Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent December 16, 2018 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Most people today, I would imagine, hear that text with discomfort, perhaps even fear. John the Baptist can come off like an old-fashioned parent who tells a crying child, “Keep that up and I’ll give you something to cry about!” And insofar as our feelings about the text come from a lack of familiarity with its historical and cultural context of the Gospel, that’s to be expected. But it also bears mentioning that not only do we read texts, or have them read to us, in a sense, a text can also read us.
Bear with me for a little context. The first part of this Gospel passage sounds especially scary. “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.” But that was just standard agricultural practice. It was only bad news for barren trees. For fruitful trees, it was actually good news, for they would be protected from whatever was afflicting the others. Likewise, separating wheat from chaff was normal, not scary, and chaff was disposed of matter-of-factly, not with any attitude of contempt, anger, or punishment. And John the Baptist talks about that separation in the context of baptism and sanctification, so it’s easier to hear those words as a hopeful message that God will cleanse us than as something to fear.
So if we hear John’s words as bad news, as condemnation, that says more about us than it does about the text. Perhaps hearing his message makes us feel guilty, ashamed, or inadequate; they are certainly common feelings, for our culture constantly tells us that we need to conform, obey, and buy, and the purveyors of these messages aren’t above using fear to make them stick. But the coming of a savior should be cause for rejoicing.
And that seems to be how John’s original audience heard his message. And their reaction is worth considering in part simply because they were closer to the messenger than we are. St. Luke tells us that some of John’s audience were tax collectors and soldiers, which is really interesting when you remember they were basically the face of the Roman occupation. They were the last people one might have expected to listen to John the Baptist, for they had made a pact with the Empire to hurt people, economically or physically, for their own gain. So why, or perhaps how, were they listening? Were they merely seeking entertainment? Were they there to mock a purveyor of virtue or a religious lunatic? Apparently not, for not only were they listening, but they were asking him, “What should we do?” Perhaps they were starting to feel uncomfortable about the lives they had chosen.
So we can read their reading. Perhaps they asked with a radical openness, knowing that John could have told them to rise up and kill their superiors or do something else treasonous. If so, they must have breathed a sigh of relief at John’s answer — this in itself was good news. Perhaps they asked with an edge, doubting that John’s vision could ever be practical, skeptical that anything they could do would make a difference under the seemingly all-powerful Empire. If so, they must have puzzled at the connection between his simple teaching about their own behavior and his expansive vision of a powerful Messiah. Yet either way, just because they engaged and asked the question, we can infer that on some level they want to live better lives.
What about us, though? Do we want to live better lives? Just as much as the world tells us we aren’t good enough, it also tells us that we’re perfect just the way we are. The world sometimes feeds our narcissism, appeals to our vanity, tries to fool us into refusing to do the things that promise to make us better people. Those two approaches seem to be contradictory, but they have the same dark end: separating us from the love of God.
The Church’s message is very different. She teaches that, yes, sin and brokenness are real problems. Like a brood of vipers, sin and brokenness cause problems far beyond themselves. But much more important is the Church’s teaching that God loves us unconditionally, and God’s love is proactive. “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” God will not allow sin nor brokenness to separate us from God. They will not get the last word. God defeats evil, every time. God cuts down the diseased trees that threaten us and God longs to separate the wheat from the chaff in our souls, and let the chaff go. So God is not just ready, but determined, to heal us, regardless of the source of our wounds.
However, we need to understand how God’s love works, how God’s grace comes to us because love, by definition, can’t force itself upon us, so the risk of being so closed off to God’s love that we reject it entirely is real. That’s why Advent is so important, why prophets like John the Baptist are so important: they offer us the opportunity to examine our lives and let go of what’s weighing down our souls, and to reorient ourselves to be watchful for the salvation that God is sending us.
So while this is all good news, it’s OK if hearing it doesn’t make you feel particularly joyful, if you’re worried, stressed out, or worse. Although the language of the season is emotional, the message that language is sending is spiritual, and your reaction to it may indicate an opportunity to feel better. If you’re feeling down, I want to help you, so please, reach out and I’ll be happy to set up a time for us to talk. And take heart, for even if you aren’t in a rejoicing mood, God will give us something to rejoice about.