Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
Just when we thought it would be a lovely and happy thing to come to church and enjoy Advent and Christmas celebrations, and just as we finish hearing these exuberantly joyful readings from Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians --- then suddenly we hear John the Baptist blasting his followers: “You brood of vipers!”
I wish I could say to John, get a life; forget the diet of locusts; have a Christmas cookie! His sermon definitely puts a bit of a damper on the Advent and Christmas spirit. He sound awfully angry, and he goes on to rant about chopping down unproductive trees and throwing them into the fire. His listeners understand him to mean that some of them are like trees that do “not bear good fruit” or like useless “chaff”, and they fear that they are in danger of losing their souls to an “unquenchable fire”.
How can this be “good news”? How can this be cause for rejoicing? We hear that large crowds of people came to hear John the Baptist preach and received baptism from him. At first we may wonder why. He seems to have been highly successful in attracting followers, in spite of this dreary and even frightening message.
There must indeed be some “good news” somewhere in all this, and I do think there is. In those days, there were synagogues in many towns and cities, but there was only one Temple, in Jerusalem, and it was there that people came to worship and to celebrate the great festivals, if they were able to make the trip. It was a long and arduous journey to get there, and once someone had arrived, they would have had to climb the hill to reach the city, and then climb a long flight of stairs to reach the Temple gates. The steps were built with a long, flat spaces between each step, so that people would be forced to climb with dignity, one step at a time. The gates were very impressive with wide entrances and large stone archways overhead. As our worshipper mingled with larger and larger crowds, we can imagine his increasing awe and amazement.
After passing through the gate, our worshipper would enter the outer Court of the Gentiles, and if he was a Jewish adult man and ritually clean he could enter the inner courtyard to give his offering to a priest. Only a priest could offer the sacrifice. And only the High Priest, once a year, could enter the most sacred place of all, the Holy of Holies, where it was believed the presence of God rested.
Not everyone could make the journey to Jerusalem. Not everyone could become or maintain ritual purity. Not everyone was Jewish and adult and male! All others were excluded from entering fully into the worship and ritual, and from receiving the blessings of offering sacrifice and atonement for sin.
This reminds me of a worship experience of my childhood. When I was growing up, I remember singing in the children’s choir in a very large Episcopal church in New York City. Every Christmas eve, the children’s choir sang the hymn “O Holy Night” with the adult and boys’ choir, and some of us could even quiver and quake our way up to the very high note, at the end of the last verse, “O night Di-viiiine….” It was a very special and lovely occasion that I looked forward to every year, but there was one catch. As I said, it was a very large church, and on Christmas eve the children’s choir sang from the balcony. Being almost always the tallest in any group when I was growing up, I was seated at the back of the balcony. Every Christmas, from the back row of the balcony, I looked down on the sanctuary, very very far away, where the boys’ choir was, and the boy acolytes, and the men who were servers and the master of ceremonies, and the men who were the lay readers, and the men who (of course) were the priests.
One year it occurred to me that something was strange with this picture. I didn’t have the foggiest thought at that time that I would ever see women priests in my lifetime, or that I would ever be one (I think I would have fallen off the balcony if anyone had told me that!), but still I felt excluded. By not seeing a woman or girl anywhere in the picture, I felt somehow that I must be somehow unacceptable and just not good enough to be near God.
Many years later, I was singing in a choir in New Jersey, and there came one Sunday in summer when the rector (a man) was away on vacation. The curate (a woman) was the celebrant that day, the acolyte was a girl, and the lay reader was a woman. I’m sure this was all a coincidence, but looking down from the balcony I felt for the first time that perhaps, just maybe, I could after all be fully acceptable to God.
There are many times in our lives when each one of us may feel excluded or ashamed or inferior, but the most painful seems to me to be when the hurt comes from someone close to us whom we respect and love. It can be most hurtful at church, because that is a place where we are especially trusting and vulnerable. My mistake, so many years ago, was to believe that because the choir director had put me in last row of the balcony, then God agreed and to God I was only worth putting in the distant, dark balcony. The “good news” of Christ is that this is nonsense.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist tells his followers that their souls are in danger from the “unquenchable fire”. When the people ask, “What should we do,” he responds to them all, even Gentiles and despised tax collectors and Roman soldiers. Their task isn’t easy: they were paid very little because it was expected that they would take bribes and line their pockets. John requires them to be satisfied with their wages and to share what they have, with the expectation that they too may anticipate the salvation of God.
The “good news” of John the Baptist is that the Messiah is coming, and he will bring salvation for all people. He calls us all to amendment of life and to transformation through Christ’s baptism. The words of John the Baptist are “good news” and cause for rejoicing, because they give hope and promise that it is possible for all people to be embraced and welcomed as God’s own beloved.
We don’t need to change who we are in the world to hear and attend to these words, to amend our lives, to receive the blessings of grace, and to be drawn into the fellowship of the people of God. Today, just as we are, we can follow Christ in right relationship with our neighbor. We can prepare to receive the mystery of grace in the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in whom is our hope and our trust and our salvation.