Sunday, December 16
Third Sunday in Advent
O God of exiles and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness though the power of Jesus Christ. Give us faith to live joyfully, sustained by your promises as we eagerly await the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "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."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
All Readings For This Sunday
1. How does John the Baptist help you to prepare for this Christmas?
2. How do you think the church should reclaim its prophetic voice? What are the risks, and the possibilities, of doing so?
3. What needs to be turned "right-side-up" in your own life and relationships?
4. What upside-down things are too much for you to tackle on your own, but not too much for your congregation, or for the whole United Church of Christ?
5. What then should we do, together?
Reflection by Kate Huey
There are undoubtedly many folks in our pews this week who are beginning to wonder about this whole season of Advent. The contrast between the tenor of our lectionary readings and the mood--however harried and stressful--of the world around us is stark: the baby is already in the manger of many Nativity sets, the greens are hung (even in many of our churches), Christmas carols are in the air, and shopping is now being followed by gift-wrapping, parties, and perhaps opportunities to "give back" by working in food pantries, toy drives, and visiting shut-ins. Why, then, is the church making us listen (two weeks in a row!) to stories about a wild-eyed preacher from the wilderness who doesn't yell only at the powers-that-be (the religious authorities, the puppet rulers, the empire) but at all of the sincerely open people who have bothered to come out here in the middle of nowhere to listen to his message warning of a coming judgment? Admittedly, it's a challenge to connect this message easily with the theme of "Joy" given to this Third Sunday in Advent.
It's a very interesting exercise to sit down with the New Testament and read the way each of the four Gospels begins. There are striking and important differences, and each one gives us a rich and reflective way to approach the story of Jesus. We know, from our reading of Mark's Gospel this past year, that he begins his account right here, with John the Baptist a grown man, a messenger preparing the way for the adult Jesus, who appears in the ninth verse of the very first chapter of that Gospel. John's Gospel, after setting the scene from the very "beginning" of all time, when "the Word was with God" (1:1), immediately introduces John the Baptist as the one who "came to testify to the light" (1:8). Matthew and Luke, however, take more time to get to this point, as they tell the beautiful and much-loved stories surrounding the birth of the baby Jesus. We would like to get to those stories, steep ourselves in them, share the joy and hope with which they reassure and comfort us. But the church makes us listen first--not instead, but first--to this rough-voiced, almost reckless, prophet who wouldn't last five minutes in most of our church pulpits.
That's Advent. Right alongside the "merry" of the season that calls us to shop and decorate, cook and celebrate, we experience this other kind of preparation for the coming of the One promised to us. But this season in the church is not burdensome or depressing to our spirits; instead, we're led slowly and thoughtfully toward this great celebration of the Incarnation, the mystery of God taking on flesh and being among us, with us in the most ordinary of our days, the most overwhelming of our griefs, our most profound joys, our deepest hopes. This life, our lives and communities and the world as we experience it, right here, is where that long "church-y" word, "Incarnation," happens. Maybe it's a word that we don't use very often in our day-to-day lives, but we experience the Incarnation every moment of our lives in our relationship with Jesus, that "Word made flesh" that dwells among us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, The Message). Right here, in our midst, day in and day out, not just at Christmastime. In a culture marked by immediate gratification, the discipline of waiting and preparing is good for our souls.
Pressure was building up
John came preaching a message of challenge and exhortation. In his day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing--through force and greed--the lion's share of power and material wealth for themselves (imagine that!). It wasn't just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced his wrath, but the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John's rebuke. His message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn't have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, "abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land," William Herzog writes. "Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt." The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.
Things were all out-of-whack, they had gone awry, or, as Richard Swanson so evocatively puts it, the world was being held "upside-down" by the ones on top, and John calls the people to prepare for what they had been waiting for all these years: "John begins his career by singing the old song again," Swanson writes, "by holding out the old hopes, still alive and still strong even after six hundred years. He says that this very moment is the moment for which our grandmothers waited, this moment is the moment about which they sang."
For all of us on this Third Sunday in Advent, I believe this is the message of good news. We are bombarded with all sorts of other news, much of it bad, from more sources now than we could have imagined even ten years ago: TV, radio, print media, of course, but now our "hand-held devices" keep us online so we can stay in touch every minute of every day, no matter where we are, with what's happening around the world, along with commentary of pundits who tell us what it all means. (Recent news reports indicate a new kind of "accident" caused by the distraction of parents who are looking at their cell phone instead of the child they're taking for a walk or presumably "watching.") There are countless sources of information about the suffering and injustice and disasters of the world, and they come at us now 24/7. And if those reports aren't worrisome enough, we can check our bank balances online and see how they reflect what we read about in the world around us. It could make you want to run out to the wilderness in search of better news, a word of hope, something to come that's worth preparing for.
