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Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
A sermon preached by Sandi Albom on December 13, 2015

Please click on the blue arrow below to listen to the sermon.

On Friday evening my husband Bob and I went with a group of friends from the Episcopal Divinity School community to a performance of the Boston Pops.  We had never been to the Holiday Pops performance before.  What a treat!  The music ranged from traditional carols and a dramatic reading of The Night Before Christmas, to a lovely Hanukkah song and popular Christmas and holiday music.  The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was amazing and the guest tenor, Duane Moody was simply fabulous!  And how often do you get to sing with Keith Lockhart directing.  I highly recommend it! 

Funny thing though, there was not one mention of John the Baptist at the Boston Pops. No voice crying in the wilderness Advent hymns; no repentance in the air. I have started to receive some really lovely holiday cards and JTB is not on one of them.  What’s up with that?  Well seriously, can you just imagine?  There on the front of your greeting card is the Baptist in all his rough and primitive clothing, with his wild hair, and a locust and some honey stuck to his beard …with the message, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers! And a Happy New Year!”

And still, with less than two weeks till Christmas Day, here’s the Baptist preaching repentance and calling us vile names!  The temptation to craft this sermon based solely on the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians was pretty strong.  I mean, really…wouldn’t we rather hear “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice”?  It would be like skipping the steamed spinach and Brussels sprouts and going straight to the plum pudding.  Don’t get me wrong; the veggies are good for you, but the pudding goes down a heck of a lot sweeter.

Yes, it would be nice to speak solely of joy and peace and to wax poetic about the “real meaning of Christmas” on Facebook and Twitter.  But…. amazingly enough, John has our attention.  He’s the loud voice that keeps breaking into our busy, whirling, holiday preparation-obsessed days.  He’s the guy at the next table in the white table cloth and fine china restaurant that just doesn't possess an inside voice.  We find ourselves listening to him just to get it over with so we can get to the good part. 

His rhetoric is not polite; it’s downright unpleasant.  The account of this same occurrence in the gospel of Matthew has John speaking to the religious people in power – the Scribes and the Pharisees.  Well hey we can understand that!  But, in Luke he is addressing the crowds – all of the people that are coming to seek baptism, not just the ones we don’t like.  And..he does not graciously accept their presence.  He questions them as to what their motivation is.  In the scripture translation called The Message, John’s words are a bit different that in the one we heard just a few moments ago. 

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin.” (The Message, 2002 by Eugene Peterson)

And if that’s not enough, John even strips the listeners of their ethnic and religious heritage.  He says,  “Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” This speech would have been shocking to the people hearing John. One of the central elements of the Hebrew Covenant between God and the chosen ones of Israel is that of the promise to Abraham and his descendants to be a people blessed.  John is essentially saying that even that is no guarantee of salvation without showing faith in action.  It’s certainly a message for us as well.  John’s tells us that neither the ritual of baptism nor the right of birth or tradition will substitute for repentance and ethical behavior.  And if we are not the ones bearing fruit in God’s garden, if we are the dead branches on the vine, making the rest of the plant diseased, we are likely to be cut down and burned.

So, do we get to flourish in the garden?  John challenges our own understanding and narrative of fruitful living.  The first question comes from crowd in general. “So what are we supposed to do?”  And he tells the whole group.  Do you have two shirts?  Give one to someone that has none.  Do you have two pieces of bread; invite another to break bread with you.  John leaves no space for us to rationalize holding back for fear of not having enough.  There’s no question, no leeway – the message is clear…..some in the community don’t have enough to survive, so if you have some extra share it. 

The people coming to John are varied and many are folks that are despised and even feared in their communities.  The next questions come from tax collectors and soldiers and the focus moves beyond simply sharing our plenty to dealing with behavior that causes poverty and hardship.  Stop taking more than law allows, he tells the tax collectors.  And to the soldiers that run protection rackets – don’t shake down or blackmail people.  Basically, act ethically and be content with your allotment.

John does not see poverty as accidental or the poor as bad or flawed.  God’s world has enough to go around.  It is the fruitfulness of God’s working in us that yields the harvest for all.  I think it’s interesting that John does not tell the soldier or the tax collector to change their jobs or be something different in the grand scheme of things.  He calls them to repent and change their way of living.  They are called to serve where they are, to take their stand for what is right and to do it in cooperation with their neighbors, not apart from them. 

This past Wednesday at the Advent series we are exploring our Rule of Life.  While we discussed priorities in our lives and how we might develop an increased awareness of God in all things and we looked at the vows in the Baptismal service in our prayer book.  Our baptism is not a passive act.  The vows include our commitment seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.  We can use these as guides, as the basis for a rule for how we desire to live in God, and how God desires us to see his presence in all that we are and do.

As it was then in John the Baptist’s day,…. it is for us today as well.  How we get our money and how we use our resources, time and talent are not simply economic issues, they are deeply spiritual issues.  John’s message is pretty clear; if we ignore God’s commands to love and serve each other; when we set our priorities on things other than those that support the fruitfulness of our community as a whole, how can we honestly claim to be the people of God? 

Because of the Baptist’s fervent preaching and all of the activity around him, the people coming to him start to experience a profound sense of longing and expectation.  They ask, “Is John the Messiah?”  John is quick to quash the rumors and to stress that he is simply a messenger, lower than a slave and unworthy to even offer the smallest and most menial duty to the One that is coming.  He is only the one who waters and tends the ground for the arrival of the Tree of Life in our midst.  Jesus is the Tree of Life, who comes to feed us, nourish our spirits and change us from the inside out.  Being called to repent is not about living in guilt and shame, it is about fully opening ourselves to the One that is to come and allowing the Spirit to blow through us fresh and clean. 

And what about the unquenchable fire?  In her commentary on this passage, the Rev. Dr. Judith Jones, an Episcopal priest and professor of Religion, asks, “Is John saying that some people will be destroyed and others will be saved?”  She quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Is there any one of us that could claim to be all wheat and no chaff, that part of the grain with no value?  The Baptist tells us that the One to come will burn the undesirable in us, the resistance to God’s love in our hearts, and will leave us cleansed and fresh and ready for what God has in store for us.  [1]

This is radical transformation of our lives that John sets before us to anticipate.  God has placed John right smack in the middle of our planning and busy-ness as we prepare for time with our families and friends.  He reminds us to look inside of ourselves and to find the places of longing, those corners that yearn for the presence of the Spirit who blows thorough us, and for God’s eternal son, Jesus to burn within us. 

As we close our time with John the Baptist and move on toward Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph, I ask that we might pause tomorrow to remember the 20 first graders and 6 educators that were killed in the gun violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, on December 14th, 2012.  Please consider setting an empty place at your table as you break bread with your family or friends or co-workers tomorrow, in remembrance of all those people lost to gun violence in our country.  Please pray for their loved ones who live with those empty places at their tables each day.

Please pray with me,

God of life,

Every act of violence in our world, in our communities,

destroys a part of your creation.

Stir in our hearts a renewed sense of reverence for all life.

Give us the vision to recognize your spirit in every human being,

however they behave towards us.

Make possible the impossible by cultivating in us the fertile seed of healing love.

May we play our part in breaking the cycle of violence by realizing that peace

begins with us.

In the name of Christ, who is our peace, Amen.[2]

 


[1] Judith Jones, www.Workingpreacher.org

 

[2] (Adapted from St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, “Prayer for an End to Violence,” www.stethelburgas.org/prayer.html

 

Last Published: December 22, 2015 9:28 AM