“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Well, there is a way to welcome your customers! After all they were coming in their crowds to be baptised by him. We would be shocked if sainsbury’s or the John Lewis advert welcomed us in this way. But John the Baptist was a difficult fellow - he had spent time in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey with a strict religious group, most probably the Essenes - the wilderness of Judea was the centre of religious hope as well as a place of refuge -it was the symbol of the wilderness in which the Israelites had wandered for forty years before God brought them into the Promised Land. So the emergence of a young priest baptising from the wilderness caused excitement to sweep through the region. His is a sharp message, do not say “We are descendants, we have Abraham as our ancestor, we are the chosen people, this will not save you. You must bear good fruit or otherwise be cut down and thrown into the fire. Not then the gentle image of a simple man living on locusts and honey, weaving his own clothes but a firebrand, a radical an outspoken preacher - a man who will be thrown into jail by Herod Antipas as a dangerous prophet potentially gathering resistance to the establishment and who will ultimately be beheaded. He preaches repentance for all, he extolls generosity -if you have two coats share with those who have none and he warns against avarice: Tax collectors do your job, only your job and do not line your own pockets and to the soldiers he says do not abuse your strength and power.
I ought now I think to have listened to my father more - less on the subjects of generosity and greed perhaps than on the topic of pruning - he was keen on trees bearing good fruit and on roses especially bearing good blooms. He spent a summer hour once with me and my roses with some secateurs pointing to the places where I might wield them - all my books had proved beyond me - you may have seen those ones with drawings of a rose bush and thick black lines at various angles and heights - they left me more perplexed than before - but dad pointed to buds (otherwise invisible to me) and bade me cut just above (I think) or it may have been below, he would identify dead wood “cut it out, cut it out” he would say in a fair imitation of John the Baptist and then there were things called runners, also headed for the bonfire.
John wanted the tax collectors, the soldiers and all who came to the river Jordan to prune the bad parts of their lives. Do we have parts of our lives which are straggly, long legged , non productive which we might carefully prune away? As we wait now in Advent, this is the season to look hard at it all, to reflect and prepare, to see what might want pruning and wield the secateurs and so make ourselves ready to celebrate the one who will be born, the coming Messiah who will burn the chaff in unquenchable fire but will gather the fruitful and the wheat into his granary.