“Is a puzzlement.”

December 12, 2021

Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18 | Canticle 9

Usually I enjoy puzzles: word, number, logic, jigsaw, a good mystery. If I’m to be honest, I waste a lot of time solving them. But the puzzle of today’s readings seemed frustratingly unsolvable. I spent days trying to make sense of the transition from Zephaniah to the Gospel of Luke. In Zephaniah we read that God has taken away the judgements against Zion and has essentially promised a perfect world. Then we come to John the Baptist and the brood of vipers. What happened to this idyllic promise? How did the people on whom such gifts were bestowed become a brood of vipers?

I needed help with this puzzle, and I thank Tanya for guiding me to discover more about what baptism meant to John and the crowds that were with him. The baptism which John offered was an an act of repentance to renew the covenant with God. It was a one-time occurrence. In contrast, in order to maintain rules of purity, Jewish people frequently required ritual cleansings; people were not perfect. But those who ran the temple were corrupt; they required exorbitant payments so that people could fulfill their holy obligations. In simplified terms, the brood of vipers were those who paid lip service to the covenant but failed to live into it with their actions. 

As defined in The New Oxford Dictionary a covenant in theology is “an agreement which brings about a relationship of commitment between God and God’s people.”  John exhorted the brood of vipers to fulfill their commitment to God, and in his demands of them he was preparing the way to the new covenant. 

The continuing puzzle is: Why is it so hard for us to uphold our end of the bargain? We break the covenant and we are forgiven over and over again. If theologians and pundits have wrestled with this puzzle since the time of Abraham, I’m certainly not capable of solving it in four paragraphs. Perhaps this puzzle really is unsolvable. But the thing about puzzles is they make us think and wonder and analyze things in a new way. This puzzle is a good mystery. 

Sally House

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