Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-28
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
Last week: the prelude. John appears, with words from Isaiah about preparing the way of God to come in and among and to the people. A baptism for the repentance of sins—metanoia. Changing of hearts and actions, with the expectation that something is going to happen. Does something happen BECAUSE of this repentence, or is the “something” inevitable, and repentance makes one able to receive it? Or both?
“Metanoia” as coming to a right mind, and right actions, within which “Something” is both welcomed from afar and revealed as already present all along.
John the Baptist lived in a land occupied by the army of a foreign empire. It was nothing new even then. Before Rome occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land, it had been conquered by Philip of Macedonia, and before that, the armies of Babylon. The presence of the outsiders, the military and civilian occupation, was everywhere. It was simply the way things were. And with that occupation, then as now, came the oppression of ordinary people, especially those on the edges of society. And with that came the desire among those so oppressed, to see the destruction of their enemies, in shame and catastrophe. To see those who had mistreated them, receive the same mistreatment or more, in retribution.
The impulses toward vengeance, domination, violence, and the belief that “might-makes-right” have always been part of the human condition. These are among the favorite temptations presented to humanity by the powers of darkness, and we continue to believe the lies they tell. In the devilish desire for victory at any price, we commit violent acts against one another. We take up arms to destroy, perhaps weapons that we can hold in our hands to make war on other bodies—guns and bombs if we can get them; rocks and sticks if not. Even more insidiously, we raise weapons of defaming speech and hateful language, by which we attack, damn, and destroy the souls other human beings, created in the image and likeness of God Almighty.
And so the prophets’ work continues, as we hear them calling out (even in the wilderness; even in the midst of great crowds): STOP IT!! Quit that nonsense! You claim that you are God’s people: Start acting like it! You believe that God is on your side: are you on God’s side? Where do God’s influence, or presence, or values, show up in your life?
And do not imagine that your ancestry, or your possessions, or your accomplishments, or any Thing that you have gathered to yourself, puts you any higher in God’s favor. In fact, it may be exactly the other way around. Those “things” can become objects of idolatry real fast.
Ancient Wendy’s Hamburger ad: “Where’s the Beef?”
John the Baptist: Where’s the fruit?
Ordinary people, and tax collectors, and Roman soldiers were there at the Jordan River that day. They didn’t have to be—they deliberately came out for the occasion. Maybe just to see the action. The “looky loos” who came to gawk and joke and have a good laugh. And yet somehow, they’re drawn in to what John has to say.
They call out to him: “What shall we do?”
Teacher, what should we do?” “Over, here, what about us?” And he tells them, each receiving a particular and pointed reply.
To those who have more than they need:
“Share what you have with those who don’t have any.”
To those who have power over others: “Don’t abuse it. Don’t abuse them.”
To those who made themselves great at the expense of other people:
“Be content with what you have; don’t threaten or tell lies about folks to get more stuff. You have enough.”
They were all wondering and questioning…Is this one The One? Will he be the fulfillment of all our hopes and expectations? Will he be the one who will set us free from the power of our enemies?
No: And we know that already. (Luke 1:72, the Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, The Song of Zechariah, p. 92 in the BCP, paraphrased in Hymn 444 and sung every Sunday among us this Advent season) God’s promise to free the people is to be accomplished by another.
And John cuts that speculation off at the knees. “No, I’m not him. You ain’t seen nothing yet…”
He is great…I am little.
I baptize with water…he will baptize with Spirit and Fire.
(Immediately after which, of course, Jesus comes to be baptized and is revealed as the Beloved of God by the Holy Spirit, who then sends him out into the desert for forty days of spiritual boot camp—so it’s not all sweetness and light by any means. But that’s another sermon altogether…)
And so in this way, “with many other exortations, John preached the good news to the people.” Good news here = evangelion, “gospel”, but in a rather intensified form. It’s not “preaching” in the sense of he’s over here talking to people over there—it’s more like he’s running around among them, sort of getting in their faces with it—rubbing it into them from himself. Anointing them in advance of what is to come, helping them get ready. “Exhortation” is related to the word we translate as “parable”…again, not just him shouting at the audience, but talking to them in their own language and context. You can imagine more of “What should we do—we have this situation…” and John telling them “This is what you should do, right away…don’t postpone for a moment.”
I was asking that same question on Friday afternoon. Maybe you were as well. “What should we do? Oh God, what can we do?” The news has been unrelenting, some facts and much speculation, and at the heart of it, a horrible horrible act of violence. A situation that should not be, and yet is altogether too common. Mental illness plus easy access to weaponry plus a culture that is addicted to violence in every form equals potential disaster—and so it was. And so it has been before, and doubtless shall be again.
“What should we do?” we cry out—and there will be conversations about this yet to come. I hope that there will be some good out of all this; that Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut will not only be known forever as another place of death and disaster, but somehow a place where a change began—how we as a people deal with mental illness, how we deal with violence, how we deal with the easy availability of firearms. But those are conversations for a future day.
Today, we grieve. We offer our prayers for those who have died, and more importantly for those who are suffering the unspeakable loss of their beloveds. Today we hold in remembrance not only these, but all who have died by massacre and violence not of their own making, the Holy Innocents in every place and time.
Today is the penultimate Sunday in Advent—traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, which means “Rejoice.” We sang “rejoice” at the introit; and again during the Psalm. We hear the call to rejoice in the epistle, Paul’s words to the Christians in the city of Philippi, and in the first reading from Zephaniah. In all of these places, the invitation to joy is not based on the circumstances in which those who hear the words find themselves—Zephaniah writes to people who have been carried off into exile in Babylon; Paul addresses a community of believers who are themselves facing persecution and possibly death. This rejoicing is not a call to merely enjoy oneself in the goodness of God’s creation—although that’s not a bad thing either. Listen again: “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. I’ll say it one more time: Rejoice!”
Not “Be happy always.” Not “Everything is wonderful and sunshine and roses always.” But Rejoice in the Lord always. Take joy in God—when you feel like it, and even when you don’t. It’s always there for you, that joy and mercy and grace.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds, through Christ Jesus.” We know that language; we hear it often at the end of the Eucharist. That peace—which is beyond comprehension, beyond outward circumstance, beyond any logic or worldly sense, but is wholly and Holy the gift of God—is more than the absence of conflict or anxiety or worry, though it includes those things too. This is the shalom of God, the well-being of the entire creation and every being in it, from the stars to the starfish to the sub-atomic particles. That peace, deep and wide and strong, which is yet to come, for which we pray, and which even now we experience by faith. We pray that peace for ourselves; we pray that peace for the families in Connecticut; we pray that peace for the world, to which Christ has come, and is coming, and shall come.
Let us pray.
Come to us, O Prince of Peace, and be with those who cry out in grief and loss today. Comfort them with your deep peace, draw them to yourself, and fill them with your light. You are the Redeemer of the world, O Christ; redeem these losses, that out of great evil, in your time great good may yet come. We ask this in your name, and in the power of your resurrection from the dead. AMEN.
Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012
Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6
Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord . . .