“We feel anger when the world as it is, is out of sync with the world as it should be. And if we don’t find ways to express our anger in loving, healthy ways, that same anger will show its angry face, one way or another. If we don’t find ways of expressing our anger in love, we will inevitably express our anger in bitterness – and at our very worst, we will express our anger with hate.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Why is it that people are so drawn to the loudest, angriest voices?” This is a question asked by a member of Trinity’s longest-meeting House Church, at a discussion of scripture this past Monday night. Since hearing this question, I can’t help but read today’s Gospel passage in a new light. This member of the House Church was trying to imagine the significance of this story about John the Baptist for people today, and she felt a resonance between John’s loud, wrathful proclamations – and the kind of loud, angry speech that we hear so often these days on news outlets and social media, from celebrities and politicians. “Why is it that people are so drawn to the loudest, angriest voices?”
Perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Over the past few years, it feels as though the gap in partisan politics has widened, and the volume of people’s disagreements has grown louder and louder. It’s not too hard to imagine someone yelling insults like “You brood of vipers!” about any number of differences, or lines we draw in the sand. There’s something strangely alluring about anger and incivility – there must be, as we watch so many people get swept up in these extreme expressions of emotion. Perhaps we are drawn to the spectacle of it. Or perhaps there’s a part of us that feels liberated by these emotions and thoughts that we try so hard to suppress. Whether you admire this kind of rage-filled speech, or are repulsed by it, all of us are impacted, one way or another, by the loud voices that cry out on the radio, on the news, and in the street.
We might ask: is that what was happening in Judea, when John the Baptist began proclaiming in the wilderness? Were people caught up by his emotions, drawn in by his anger like a moth to a flame?
I will say this: we don’t know what exactly drew the crowds around John – and it was probably different things for different people. It may have been hope that he was the Messiah. It may have been curiosity. It may have been suspicion by those who held power or knowledge, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, those Jewish leaders mentioned in these verses. Or perhaps it was John’s anger that attracted some people. “Finally, here’s a man who speaks his mind!” They might have mumbled under their breath. “Can you believe this guy? Finally.”
Now, I have to admit that I’m pretty uncomfortable with this comparison of John the Baptist to certain personalities and pundits of our own time. I don’t like to imagine modern day followers of John the Baptist wearing trucker hats with John’s name on them, or printing out massive signs to post on their lawn. I also think that the comparison isn’t a perfect one. John’s ultimate goal, for example, is not to advertise his own agenda but to make way for someone else – to make way for Jesus. John says that he is unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals. We don’t see many leaders these days ceding power to someone else so readily and so completely. And yet, I also think there is some truth in this comparison, as we try to imagine John the Baptist in our own time. John was many things: a prophet, a man who dressed in hair shirts and ate locusts and honey, an outsider, a threat to the status quo. And this also is true: John was an angry man, at least in this gospel passage that we read today. As we try to understand the boiling over of anger in our own time and place, looking back on the story of John the Baptist for some kind of wisdom or insight is actually not a bad place to start.
John’s outburst in the wilderness stands as an example to me, among other stories in the Bible, that anger itself is not a bad thing. John is the messenger sent to prepare the way for Jesus – and he does this by calling people to repentance, for “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John’s message of hope inevitably stirs up anger – his own anger – because John is a firsthand witness to how his present reality still falls short of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven may be drawing nearer, but it isn’t here yet! And so John expresses anger towards those who proclaim repentance with their words, but not with their lives. John expresses anger towards those whose actions do not change, those who bear the same old fruit, those who resist the kind of transformation that God desires for each one of us – a transformation from the world as we have made it, into the world as God intended it to be. “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” John proclaims.
Ultimately, John’s anger directed towards the Pharisees and Sadducees is not uncalled for, or uncivil. Instead it is a kind of righteous anger – the best tool that John has for calling out the very superficiality and hypocrisy that separates them from God.