John knew his audience
Is that what John knew about the people, that they came out there longing to hear good news? Did he sense their deepest hungers, their profound and perhaps unspoken hope? Scholars say that things were nearing a breaking point, so the people were ready, even if they didn't know exactly what they were ready for. N.T. Wright compares the urgency of the situation to a natural disaster like a great flood about to engulf the people, and John in the role of the "authorities" who try to warn people, whether they listen or not. These people, however, did listen, as we hear in today's reading. In fact, Justo González notes that we should not misunderstand the phrase "prophet in the wilderness" as one who is ignored; John was not "failed or unheeded" but a prophet who "announces the opening of the way to freedom and salvation"--which, ironically, was often found in the wilderness, for the people of Israel. John knew his audience, and he read the signs of the times as well. It seems that he had to help them "unforget" the promises that had sustained their ancestors for so long, in wilderness and exile. What strikes me about this preacher, however, is that his rhetoric combines grand anticipation and dramatic warning with an exhortation, a simple instruction, that is so down-to-earth, so everyday life, so…doable. He doesn't tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the Romans, to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that my parents told their nine children: "Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don't fight. Be fair. Don't hoard, or lord it over one another."
I don't mean to reduce John's message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me, are that basic justice and goodness that would knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we've built. A justice and goodness that would take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another's children. The people who come to church this week, as well as the ones who aren't in church, may very well be thinking to themselves, "What should we do?" If we're overwhelmed by the magnitude of world events which seem as large and powerful to us as the Roman Empire must have seemed to Jewish peasants and shopkeepers, do we really need to hear a message that overwhelms us with guilt or fear or impossible demands? It seems to me that the One who chose to come into the world as a little baby in a humble manger, mothered by a young girl perplexed by, but cooperative with, the Spirit at work in her life, calls us to those same basic goodnesses and justices that John exhorts the people to exercise in their everyday lives: "'Do not use your power to injure,' he says. How simple, how powerful," Richard Swanson writes. And Mariam Kammell beautifully describes the value of being content with what we have instead of greedily reaching for more, at the expense of others, out of a deep sense of our own sufficiency and self-determination, and she calls it "a crucial fruit of repentance" that we learn to depend on God rather than on ourselves. After all, isn't an obsession with independence and self-sufficiency one form of idolatry?
Tapping into our ancient traditions
Swanson says that John is singing the ancient song of his people, which would make sense to Wesley Avram, who writes that a prophet who shares the same tradition as those he teaches "exhorts others to act out of what they already know and affirm, out of the deepest values of the tradition and people that they claim." The same thing works for Christian preachers in this Advent season, because John's sermon about social justice and personal generosity resounds through Luke's writings, in both his Gospel and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us that the earliest Christians--the ones we often say we'd like to emulate--practiced just such generosity and justice. Fred Craddock observes that John's exhortations express Luke's message of social justice, already heard in the Magnificat, and continuing through the early church in Acts. Certainly we hear in Acts that the early Christians knew how to share.
Many scholars note that John was an apocalyptic prophet, warning people of impending dramatic events that will turn things upside down. I've often been approached by proselytizers who warn me about the end of the world that is fast approaching. When I engage them about what to do as that end approaches (however long it takes), they never mention practicing love or justice but reduce their preparation to a focus on being "saved." Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen cautions us to "avoid two easy and often-tried mistaken strategies" in preaching this text, one that sees John's call for repentance simply as "a 'world-improvement program'" in preparation for a Jesus who is no more than "an ethical teacher." The other approach, "divorced from its this-worldly and ethical rootedness, as is the case in much of fundamentalistic Left Behind mentality, writes off the ethical demand with a spiritualization strategy that leads to an escapist 'safe exit' strategy from this world." There is no either/or here, but a faith that is practiced in the here-and-now world that God loves even as it looks forward to the re-creation and renewal of that world in God's own time.
