Sunday, December 13, 2015
Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers. Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! You nest of snakes. Hardly the holiday greeting you were expecting this morning or wanted to hear. Is this some sepulchral spirit of Christmas past trying to scare old Scrooge into changing his wicked ways? Is God mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore? Has this prophet gone mad on locusts and wild honey, giving the business to those who have come out to hear him?
Is this the text we will really want read on Gaudete Sunday, that Sunday supposedly focused on joy? Yet, here it is, courtesy of the committee that sets the lectionary. I know the group that worked on this Sunday’s worship in our Advent Planning Workshop chose Paul’s exhortation of the Philippians to “Rejoice!” as the focus text for today. I apologize to them for straying into the wilderness with John. As we have wrestled the past two weeks with the stark contrasts between the anxieties, fears and terrors of the world in which we live and promises of hope and peace, it seemed disingenuous to leap directly into joy today. Still, we ought to get to rejoicing before we’re done The truth is my own feelings for you are much closer to Paul’s for the church in Philippi than John’s for the crowd at the Jordan.
In fact, you may have observed that I am not John, the Baptist. Instead I am Rick, the Baptist. I confess a fascination with John’s exhortation but I do not see you as a brood of vipers or our community as a nest of snakes. You may also have noted that most of the time I talk about we and us rather than you. I assume that whatever it is you wrestle with I do as well, that the challenges of my life are not altogether different from the challenges in yours. And certainly we inhabit the same planet, holding its difficulties and possibilities in common. John may feel free to shake his finger at those who come to hear him. Perhaps as an ascetic and prophet, promised of God to be proclaimer of the coming Messiah, he has earned that right. But I feel no more worthy of untying John’s sandals than he did those of Jesus.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I wonder how we can connect John’s word of repentance to Paul’s words of affirmation and the joy of this day? The consensus among the reflections I consulted is that joy comes with righteousness, not the kind of perfectionism too often associated with righteousness, but with setting your heart right with God and finding right relationship with all creation. Both John and Paul affirm this, each in his own way.
John’s over-heated rhetoric is full of hyperbole. He shouts to get the attention of the crowd and to hold it. Perhaps that’s what you have to do when you’re preaching outdoors without the aid of amplification. The older I get the less I like people shouting at me. But, note that people are flocking to hear John, walking all the way from Jerusalem and the surrounding territory to the Jordan in the blazing sun, just to be called names and chastised. How many of us would make the effort? Right, I didn’t think we’d be organizing a field trip any time soon.
Still, look at the crowds being drawn to practitioners of overblown proclamation in our own time. How do you explain the appeal of many of our current candidates for political office? Why are people drawn to the bad news hurled at them? How many show up because it is “the popular thing to do”? I know John, the Baptist, doesn’t belong in the same category with Donald Trump and Anthony Scalia. Nor do I intend to do depth analysis of the psychological appeal of a negative word. Suffice it to say, humans often tend be fascinated, even obsessed with bad news. Just flip on your television for the daily broadcast.
But once John has their attention, he has something more to say, something that lowers the heights and lifts the depths and makes the rough places smooth. He may not articulate it the way Jesus or Paul will, but he, too, has a vision of God’s Beloved Community. He sees the possibility of it coming on earth and he longs for that coming. Maybe his rhetoric is over the top, but joy comes in the fulfillment of such longing. John has come to proclaim it so.
What John knows, however, is what we all know somewhere deep inside. In order for the Beloved Community to become real some things have got to change. When he shouts “Repent!” he’s not urging folks to writhe around in sack cloth and ashes, ruing their wrong doing and pleading for mercy at the hands of an angry God. He’s urging people to get with the program. Turn things around. God’s Beloved Community will come through our own practice of justice and equity, of peace and love, of compassion and care. Repentance is not meant to be the burden of self-flagellation and striving for perfection. It’s the joy of living in right relation to God, to neighbor, to all creation, even to one’s self.
To their credit the crowd gathered around John – at least some of them – don’t run in terror or turn their backs in disgust. They get the picture enough to hang in with him. They see good news in what he’s proclaiming and they want to tease it out. “What must we do, John? What must we do to be saved? What must we do to know health and wholeness? What must we do to experience real joy in our difficult lives and troubled world? And John is ready for them. He shows compassion for those that turn to him in much the same way Jesus will. The answers are simple – and challenging, but if it was too easy it wouldn’t really be satisfying, would it? Share, he says. Practice fair trade. Be honest in your dealings. In short look to right living, the living that links to right relationships. Another way to put it, love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. If your living, your relationships, are rooted in love, you will certainly see that that joy bursts forth. It’s like the old song sings, “Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth” – when I recognize it and embrace it as my way of life – “how can I keep from singing?”
Bruce Epperly writes of Luke’s account of the Baptist, “What is central to John’s speech is not the harshness of his language – indeed, his inflammatory rhetoric – but the possibility that we can change our lives.” He says, “We can let go of injustice, materialism, consumerism, and inequality to become citizens of a realm of freedom, love, and abundance.” God’s Beloved Community! He concludes, “John always points to Jesus’ messianic age: his refining fires temper the dross of our lives to make our lives something of beauty and love, and prepare us to meet the coming Christ. The good news is that when we change our lives, we open to a wellspring of new possibilities for ourselves and our communities” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary, Advent 3, December 16, 2012,” patheos.com). And joy bursts forth.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he is saying something similar to what John said but in a gentler tone. Still, Paul is urging his friends to get with the program and to stick with it. He is concerned with right living, the sort that brings in God’s Beloved Community. He urges his friends in Philippi, “Let your gentleness” – your generosity, your magnanimity, your compassion, your Christlikeness – “be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And joy bursts forth. How can it not if we live like that?
Repent! Rejoice! They’re related, more than we had thought. As another old Quaker song sings, “to turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” Or perhaps it is in our coming round right that we find our delight, that joy bursts forth. In a contemporary story of repentance, of making an about face, and rejoicing that may speak more to us than John’s preaching on the snake pit, Phillip Campbell tells of his grandmother who late in life left her long-time congregation to join another. When questioned as to this surprising move, she said “she liked it there because of the positive message she received. For the first time in her life, she felt God’s loving presence. ‘God wants me to be happy,’ she said. ‘I never knew that before. I thought church was about keeping me from doing what I was not supposed to do. And I never felt like I was good enough.’ Late in life, Campbell says, “my grandmother heard a word of God’s grace and experienced a joy she had never known before. She began to heed Paul’s instruction to the church in Philippi: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I will say, rejoice’” (Phillip E, Campbell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, “Philippians 4:4-7, Pastoral Perspective,” p. 62).
God wants us to be happy, to know joy in right living, to find the wonder, the grace, the healing of the Beloved Community. Yes, there is work to be done. Yes, times can be tough and the way hard. Yes, sometimes God seems far away and hope wanes, but then a voice is heard, crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Holy One. All creation shall see the salvation of God. The Beloved Community will be known on earth as in heaven. We will see Emmanuel, God with us. And, lo, in the midst of it all, joy bursts forth. Amen.