Lessons of the Day: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
We have finally reached Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. From the Latin, Gaudete means “to rejoice.” We see the theme of rejoicing on the lips of the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-20) as he tells “Daughter Jerusalem” to “be glad and rejoice” because the Lord will take away the punishment, turn back the enemy, and restore the fortunes of Israel. Indeed, the people of the Covenant will be brought back from exile and given surety in the Land of promise: “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” Again, the theme of joy is present in the canticle from Isaiah (12:2-6), in which the “people of Zion” are invited to “sing to the Lord…shout aloud and sing for joy” because God is in their midst, the Lord himself, their strength and defense, their salvation. In the lesson from the epistles, Paul admonishes the Philippians (4:4-7), “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” The Lord in near and the peace of God is present to guard hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
We have finally arrived at Advent lessons that reflect the Christmas of Norman Rockwell or the plot of a Hallmark Christmas Special – Christmas peace, joy and rejoicing – a saccharin endeavor readying us for gentle angels, pious shepherds, and dutiful magi, together with the innkeeper and villainous Herod. Finally, the day has arrived for a preacher’s cuddly thoughts.
But, alas!! John the Baptist makes his way onto the scene and he starts his sermon, “You brood of vipers!”
What kind of sermon introduction is that? “You brook of vipers!” John must have been having a pretty bad day. That is no way to begin a sermon. But John is up to something. John, not concerned with building a spiritual fan club, has a word to proclaim, a prophetic word from God that intends both to slay and to save. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a tough but a truthful word.
John, it seems, was growing weary. He was growing weary of the same old sleek and slick self-serving spirituality that concerned itself only with the minutiae of the law and with the strictures of beautiful Temple worship, without any real engagement with the sick and widows, with the poor and orphans, and without challenge to the bullies of the world.
His sermon introduction certainly gets the crowd’s attention and it likely gets our attention too. I won’t recommend passing the peace by saying to your neighbors, “You brood of vipers!” John, however, does want his listeners to know that this is serious business and that if they miss this they miss the whole point of what is happening and what is about to happen. The crowd has come out to be baptized – they come out to wade in the waters; but, John is not satisfied with just pouring on some water, singing some songs, and going away. He knows that this baptism of repentance that he preaches invites the participant to something more.
John’s message is not cheap grace; but, rather, it is a a call or invitation to something that lasts – to a concrete active sort of response. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John suggests, in no short order, that a repentant life will reveal itself in right living. John admonishes, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,” as if that will let you off the hook to live a fruitless life. In other words, we cannot rely on religious memory.
We cannot rely on the past, on fruit born that was once fresh and juicy but is now stale and rotten. We cannot rely on the fruit of someone else, fruit that we should be bearing. We cannot rely on someone else’s salvation or someone else’s piety or someone else’s baptism. If we just rely on a past piety and cry, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” we may be satisfied to just leave from this place, thinking to ourselves, “My Christian duty is done for the week. I’ve embodied the baptized life.”
This kind of faulty reliance on the past will not due for John. Doing this is doing nothing. Indeed, the praise of ancient piety while others act may actually get us into trouble. Maybe you have heard about the missionary who was walking in Africa when he heard the ominous roar of a lion behind him. “O Lord,” prayed the missionary, “grant in thy goodness that the lion behind me is a good Christian lion.” Then, in the silence that followed, the missionary heard the lion praying too, “Good Lord, thank thee for the food I am about to receive.”
Sometimes we need to do something! I am not knocking prayer. But, praying without prayerfully acting is an anorexic faith that will lead to death. John confirms this in today’s lesson: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It will be because no good fruit is born…cut down up because we are to comfortable, devoured by a lion due to inactivity, or burned up because we are doing the wrong thing and bearing bad fruit.
The bad fruit born that causes people to play God with guns by shooting their fellow human beings whenever they want. The bad fruit born that that bullies folk just because they are different. The bad fruit born that accepts racism and misogyny, not just in our systems, but in the people we elect. The bad fruit born that ridicules and persecutes others because of where they are from, how they worship, or what they looks like. The bad fruit born that hides behind a hypocritical Christianity that does and says one thing in the pew or pulpit and another thing in everyday life.
This is what not to do! So the crowd, who had seen the hypocrisy of their religious leaders, ask John, “What should we do?” The crowd want to do right and in so doing reveal that baptismal discipleship costs something and does something. “What should we do?” It is asked three times to get our attention.
And the answer they receive is very practical, a down to earth response. It is a theology of the flesh and in the world that is in the pockets of real people.
What should we do? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
What should we do? “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
What should we do? “Do not extort money from anyone by threat or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.”
Selfless sharing, anti-economic bullying, and being content with what one has. Basically, don’t be greedy, thinking that “more” is ministry like the prosperity gospel might preach. Actually, selfless sharing may signify our own satisfaction and thankfulness with what God has already given you.
What I love about this sermon from John is that he links baptism with mission in the world. Baptism is not just a little sprinkling of water or even an immersion in a pool. Baptism is being plunged into a new way living, of being, of acting in the world. Baptism immerses us into the ethics of Jesus and is connected to social responsibility and service towards others. The conversion signified in baptism turns us toward God and, in turn, toward each other. It is invisible grace that manifests in a visible and outward mission. We are baptized as a blessing to others!
And so, the deprivation of our neighbor is a sign of the church’s failure to take its baptism seriously. On the other hand, deeds of love and charity are a sign of our living baptism. It is not just the baptismal rite but right action. It is not just sacrament but service, not just spiritually ignited but socially engaged, not just personal piety but social witness. It is not just this liturgy but the liturgy after the liturgy that takes place in the world into which we are sent. It is not just about Christian rhetoric but also about Christian ethic.
“What should we do?” It is a question for Christian integrity. It reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermon entitled “The Three Dimensions of the Complete Life” in which Dr. King says that life’s most important and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
“What should we do?” John does have a few practical day-to-day suggestions; but, in the end John leaves us with what we should do based on what God has done in Jesus Christ. John says of Jesus, “But one who is more powerful than I will come…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:15) John helps us to see our generosity in light of God’s generosity. “What should we do?” reminds us of what God has already done and what God is doing. John has a powerful ministry but watch out for the one coming, God in Jesus Christ.
God is so powerful that God demonstrated strength in weakness and became poor and hungry and naked. God is so powerful that Jesus was baptized unto death to serve us life. God met and meets our needs when we don’t expect it or deserve it. God looks beyond our faults and sees our needs. God saw that we needed clothes and became clothed in our skin. God saw that we needed food and became our daily bread. God saw that we were thirsty and in Jesus poured life in his blood in us.
Jesus risked it all for the world, even unto death. Baptism is a death to self and a resurrection of new life in Jesus, a gift for the life of the world – for rich and poor, female and male, young and old, black, brown, or white, Republican or Democrat, rural or urban. Jesus has done so much for us that we cannot help to do for others.
So, what we should do is to discover what Jesus has done and is doing. Not everyone will like it. Not everyone will agree with it. John was thrown in prison. Jesus was thrown on a cross. What should we do? Remember your baptism! Remember that you died to live and because you died someone else should live.
May you wade in the water forever. Amen.
Lessons of the Day: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18