“Why is it that people are so drawn to the loudest, angriest voices?” I want to return to this question again, after all that we’ve considered. One of the reasons, I think, that anger is having such a fertile moment in American culture these past few years is because we are losing our ability to express our anger in loving, healthy ways. We all feel anger. John the Baptist felt anger. Jesus felt anger, when he flipped over the tables of the money changers in the temple. And we too feel anger. We feel anger at injustice. We feel anger for the ways we are sometimes unacknowledged the hard work that we do. We feel anger at a medical diagnosis, something that is outside of our power to change. We feel anger when the world as it is, is out of sync with the world as it should be. And if we don’t find ways to express our anger in loving, healthy ways, that same anger will show its angry face, one way or another. If we don’t find ways of expressing our anger in love, we will inevitably express our anger in bitterness – and at our very worst, we will express our anger with hate.
Anger may be one of the most taboo feelings in western, dominant culture. We fear that anger will erode our relationships. We fear that anger will damage our reputation. It’s also true that anger is perceived differently based on our identity. The stakes of expressing our anger may be different depending on whether we are white, Black, male, female, rich or poor. And yet all of us have a right to feel our anger, and to express it in loving, healthy ways. Jesus became human for this very reason: to understand our very human feelings. To connect with us when we are happy, sad, hopeful, grieving, and yes – when we are angry. Believe it or not, Jesus understands our anger. He understands and connects with the anger that people feel on both sides of an argument – and Jesus longs for us to find ways to express our anger, to express our disagreement, with love rather than hate.
It is possible to love someone and be angry with them. I think that anyone who has been in a long term relationship is familiar with this truth. It is possible to love someone and be angry with them! Part of being in a loving, trusting relationship is being able to name our anger, when we feel it, and trying to identify the hurt at the root of that anger. God desires that kind of authenticity for us in all of our relationships. God even desires that kind of authenticity in our relationship with God – so if you’ve ever felt angry at God, perhaps because of a loss or frustration at the state of the world, then have at it! God is the one being who can always take our anger, no matter how confused or unprocessed it may be. God can handle our anger, and God will always respond with love.
John’s mission, in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew today, is clear: his mission is to prepare the way of the Lord. He does this by allowing himself to feel his feelings – by naming the anger that he feels towards those who are living in opposition to the kingdom of God, and clearing the air – clearing the path – for Jesus to enter in.
Our mission as followers of Christ this Advent season is similar: our mission is to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives – to prepare the way of the Lord in our prayers, thoughts and feelings; in the midst of our busy schedules and family priorities. Advent is a season when all of us are invited to prepare the way of the Lord. How do we do this? Perhaps one way, this season, is to allow yourself to feel and express anger in loving, healthy ways. Is there a part of you that resonates with John’s outburst in the wilderness? Can you identify the hurt at the root of your anger? Can you name that hurt before God, or before a family member or friend, or even before the person who hurt you? Can you name that hurt so that you can work towards healing? Now I recognize that anger is a very particular emotion, and there may be some days when anger isn’t the most prominent feeling ruling our heads and our hearts. If it isn’t anger, what is it? Is it grief? Is it fear? Is it surprise? Is it joy? Whatever emotion you have been neglecting in your heart, allow yourself to feel that feeling today. Name it in your prayers to God, aloud or in the silence of your hearts. And allow yourself to feel deeply those feelings which too often swim just beneath the surface of our lives.
The Prophet Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This is the way we can prepare the way for the Lord in this season of Advent: by naming our feelings; by allowing ourselves to feel those emotions in ways that connect us to the root of who we are. Whatever emotions this season of Advent brings up for you, remember to feel them with love. Feel them with love towards yourself. Feel them with love towards others. Feel them with the awareness that God loves you, your thoughts and feelings included. Rather than letting our emotions build up walls between us, use those emotions to raise the valleys and lower the hills, as the prophet Isaiah says. Use those emotions to make a road where we can walk together – and Jesus will most certainly walk that journey with us. Amen.