Looking again at our lives
In the meantime, "What then should we do?" John jars us with his message into looking afresh at our lives, our priorities and preoccupations, our style of living. We don't seem to mind doing that so much in a few weeks, in time for New Year's resolutions, but what if we looked closely right now, here in Advent, as we prepare for the One who is to come, the One to whom John turns our attention? Check out our life in the mirror of how others might see us: Kathy Beach-Verhey challenges us to consider how recognizable we are as followers of Jesus. We might wonder whether they would know, as Jesus promised, that we are Christians by the way we love one another and the world. Beach-Verhey then quotes Eugene Peterson's translation of verses 8-9 of this text in The Message: "'It's your life that must change, not your skin….What counts is your life.'"
What counts is your life. Isn't it good news that our lives count? Richard Swanson challenges us to "stop and reflect on what it would mean to carry out your career so that it would be a sign of the right-side-uping of the world." It may seem ironic that our reading closes with John's continued teaching described as "exhortations" that were "good news" (v. 18), but if you think about it, how could it be anything but good news if God is going to come and make things right again? Walter Brueggemann makes John's message sound clear and simple, however unwelcome it might be to the powerful, the comfortable, the elite in a world, a culture, a nation, like ours: "Nothing here about ethical niceties or moral purity or metaphysical explanations or arguments about economic systems. Advent is concrete, and it concerns neighbor stuff," a favorite emphasis in Brueggemann's writings. To be good neighbors, we need to spend Advent not in composing lists of what we want, or what we'll buy for those who already have an excess of goods, but in "rethinking the contrast…between 'multicoat people' and 'no-coat people.'" Instead of "a nice little charity gesture," Brueggemann urges us to consider the "R" word, "redistribution," so politically freighted in the wealthiest nation of all. In other words, giving more than what's left over after we have far more than we need or can use (Brueggemann's sermon on this text is intriguingly titled, "More Coats Than Imelda Had Shoes," in Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann).
How much is one coat worth?
This message becomes even more stark when we recall, with Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson, that "in antiquity a coat was not only for dress but also for warmth at night." Can we even imagine having only one coat that also functions as our blanket at night? And yet surely God sees this kind of suffering, and is moved. We may not want to hear a message of judgment this Advent, during the merriment of the early (premature?) Christmas season, but N.T. Wright reminds us of what the Messiah we await is about: bringing "God's justice to the world, and this would involve naming and dealing with evil."
Richard Ascough observes that it's "difficult to image John the Baptist as a PR person," or at least a successful one, and he admits, "If you are like me, you are uncomfortable with the extraordinary." John is definitely extraordinary, on the fringe, bigger than life (definitely a winner on "So You Think You Can Preach?"). You might imagine what would happen if he entered your sanctuary, and preached this sermon, a message one would hardly expect from a guest preacher or as a trial sermon from a pastoral candidate. Perhaps a "fiery" message--however eloquent and passionate the prophet--doesn't fit well with a "comfortable" faith. González notes that we may be purified by water or fire, "but fire is much more potent than water," as it "burns away" what needs to be removed. We could see those things as the impediments to God's grace coming into our lives. Elizabeth Myer Boulton persuades us that this message is exactly what we--and the world--need and ought to hear, and then, in turn, proclaim. In Advent, she writes, the church needs to recover its prophetic voice, like Zechariah, and then go out into the wilderness, like John, and prepare the world for the new thing God is about to do, ending "the hunger, the poverty, the inequity" that afflicts the world today. That is the good news we preach, the hope that sustains us, the vision toward which we work, and it is no wonder then, or so very difficult to understand why, we live in joy as well.
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-16-2012.html
For further reflection
Scott Peck, 20th century
"The whole course of human history may depend on a change of heart in one solitary and even humble individual--for it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost."
James H. Aughey, 20th century
"Palaces and pyramids are reared by laying one brick, or block, at a time; and the kingdom of Christ is enlarged by individual conversions."
John Ortberg Jr., 21st century
"Low self-esteem causes me to believe that I have so little worth that my response does not matter. With repentance, however, I understand that being worth so much to God is why my response is so important. Repentance is remedial work to mend our minds and hearts, which get bent by sin."
Michael M. Rose, 21st century
"Love always precedes repentance. Divine love is a catalyst for our turning, our healing. Where fear and threat may gain our compliance, love captures our heart. It changes the heavy burden of the 'have-to's' of imposed obedience to the 'get-to's,' a joyful response to the genuine love of God."
John R.W. Stott, 20th century
"Social responsibility becomes an aspect not of Christian mission only, but also of Christian conversion. It is impossible to be truly converted to God without being thereby converted to our neighbor."
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