Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent - December 16 2018

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
December 16, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

We get some very strong messages of hope and joy this morning … until we arrive at the Jordan River and meet John the Baptist.  John doesn’t seem to be pulling any punches; he’s not all about “God will save; the Lord has done great things for us; cry out, ring out your joy!”  We don’t hear “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, shout, O Israel Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

No, from John, jarring in its contrast and suddenness, we hear instead, “You brood of vipers!”  In a voice I can only hear dripping in vivid sarcasm, we hear the question “Who warned you to flee?”

I have the idea they didn’t even know they were fleeing. They had come out because John was the latest sensation; the newest tourist attraction, something to do on a quiet afternoon.  He was entertainment.

We know all about entertainment, don’t we?  Sometimes I think there are two things we know, once we are old enough to realize that there are hours in the day – work and entertainment.  We work to earn our living, and when we are done for the day, we seek escape from the pressures of work in entertainment.  We wrap ourselves in sound and image and word.  We go out with friends, we go to a movie, or we go out to eat, or we assiduously follow our favorite sports teams on the television, or we binge on video games.

Rare is the hour most of us spend alone, by ourselves, in quiet, in contemplation, in – dare I say it? – prayer and meditation. 

We may find, after a while, that we don’t know how to do those things anymore.  Or we may find, after a while, when we do those things, we start feeling, oh, I don’t know, uncomfortable? Uneasy?  Lonely?  Maybe we start questioning who we are and what we are doing with our lives, and maybe we start realizing that our lives scare us, just a little bit, with their banality, their meaninglessness, their lack of purpose.

If we are lucky, we might find meaning and purpose in our work, in a career that is more vocation than income, or we might find purpose and meaning in one or more particular relationships – with a spouse, or with a group of friends that we meet regularly, or we might find meaning and purpose in an absorbing, creative, and challenging hobby, or in running or another sport.

There’s lots of places to find meaning and purpose … and that’s a good thing.  Just be aware, that sometimes those sources of meaning and purpose may simply stop one day.  We retire or lose a job.  We are injured.  We get sick.  That one special person in our lives dies.  Our best friend moves away.

And then we are cast back on that one person we maybe know least well – ourself.

I’ll get back to that thought in a minute.

I don’t know what people found attractive about John the Baptist; I think for some he was entertaining – he always gave good value – he always ready to hand out criticism and advice.

The thing is, why would they find him entertaining?  They would come out there and he would tell them what they were doing wrong; and what they needed to do right.  He didn’t mince words.  He called them a brood of vipers – and vipers are poisonous.  He called the tax collectors greedy and corrupt.  He called the soldiers abusive and unjust.  He called down judgment; he said the Messiah would baptize them with Spirit and Fire.

And they lapped it up!

Why?  Why did they lap it up?

None of them said, “John, you’re wrong, we’re good people; John, you’re wrong, we don’t abuse, we aren’t greedy.”

Usually, if someone says something like “you’re ignorant” to us, we say, “no we’re not – you are!”  If someone tells us we’re racist, we say, “no we’re not, we don’t even see color.”  If someone tells us we’re not doing enough to help veterans, we say “well, that’s someone else’s job, not mine. That’s why I pay taxes.”

We get defensive. 

These people who came out to see John did not get defensive the way we might expect.  No, they responded, “Then what should we do?”

“What should we do?”  And then John would tell them.

Now, it’s an open question in my mind – did they do what John told them, or were they just “pulling his chain,” as the saying is?  Were they perhaps not as open-hearted as Luke makes them sound?

I don’t know; I wasn’t there.  But it seems to me there are a number of ways people generally respond to criticism.  And very few of those ways indicate an open heart and mind.

These days, it can seem so many of us all have our minds already made up – so if we own an oil company, the last thing we want to hear is “fossil fuels are killing the planet.”  And we know how that plays out.  If we like football or baseball, maybe we don’t care that our favorite team’s name is a dehumanizing label imposed on the people who used to live here.  If someone says our society is racist, we restrict the definition of racism so much that only about 2% of the population fits it, and refuse to accept the evidence that racism is deeply bound up in our capitalist economy and political rhetoric.

We get defensive.  And when we get defensive, we mock the messengers who tell us we are wrong about something.  How many of us say, “tell me more about that” or ask “how is that name disrespectful of native people” or even “how do you define racism”?

How many say, “What, then, can we do?”

To respond to criticism with a request for guidance is unusual, especially in our day.

And I suspect it has to do with the fact that we spend most of our time not being attuned to our inner selves, but rather in a quest for meaning and purpose and belonging in things that do not last, outside ourselves, so we never have to feel alone.  We fill our lives with activity so we never have to feel alone, perhaps, so we never have to feel at all.

The last couple weeks, we’ve had the chance to consider what the Babylonian exile meant to the Judeans, and now maybe we can talk about what it meant to the Judeans in John’s time, some 500 years later.

Babylon was the threshing floor for them.  Babylon was the deepest darkest loss they’d faced since Egypt.  Babylon was the place they had to dig deep into their past, their stories and myths, their covenant with God, and use those memories to give them guidance in facing their own mistakes, their own choices that had led them into exile. 

And now, more than 5 centuries later, they still had not recovered their glorious past – Judaea was not great again.  They escaped the Babylonians but spent years under Persian rule, then Greek, then Roman.  They still longed for redemption; they still longed for independence; they still longed for evidence that God loved them.

And here came John, to tell them the Messiah was on the way.

That was what they had been hoping for – what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, 2000 generations of their ancestors had been hoping for, praying for, waiting for …

They would do anything God asked them to do.  John wasn’t just entertainment after all.  He was a prophet.  They wanted what he promised.

And now it’s been nearly 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth, and we are still struggling, still feeling lost, still feeling, perhaps, abandoned; and is it any wonder some follow modern-day prophets that preach the end of the world, the imminent return of the Messiah?  The wonder probably is that more of us don’t.

We wall ourselves off from our inner being; we drown out the anxiety, the fear, the discomfort, the knowledge that we have not lived up to John’s guidance, and Jesus’ teachings, because deep down we know – or think we know – that we have messed up, so how could God possibly love us?

We think that when he comes with judgment, we will be destroyed.  He will come “with power and great glory.”  He will come “to judge the earth.”  Even John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

Have we lost hope?  Is that why we are so reluctant to look into our deeper selves?  Is that why we are so ready to be defensive when we are told the ways in which we don’t measure up?

If that’s the case, then hear these words: “The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Rejoice, the Lord is near.

Not to condemn, but to save.  Not to punish, but to forgive.  Not to destroy, but to make all things new.

John the Baptist’s job was to call attention to what stands between us and God – because God was about to wipe all that away.

Jesus, though, Jesus was the Good News.  Jesus’ arrival meant and means that all we need do is put our metaphorical trash-bins out, filled with our fears and resentments and mistakes, the self-hate, the hate or the other, our need to be right or justified in our opinions and our life choices, our need to defend ourselves – just toss all that stuff into those bins until the only thing left inside ourselves is an open heart and an open mind, and then we will be free to accept the grace of God and we will be renewed.

Then “you will draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation, and on that day you shall say, Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name; make his deeds known among the peoples; see that they remember that his Name is exalted.  Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done marvelous things….”


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