The Rev. Faass, Rector
Ah, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like calling people, “a brood of vipers!” Somehow slithering snakes just don’t quite fit in with the Victorian Christmas tableaus we strive hard to achieve at this time of year. Yet, here they are in Matthew’s Gospel as John the Baptizer prepares the way for the first coming of Jesus.
For the past few weeks we have heard scriptural admonitions to stay alert, keep awake, be prepared, get our lives right with God, for we do not know the hour that the Lord will appear.
Well, in Matthew’s text the time of his arrival is imminent and John is busy preaching and baptizing, preparing people for the life-changing message of Jesus’ Gospel. Just like in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when Jesus the bridegroom arrives you’re either ready and get to enter into the wedding banquet, or you’re just plain out of luck and left out in the cold and dark.
There’s no pussy-footing around when it comes to the prophets, as the Collect for today states, “preach[ing] repentance and prepare[ing] the way for our salvation.” Which means the prophet’s words can be harsh at times as they admonish and call us to a new way of life. That’s why John rails at the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers, and asking them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
John was well aware of the hypocrisy by the religious authorities appearing at the River Jordan. He knew the real reason the Pharisees and Sadducees had come was to see what he was up to; they were on a reconnaissance mission. They definitely were not there because of an authentic desire to amend their lives and be cleansed of their sins. The Pharisees and the Sadducees believed that their status as children of Abraham – as Jews – already guaranteed them their salvation. It was a done deal, no further action required. But John said that was not the case. It’s an erroneous belief, he says, because, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Don’t rely on your lineage, he tells them. You need to bear good fruit in your own lives. You don’t get a pass allowing you to behave anyway you want based on your ancestry. Walk the talk; actions and behaviors are what matter to God.
This message rattles the religious authorities. When they come to see John, they are there out of concern for the huge numbers of people streaming to hear John preach. There is also some malice as they spied on John because his message was threatening their status. So, they went through the motions of coming to hear John, but it was inauthentic repentance. More self-serving than self-improving.
That’s why John calls them out in front of the crowds; to point out their hypocrisy and use them as an object lesson of what preparing the way of the Lord was not about.
Like all the prophets, John is calling people to live lives of holiness; lives that bear fruit worthy of repentance. Lives that strive to be in alignment with the ways of God’s reign. Lives focused on “let[ting] justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” as Amos says. (Amos 5:24) Lives of act[ing] justly and . . . love[ing] mercy and . . . walk[ing] humbly with . . . God,” as Micah says. (Micah 6:8) Lives where we “share [our] bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into [our] house; [and] when [we] see the naked, to cover them,” as Isaiah says. (Is. 58:7)
These are the ways of holiness that the prophets call us to. Peter Marty is the publisher of The Christian Century. In a sermon he wrote for Advent, Marty quotes the late Eugene Peterson, who said, “’holiness is the most attractive quality, the most intense experience we ever get out of sheer life.’ And our hope, Marty says, is in the Lord’s patience with us even as we struggle to live holy lives.”
Someone who heeded the prophets call to lead a holy life was St. Nicholas who served in the first half of the 4th century as Bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey.
Nicholas was born circa 270 CE to wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian. His parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. One of the most famous incidents from his life is when he is reputed to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them. Other early stories tell of him calming a storm at sea, saving a ship and sailors from imminent peril, and rescuing three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love and compassion for children, his concern for sailors, and his protection of the most vulnerable in society.
At his death he was buried in his cathedral in Myra. In the 11th century, when Venice was a powerful city-sate, sailors from that city raided Nicholas’ tomb and took his relics to Bari, Italy where they are currently entombed in the Basilica di San Nicola. His feast day is celebrated on December 6th.
Nicholas is famed as the traditional patron of seafarers and sailors, and, more especially, of children. As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam and who called him Sinterklaas. When the English took over the Dutch colony they heard Sinterklaas as Santa Claus.
In the early 19th century Clement Clarke Moore, a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan wrote, "A Visit from St. Nicholas", first published anonymously in 1823. It later became widely known as, 'T’was the Night Before Christmas.’ In this now famous poem, Nicholas the saint morphs into Santa the jolly elf, and well, the rest is history. While St. Nicholas certainly is the precursor of Santa, our culture has taken the jolly elf and made him less a witness to a holy life, like St. Nicholas, and more an avatar of commercialism and the acquisition of loot. This truth may be best summed up in Eartha Kitt’s sultry Christmas song, “Santa Baby, Put a Sable Under the Tree For Me.”
God’s prophets don’t do sable, they do holiness of life. Which is what the incarnation of God as the baby Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem is all about.
With the focus on commercialism and hedonism during our culture’s Christmas celebrations, we fervently need to be touched by St. Nicholas’ example of a holy life. His life is a witness to the call of the prophets to have compassion for the weakest and most vulnerable in the world, putting others before self. Nicholas’ life incarnates Christ’s example, and his holy life calls us to do the same.
We are in the midst of the frantic holiday season. The Church focuses on Advent in these weeks leading up to Christmas, calling us preparing ourselves for the coming Savior. At the last, when God checks the list of our behaviors – to see if we have been naughty or nice, sinful or holy – what will God find?
Maybe, better put: If Jesus texted you that he was five minutes away and would be at your door momentarily, what would he find when he got there?
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight as you strive to heed the prophet’s call to holiness of life.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.