December 12, 2021 The Third Sunday in Advent

The Third Sunday in Advent
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
December 12, 2021

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

From the Gospel according to Luke, “… with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news...”

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Have you noticed that when someone says they have good and bad news to share they always insist on delivering both messages? They never give us an option of hearing only the good news or only the bad. And frankly, at least in my experience, whether the news is good or bad is a matter of one’s own perspective.

Such is the tone of this morning’s scripture readings. Our Old Testament lessons from Zephaniah and Isaiah (Canticle 9) are chock full of good news! They echo Advent’s themes of anticipation and joy for what is about to take place at Bethlehem. Both prophets proclaim that God’s promised day of redemption is at hand: the Christ is coming; the Messiah is about to be born; the deliverer of God’s people is entering the world. And this Christ will redeem allcreation. He will right all the wrongs of our society: everything that has fallen apart throughout the entire course of human history is about to be made new and whole by the grace of God. And so Zephaniah cries out, “Sing aloud … Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart … The LORD has taken away all the judgments against you:” all those things for which we should be condemned and put to eternal death are about to be wiped clean. And Isaiah with bold confidence says, “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy… it is God who saves us … and this God – this great one who stands in our midst isn’t some second-rate deity, he is the God – the Holy One of Israel:” the creator of all that is and ever shall be. God, Isaiah says, “is our stronghold and sure defense … our Savior and redeemer” and he is coming to us just … like … he … promised!

     Our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians shares the good news of how the coming of the Christ changed our lives forever. Paul says that because we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, we can, in confidence “Rejoice in the Lord always and not worry about the future …. God’s peace will guide our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”  All three scripture readings offer words of comfort and hope, and they are filled with promise. It is good news. But, then we come to today’s reading from Luke.

      John the Baptizer says the Messiah is coming all right: and we had better look out! “The axe is lying at the root of every tree,” he says, “ready to cut down those that do not bear good fruit! … and throw those trees into (a) fire.”  John warns that God is about to “clear the floor … and any “chaff will (be) burned with unquenchable fire.” Our reading concludes saying, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Hmmm. Does John’s message sound like good news, or bad news? The Old Testament prophets depict the Christ as a Redeemer and Savior, but this particular gospel reading describes him as an axe-wielding Messiah coming to judge who has been naughty or nice. So which is it? Good news or bad? Maybe even more important: do we even have a choice in which Christ we are preparing to meet?

     The first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke open with the words of many prophets ringing in the ears of the faithful. People are filled with hope and joy because God’s promises of redemption are about to take place in theirtime: in their generation; in their midst. Then, in the third chapter, the Baptizer arrives on the scene warning of impending judgment, and urging everyone to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins; to amend how theychoose to live their lives; and prepare to meet this promised Christ. The response to John’s words is astounding; thousands hurry to be baptized. So great is the throng of people that John, looking over the crowd (in today’s reading) yells out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John’s words paint a picture of snakes fleeing before a fire. If you’ve ever been in a panicked crowd scrambling for the nearest exit, John’s image of snakes slithering over each other to get out of harm’s way is a vivid description of what happens in a panic. And people are panicked because they know they have not lived the righteous lives God requires of them.

So, they scramble to be baptized and then John throws them for a loop! He says their baptism means nothing without amendment of life; baptism means nothing if it doesn’t change what they value, how they speak, what think about, and how they welcome and treat others, and so on. John says a ritual act cannot save you any more than claiming you are a descendant of Abraham can save you.

     History has shown that many in Israel interpreted God’s covenant with Abraham as a promise of salvation simply by their birthright: regardless of whether or not they lived by faith like Abraham or practiced the righteousness that God saw in Abraham. That kind of thinking permeated the entire culture of Israel in the days of the Prophet Zephaniah – who arrived on the scene around 620 BC – about 60 years before the Babylonian invasion and exile. It was a time of incredible prosperity in Israel, just as it was also a time of incredible religious, moral, and political corruption and duplicity. They thought their nation was protected – look we have the Temple, we have God’s presence, we have food on our tables – does it really matter how we live. Look at our leaders, our politicians, our King, our Chief Priests, they all do what they want, so why can’t we? And slowly people began to focus solely on themselves. Daily life was about their rights, their wants, and ensuring their comfort as they amassed more and more stuff. Life was about success in their careers, their livelihood, and to hell with those widows and orphans, those aliens and strangers, and those half-breeds, too. Besides, they are a drain on society’s resources and it’s their own fault that they can’t get ahead. (Sound familiar? Beloved, the Bible shows how often history repeats itself. And people of faith must not only pay attention to what is going on in our communities and nation today, but act on it and speak up against it.) Zephaniah warned that judgement was coming; that they need to act, to change, now! Birthright is not enough! Faith has to make a difference in daily life. Zephaniah spread the alarm that their nation was slowly destroying itself from within simply because they had not only forgotten, but outright chosen to ignore, God’s values, God’s ways, God’s justice.

     The Baptizer warns that one’s ancestry; one’s heritage apart from righteous living is no assurance of salvation. “God can turn stones in Abraham’s children” he says, so don’t think you’re saved because you descended from Abraham. A ritual bath is never enough. John says they must begin to live differently, repent, and choose to embrace and then consistently uphold and demonstrate their commitment to God’s values, God’s ways of life, at all times and in all things.

The people ask, “What should we do?” And in a few short verses John explains what the Bible says over and over again what God has required of every person in every generation: To care for those in need and share from our excess so that all are clothed and fed. (Not just those we like, or think deserve our help, but all.) Then, John turns to those in authority - the tax collectors and soldiers - and says stop using your positions of power for personal gain at the expense of others. John calls God’s people to prepare for the coming of the Christ by urging them to seek and uphold justice, to be compassionate with each other and their neighbor; to embrace God’s values and choose to live differently as people of God should choose to live.

     Our scripture lessons this morning tell us that the Messiah is coming. Whether this is good news or bad is up to each one of us to decide. The truth is, beloved, whether our Lord comes as a baby at Bethlehem, or riding upon the clouds in all his resurrected and ascended glory, people in a right relationship with God and with each other have nothing to fear at the coming of our Lord.

     And so, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, I invite you to join with me and look deep within ourselves and ask God to truly cleanse and shape us into the people of God we claim to be; a people whose repentance goes beyond our lips and words: a repentance marked by a way of life filled with the righteousness and forgiveness and love of God demonstrated in how we choose to treat and speak of and value others. For then, like Zephaniah, we will sing aloud for joy and with Isaiah we will shout because we will discover that God is, indeed, in our midst and his presence will continue to change our lives and the world. Is this good news or bad? The answer is ours to choose. And for that – that opportunity to choose - let us forever give thanks to God. Amen.