The Third Sunday in Advent

December 16, 2018
The Third Sunday in Advent
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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, “So with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I don’t know about you, but there’s something about being referred to as a “brood of vipers” that really puts me in the Christmas spirit! And I always find my Advent reflections so much more enriched and comforting when I hear St. John’s threat that I better repent because God’s judgment, God’s “axe,” is about to cut me down and throw me into a fire. Don’t those words warm your hearts, too? Well, I am being facetious here because the truth is that all our lessons proclaimed on this 3rdSunday in Advent are, indeed, good news!  

     The first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke begin with the revelation that God’s promises of redemption are about to come true through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of the Christ promised long ago, the Redeemer for whom people had hoped and prayed for over thousands of years, Luke tells us, is about to unfold in the people’s own lifetime. Their prayers have been answered!

     In last week’s gospel lesson – hey, I missed you last week[1]– we learned that God’s word came not to the rulers, governors, kings, the elite of society, nor religious leaders, but to John: an obscure prophet living in the desert. John came preaching repentance and calling the people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Luke tells us that the people came in droves. In today’s reading, John looks out at this teeming mass of humanity coming towards him and shouts “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John paints an image of snakes fleeing from an impending fire. If you’ve ever been in the midst of a panicked crowd, this image of snakes slithering all over each other trying to get out of harm’s way is far truer than we’d like to admit. The truth is the people clamor for baptism because they knowthey have not lived the righteous lives God requires. They need this baptism of repentance. But then, John reveals that baptism is not enough. A ritual act is not going to save you any more than claiming you are a descendant of Abraham will save you. Scripture tells us that time again the people of Israel interpreted God’s covenant with Abraham as a promise of salvation for all his descendants. They would cite Abraham as their father regardless of whether they lived by faith like Abraham and practiced the righteousness found in Abraham or not. John warns them that ethnic heritage apart from righteousness offers no assurance of salvation. He reminds them and us that God can turn stones into Abraham’s children if he wants to. No, John says, a ritual bath is not sufficient. They must turn their lives around and start demonstrating in their daily activities and interactions what they profess they believe with their lips. They must demonstrate the fruit of their repentance by dedicating themselves to upholding and advancing God’s ways and values in every aspect of their personal, civic, and religious lives. Only then can they be the people whom God said would be a blessing to the whole world. John says that they must change their ways. And the people listen.

     Our lesson continues with three groups of people: the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldier, all of whom ask the same question, “What should we do?” All three of John’s answers call for an end to a life-style based upon greed and self-interest. John tells the tax collectors and soldiers to stop using their positions of power and authority for personal gain at the expense of others. And he tells the crowd to demonstrate their concern for the well-being of others by sharing whatever they do not need for their own survival. Now we need to note that John doesn’t tell those who have no clothes or food to forcibly take it away from those who do – after all, he is calling for repentance, not revolution - but rather, he calls for everyone to live within their means taking care of their own needs and give of their extra to those who need help.  John is clear that in a truly redeemed community every human being is treated with the same measure of respect and dignity, and everyone shares of their bounty so that all are fed, cared for, and clothed.

      John’s message as described here focuses on three things: a prophetic warning of coming judgment; a call to justice and godly compassion in our dealings with others; and a confession that the Messiah is coming. And this is where John’s message fits so well into the message of Advent and proclaims goodnews.

      You see, what I find fascinating as a Christian and pastor is that in the Church today we find various forms of John’s message as a model for ministry. Some churches emphasize prophecy. Others emphasize social action. And still others emphasize confessing and praising Jesus as Lord. Some church traditions blend parts of John’s message. For example, many Conservatives, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists stress a healthy combination of prophetic warnings of judgment andpraise. However, sometimes that leads to judging others who interpret scripture differently or who don’t adhere to the exact same lifestyle that they uphold. Liberals and mainline Protestants often work for social reform as a healthy expression of one’s commitmentto Christ whom they praise. However, sometimes serving the needs of others can lead to neglect of our own personal study of scripture, ongoing Christian formation, amendment of life, and commitment to personal daily prayer. John tells us that noneof these aspects of his message is self-sufficient on their own. The Church is called to proclaim and demonstrate allthree.

See, the Church as the Body of Christ in this world is called to be a prophetic voice that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he will return in judgment, and that we do need to repent for not upholding God’s ways, God’s righteousness, every moment of every day. And the Church as the Body of Christ in this world is also called to speak up and get involved in social issues related to poverty, justice, hunger, abuse, and world peace. And the Church as the Body of Christ in this world is called to worship and proclaim especially through how we choose to speak, and the values demonstrated in how we choose to live, that Jesus Christisour life-changing Lord.

     You know, when all three aspects of John’s message are reflected in our worship and mission as a community of faith as well as, in every aspect of daily life, we can be like those people in Zephaniah confident that God is in their midst and has freed them from guilt and any worry about future judgment. We can live like the Philippians who were so firm in their faith that God would always meet their needs, they did not worry about anything because everything they did was marked by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. And we will have the confidence of Isaiah as told in today’s Canticle that God is, indeed, our trust, our strength, our defense and our Savior. And that, my dear friends is good news! The challenge for us is to not only welcome and embrace that good news but, live it.

     And so, on this 3rdSunday in Advent, may God grant us the grace and the courage to look deep within our own souls, our hearts and minds, and honestly judge ourselves asking the spirit of God to cleanse us and lead us to true repentance: a repentance that goes beyond our words, beyond our lips; a repentance that John says is demonstrated in lives filled with the righteousness of God. For then, beloved, our lives will proclaim the message of John the Baptizer – the good news of God to all people that the Lord is near, and he can be and will be our Savior. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1]A reference to the December 8-9, 2018 snowstorms and subsequent cancellation of all services.