“You Brood of Vipers!”

A homily, based on Luke 3.7-18, preached with the people of the Episcopal Church congregations of All Saints’, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany, Laurens, SC, at a joint Advent season service on Wednesday, December 12, 2018


In the Name of the God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Or I, as your preacher this evening, could have prayed: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts alway be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Our dear brother John the baptizer, preaching about repentance, disdains every, any prayerful invitation to listen and unloads in no uncertain terms: “You brood of vipers!” Thus, angering his listeners and, doubtless, arresting their attention.
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Who were they to whom John spoke thusly? Who are we to whom John thus speaks today? Anyone, anywhere, at any time who does not see or otherwise sense a need to repent.

Repentance, from the Greek, metanoia, literally meaning to turn one’s mind around. “Mind,” here, referring to our entire inner orientation, yes, of thought, but also feeling and intention and action. And our contemplations of whether any and all of it – our thoughts once arising, our feelings once stirring, our intentions once discerned, and our actions once done – align with our views of what is right and good or with the revealed, righteous will of God.

Repentance, because it involves all of this, is complicated. Even more, because our awareness of the will of God always is colored, unavoidably tainted by our limited human faculty of comprehension. Still more, because repentance is constant. In a word, there is not one among us (“us” being all of humanity throughout time unto this day) who does not need to repent of something. And this, John declares, requires that we do something, generally speaking, “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”

Now, no one, surely, not I, dare tell any of you what you, specifically, must do. I only can tell myself and you only can tell yourselves.

However, John’s particular directives to those who asked “What should we do?”, gives us a guideline.

To the crowds, “When you have more than you need, share with those who have not.”

To the tax collectors, often guilty of padding the people’s tax bills for their own gain, “Stop stealing from your neighbors.”

To the soldiers, “Do not use the power of your rank and rule to extort the people.”

In other words, to love God is to love our neighbors, all people, as ourselves, meaning as we ourselves are loved by God, unconditional, impartially.

Whatever thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions in your lives and mine that do that are worthy fruits of repentance.

Trusting that neither you nor I desire to be numbered among the brood of vipers, one thing I will tell us to do. Knowing that we need God’s help to do God’s will, let us pray always in the words of the Collect of the Day appointed for the coming Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.(1)


(1) The Book of Common Prayer, page 212

Illustration: Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

2 thoughts on ““You Brood of Vipers!”

  1. Paul,
    Sometimes when I read your sermons I think you’re in my head. On Monday I went to the service of Loss & Remebrance at St. Marks. I wanted to be alone so I sat in the chapel until right before the service started. As I reflected on the upcoming 3rd Advent, in addition to “waiting” I wanted to “do” something too (you know I get bored fairly quickly if I’m not engaged)! Sooooooo I made a list of things I needed to be forgiven for, repenting to put it another way. It was a wonderful exercise as we lead up not only to the holidays, but also an outing with my daughter and granddaughter. I want to go into this outing with JOY so part of the list I made had to do with ensuring that my expectations aren’t unrealistic. I need to be open and honest and loving. I hope the preparations I’ve made as we get closer to 3rd Advent are sufficient but we will know shortly. This sermon gives me some hope!

    Much love!


  2. Blessings, Loretta, be upon you and your faithful endeavor and fearless encounter with yourself, aye, as I’m wont to say/write, your self in repenting by listing the things of which you need to be forgiven. Such an exercise is one that any and all of us can derive great benefit.

    The thing about repentance that came home to me as I prepared this homily was its scope… That “mind” includes thought and feeling and intention and action. And that repentance includes our contemplation of these four cardinal elements of our human beingness and our discernment about the dominant thread that runs through and holds them (indeed, our selves) together – whether it is that we function largely in accord with our wills or the will of God. Once I arrived at this place of understanding, then the complexity of repentance loomed larger, knowing that I never can know the fullness of God’s will (much less strive to attain to it!) and that repentance, therefore, is a constant (and, therefore, exhausting endeavor, for me need to repent is inexhaustible!). In a word: Whew!

    May all fare well with you and Kim and Kendal. Y’all (it’s the Southern influence!) are in my prayers.

    Love you


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