A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 16, 2018: Advent 3
As I shared with our young disciples, today, the third Sunday of Advent, is a little different. We see that in the color of the third candle on the Advent wreath, a bright and cheerful rose that breaks with the royal and penitential blue. We also see and hear this difference in the Scripture lessons appointed for today. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!” the prophet Zephaniah proclaims. Gaudete in Domino semper: rejoice in the Lord always, Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians. These are beautiful exhortations, a nice change of pace from the Advent messages of preparation and Christ’s imminent coming and short days and long nights. It is refreshing today to reflect on joy, to rejoice and be glad.
But where does John the Baptist fit into a day and celebration of joy? John the Baptist is the sort of street-corner preacher you try to avoid by quickly darting to the other side of the street. John the Baptist is the sort of hell-fire and brimstone preacher that most educated Christians, like you and me, laugh at and look down upon. John the Baptist is gross—the gospel of Matthew tells us that John wore a coat made of camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey. What in the world is John the Baptist doing preaching to us on Joy Sunday?
“You brood of vipers!” he shouts across the wilderness. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t get called a “viper” very often. There is nothing in John’s sermon that is saccharine or sweet, nothing that can be splashed across the front of a Hallmark card. Can you imagine that, a Christmas card quoting John? “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.” As terrible as that would be on a Christmas card, Luke tells us that something remarkable happens while John is ranting and raving in the wilderness: great crowds come out to see and hear him. And there in the desert, John yells at them. Why? Why are the crowds willing, even eager, to hear John’s hell-fire and brimstone preaching? What attracts them to his message?
The first clue lies in the question the crowds ask John at the end of his sermon. They ask, “What then should we do?” There is no pretense here, no inauthenticity—the crowds simply want to know what John expects them to do now that they have heard his message. That’s not necessarily a question people ask when things are going well. In fact, this is an indication that John’s congregation isn’t doing very well at all. It’s the question we ask when we’ve come to the end of ourselves. It’s the question we ask when we don’t have anything to hold on to. It’s the question we ask as we grasp for a guidepost and our hands return empty. “What then should we do?” is the crowd’s way of saying, “Look, nothing else is working. Tell us what to do.”
Sometimes when we read the Bible I think we unintentionally forget that the people and events we read about happened in a specific time and place. I don’t want to wander down a rabbit trail on the historical accuracy of Bible, but I do want us to remember that real people and real events make up the story of our faith. The people in the Bible laughed and cried like we do, they celebrated holy days and milestones, they experienced abundance and scarcity. They were not immune to the naturally winding course of human life, and God did not always miraculously deliver them from sickness, disease, sadness, or pain. This means that the people in the Bible had real needs, and John’s congregation speaks this truth to us. More than anything, as their question indicates, they were a people in need of guidance, in need of something secure, in need of a solid foundation on which to stand. As wild as John was to the eyes and probably to the nose, he was something solid, something secure.
That’s where our second clue as to why the people flocked to see John comes in. What made John, this wild preacher, so secure? His message. John’s answer to the question, “What then should we do,” is simple: “Go home.” Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, and your friends and colleagues. Stop running away. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your every-day life. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Share right now. Be merciful right now. Do justice right now. Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous or routine, because the holy ground that matters most is the ground right beneath your feet. The people were drawn to John because in him they heard the good news of God that anchored them in uncertain and changing times.
That sounds pretty polished and upbeat, but its right there in the text. To the tax collectors, John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” To the mercenaries, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages.” To the Pharisees and Sadducees, he says, “Don’t allow your religious heritage to make you arrogant or complacent.” To everyone else he says, “You have gifts to give. Stop hoarding. Stop procrastinating. Stop making excuses. The day of repentance is today. Wake up! Open yourselves to God.” What John is daring to suggest is that holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we’re willing to look closely, if we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll see that all the stuff of God we so desperately yearn for is already imbedded in the lives God has given us. There is no ‘outside,’ John says, we don’t have to look ‘out there.’ The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us.
John’s proclamation in the desert is the very essence of good news. Sure, he called the people a brood of vipers, but that was just to get their attention. After that little attention-getter, it was all good news. There was good news that God is not far off, God is near, right here. There was good news that nothing is outside the power and presence of God, not even the stuff we think is boring and ordinary. There is good news that fear and shame and doubt, while very real for folks, never has the final word as far as God is concerned. There was good news that if the crowds stopped running, they would see that everything they need for a full and abundant life in the Lord is not someplace else, but right where they are.
So that brings me back to the question I started out with today: what is John the Baptist doing preaching to us on Joy Sunday? Well, my friends, he’s doing the same thing for us today that he did so very long ago. From his place in the Scriptures John is speaking a firm foundation into our times of uncertainty. I could list off what makes our times so uncertain, but you know. You know the uncertainty that comes with unpredictable weather, unpredictable governments, unpredictable economics. You know the uncertainty that comes from crime and violence and destruction and death for the sake of death. You know the uncertainty of old age, of sickness and disease, of joints and bones that just don’t move like they used to. You know what it is like to ask, “What then should we do?” simply because all the things you know have become a little less knowable. John’s message of the nearness of God; John’s message of abundance and holiness; John’s call to go home is an anchor for us in times of uncertainty.
What then should we do—as the days tick by, as Christmas gets closer, and we move further into God’s future, as we head into a future that only God knows? We should go home. We should go home to our families, our neighbors, our vocations, and our friends and colleagues. We should stop running away. We should stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of our every-day lives. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, we should inhabit the stuff of life as deeply and as generously as we can right now. We should share right now. We should be merciful right now. We should do justice right now. There is no need to seek out holy ground; the very ground we are standing on is as holy as it could possibly be. The good news of John’s message for us today, the good news of the very gospel itself, is that nothing is beyond redemption, nothing is beyond grace, nothing is beyond God. Nothing. Can you think of anything more worthy of our joy?
John concludes his sermon in the wilderness with a harrowing description of the coming Messiah. He says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Is this still a part of the good news from before? It is. And it is because the Messiah is not coming into the world to judge and condemn the world; the Messiah is coming into the world to see it as it truly is, to see us as we truly are. The Messiah is coming and the winnowing fork is an instrument of love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff. The Messiah is coming to clear us of all the things that stand between us and God, to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and priceless.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if ever there was an irony in our faith it is this: John the Baptist is the patron saint of joy. Even when he was in his mother’s womb, he leapt for joy when he came into the presence of Mary who was pregnant with our Lord. John’s joy is not happiness. It is not cheap. It is not a feeling or a sentiment. The joy of John the Baptist is a heart condition, one that we can and must carry, shoulder, and endure the entirety of our lives. John’s joy is contentment, it is satisfaction, it is gratitude in the Lord. John’s joy is sharing, it is justice, it is peace. John’s joy is our hands and hearts and passions coming together to make the world into what God dreams it to be. John’s joy is the life we have been given by God. Your life, and mine, is a golden field, ripe for a sacred harvest. The fire that is lit to burn the bad away from the good might hurt a little, but the one who wields the flame is trustworthy. He knows you and he knows me. He sees you and he sees me. He loves me and he loves all ya’ll. And very soon God will gather us all with joy. Rejoice! Amen.