+ ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to com?’
It’s that time of year again, John the Baptist bounds onto the Advent stage with his message of repentance and judgement. It’s the time when Scottish Episcopal Rectors, with the church AGM finished, can enjoy saying to their congregations, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to com?’
But seriously, John’s words, and the words of judgement in the first reading from Isaiah raise questions about the meaning of Advent and our mission in modern Scotland. You may have seen the news about the religious question in the English census. For the first time since the Dark Ages most people in England are not Christian, 46% said they were in the recent census. The Scottish census is delayed, but indications are that Scotland is even less Christian, recent surveys suggest about a third of the population would claim to be Christian. This may be the result of the harsh Calvinism that has been the dominant religion here (people are keener to get away from it), but it does raise questions for those of us who are Christians in a rapidly secularising society. Advent is a good time to ask those questions.
Last week I was in church talking to a tradesman doing a job. He said his grandparents went to church and had their kids baptised, his parents stopped going to church but had him and his sisters baptised, he and his partner have never thought of going to church and haven’t had their kids baptised. Looking around at the harshness of modern society he wondered if something has been lost and if our society was living on borrowed moral values from Christian times and if one day that would go and there would be nothing to hold back greed and selfishness. He was quite aware of the sins of the churches and how much easier it is today for gay people, divorced people and others to live normal lives, but still he wondered what we had lost.
This raises the question of how we share our faith in a godless society, and how we might discover God at work outside the church? Here we have the first principle of Christian mission: let people know you are a Christian and don’t be an idiot. Don’t condemn and judge people, don’t tell parents how to raise their children and don’t be one of those boring people who are constantly going on about how bad are the younger generation.
But John the Baptist was moaning about his generation: ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to com?’ Let people know you are a Christian and don’t be an idiot, doesn’t mean you should water down the faith.
We recently had a fantastic Christmas Market & Lights switch-on here at Holy Cross. A couple of thousand people round the church and about 500 passing through the church, where the congregation supplied live music and the children’s corner was full throughout the day. How do you share the faith with our neighbours? Tell them they are vipers and to repent of their sins? Or make them feel welcome in Church, let them see the Christian images in our icons & light some candles before them, sing some songs about God being born in Bethlehem and give them space to pray. We did the latter.
One fellow priest in our diocese posted on social media about a Christian children’s book that said Advent was about Christ coming to us in the manger, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and in judgement at the end of time. It also said that Advent was a time when you can meditate on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. They asked how useful that message was in sharing the faith with the sort of children and families who come to events like the Christmas lights switch on, with the implication ‘not very useful’.
My first answer is that this excellent children’s book tells us exactly what Advent is about, exactly what we get from the Liturgy and the Bible: Jesus comes to us as baby, bread and judge – Advent is a time to reflect on death and judgement. This is good news. As our Church was a calm space in the middle of all the fun of the fair during the Christmas market, and was appreciated as such by many, so the Christian Church can provide an alternative message to the secular Christmas. We don’t need to give people all the rigour of the faith at once. We won’t be setting up a big banner outside the Church this Christmas saying: ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Come to Midnight Mass!’
But John the Baptist is right, that’s why we name him in the Eucharistic Prayer every day in Advent, because he and Mary are the Advent saints. Point to Christ and don’t be afraid to speak about the big themes of death and judgement. The knowledge that we will all be judged and God will punish oppressors for their sins is good news for the poor. Putin will be judged, as will many a petty tyrant. Likewise secularism has nothing to say in the face of death, we do. We point to the Cross. The only people who think we shouldn’t speak of judgement and death with children are those who don’t know children, because these are precisely the questions children ask.
So John the Baptist was right. The Lord is on his way, we will be judged, and Christ will bring in a reign of peace where ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid… and a little child shall lead them’, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. This is good news for a generation that is falling away from the knowledge of the Lord, may we not be ashamed of the gospel.