John the Baptist prepared the Jews for the first Advent of Jesus by baptizing them at the Jordan River. In Sunday’s readings, we find him yelling out, “You brood of vipers!” to some who came to see him. How indelicate!
Our Advent Gospel reminds us that repentance and the fruit that comes from a changed life are vital to our preparation for the Lord’s coming. John the Baptist fulfilled Isaiah’s ancient prophecy that “the voice of one crying out in the desert” would “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isa 40:3). The preparation consisted of one word: “Repent!” People flocked to hear John—from “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan.” When they heard his fierce preaching, they “acknowledged their sins” and were baptized. St. Matthew tells us that “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees” came to his baptism. These were the religious elites among the clergy and Temple officials (the Sadducees), as well as the laity (the Pharisees), in Jerusalem. We might expect John to give them a warm welcome.
Not so. He called out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Why was John so provoked by their appearance at the river? We know, from the rest of the Gospel story, that these religious elites were Jesus’ harshest critics. They were also very suspicious of John; they stubbornly resisted acknowledging that he was a prophet sent from God. How did they get to be this way? They had so perverted the religion of the Jews with their hypocrisy and power-mongering that their hearts were very hard. They provoked Jesus, too, when He once lashed out at them: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:33) At the Jordan River, John warned them against cheap religion (“produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance”) and presumption (“do not … say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”). John told them that the One for Whom he was preparing, the One Who was coming after him, would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The fire of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, would be unleashed by Jesus on the earth. To the repentant, He is the fire of purification and, ultimately, glory. To the hard-hearted, He is the fire that burns up the chaff and destroys it. It is worth noting that even though the religious elites were in great danger, John did not think they were beyond saving, but they did need the strong medicine of his strong words. ….