with hungry people. Tax collectors aren't asked to do anything wildly virtuous. "Just do your job. Don't take what you're not supposed to have". No more. Soldiers - don't beat people up and demand money off people.
All sounds entirely reasonable. Even for a brood of vipers. We all know we should share with those who need it more than we do. This is not news. All the major religions agree - you should do unto others as you would be done by. Or not do to others what you wouldn't be done by. Soldiers not beating up people is not a shock.
But in fact that's exactly what doesn't happen. Soldiers oppress the people they've defeated because they persuade themselves they're not as human. They're the enemy. People without coats - how often can it be rationalised that their coat-lessness is down to their own fecklessness? People with not enough food - they have dodgy governments, or if they're in this country they're lazy. How come they're going hungry when they have mobile phones and cars? What's the matter with these people? Burundi is a reminder - not for the first time - of what happens when people decide other people are other than them - a threat and a danger.
John's instructions, frankly, are good and worthy but they don't work. He's just restating the Old Testament Law. Deuteronomy 10:18 for instance: "He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing." Yet 1,000 years on from Deuteronomy's events, people still need telling. 2,000 years on from John the Baptist, people still need telling. Nothing changes from simply telling people what is good and what isn't - because we pretty much all knew it already. It's written in our hearts, that's why it's written in our religions already. And because we know it but don't always do it - that's why we have police, and peace-keepers, United Nations and social services and food banks and charities.
Everybody knows there's more to come: they're waiting for the Messiah, and wondering if John's the man. And John knows he's not, and he also seems to know that the moral stuff isn't the heart of the problem: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
John's the greatest prophet the land and people of Israel have ever produced. And the best he can come up with himself is: "be nice to people." There's something far more fundamental that's needed - and he kind of knows what it is.
"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.”
John knows that whoever comes after him - that cousin he presumably left behind as he headed for the desert, maybe one he's never met since that blessed morning in Elizabeth's house - has to do more than just tell people what's good. Moses did that - and they promptly made a golden calf. Jeremiah did it - and they threw him in a muddy cistern. Whoever comes, will have to be able to change the very depths of the human heart.
He'll have to burn out all the evil - all the tendency to know what is right and make up reasons why it's OK to do wrong. All those excuses that you don't have to love your neighbours because, let's face it, they're not good neighbours.
I don't know how allegorical "chaff" is here. Is Jesus clearing the threshing floor and throwing the souls that are chaff into the fire? Maybe. Hardly the gentle Jesus meek and mild of fable, but on the other hand, if anyone is ever going to decide who does and doesn't enter the fire, I'd rather it were Jesus. He, after all, is the one that all sorts of people ran to and he welcomed them. If you reach out to him and see him as the Saviour, as the real Baptizer who will change your heart and your eternal destiny - he's the one that can do it.
But also (or maybe instead) - he's the one who will clear the chaff out of the threshing floor of your heart. There's only good grain going to be any use in the kingdom - all the rest needs to be left behind, thrown away. You don't store chaff away in a barn - that's what you do with grain. Maybe if you open your heart to that Baptiser, then the Holy Spirit will come in and burn out the excuses, and the hardness, and the clinging to your prejudices and the self-centredness. Maybe if you open up your heart to the Baptiser then what is left in there will be pure, and holy, and useful - and worth keeping with you into heaven. But maybe it won't be a quick process - because we make it so hard, we cling onto all the rubbish that we've grown with. Maybe it won't be till the End, or until we are called home, that we finally bear the fruit that we are called to do.
Lovely irony from Luke at the end of the passage. "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people." John's just told them that they're baby vipers, that they have to watch out or they'll be cut down like trees for burning, that the one after him is the one that really means business.
That's the good news, people. God loves us so much that God is prepared to go to a lot of trouble - on God's behalf and on ours - to bring us to him. It caused God a lot of pain - rejection, desolation, the Cross. And it brings us struggle - surrendering to God's will, putting ourselves last, picking up our own crosses. And we fail - often and quite often badly. But at the end, it's worth it. There's only one way to live, by welcoming in that one who baptizes, seeing our darkness and letting the fire of his Spirit burn it away. Then when the Day comes, we'll know the one we have loved, and who loves us so much he gave the world for us.