In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c
Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!
Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.
Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.
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By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.
So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?
“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”
Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.
And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.
And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.
And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.
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And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?
You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?
If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.
We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+