Advent 3C - December 13, 2009
"You brood of vipers." That's a harsh thing to say to people who are coming to get baptized. These are not John's enemies but people who have come to follow the way that John is proclaiming.
John is skeptical, though -- "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" Are our actions truly guided by the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, or are we just following other people?
John exhorts the crowds to "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" rather than resting in the assurances of their covenantal inheritance. Similarly, we in the Church today are reminded that it is not enough to merely claim the name Christian -- for out of these stones God can raise up children of the Promise -- but that we must do the work to help bring about a radically just and egalitarian society -- to share with those who have less than we do, to be content with what we have and not manipulate the system or speak falsely about others.
Repentance is a turning, a returning, toward God. And during Advent, as we reenact the expectant wait for the Christ, we are reminded that God does not always look like we expect, that redemption comes from unexpected places and takes unexpected forms. And so we continue to keep our eyes and hearts open and attentive, seeking always the Way.
So what is this reading doing on the Sunday of Joy? All the other lectionary readings today are all about joy.
But is this Gospel reading not about joy? This Gospel reading ends, after all these demands and a proclamation about the One who is to come, "So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people."
I love this. To our ears, John's words are hard to stomach, but to these people they were Good News. God's vision for Creation is of economic justice for all. This has always been a Jewish ethic, but John goes further. John proclaims that One is coming with a winnowing fork in hand, to clear the threshing floor, to gather the wheat into the granary -- and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John proclaims that the vision of God and of the Jewish people for the world will happen. This is the Good News.
We're in the positions of power -- we in (white) middle-class America where our religion is the dominant one. And so this message of cosmic overturn is scary. To John's listeners, we look like the chaff that will be burned.
But the chaff to be burned is not people. It is the parts of us that stand between us and God. God who is the Love that animates the entire cosmos. God who wants to draw us closer to Godself.
Wikipedia defines "chaff" as "the inedible, dry, scaly protective casings of the seeds of cereal grain." To open ourselves up, to make ourselves vulnerable, is a scary thing, and so of course we build up protective casings. But these casings also keep out that which nourishes and sustains us, and so they need to be broken open, shed, discarded.
God is not out to destroy us but rather to transform us -- like the refiner's fire we heard about last week.
Just before today's lectionary begins, Isaiah proclaims: "You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me" (Isaiah 12:1). God's wrath is not everlasting -- God's mercy is. Like a loving parent, angered at a beloved child's misbehavior, God always welcomes us back into that loving embrace.
And "Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation" (Isaiah 12:2). "God has become my salvation." I love that. We seek salvation in so many things -- well-paying jobs, financial security and the approbation of our peers, weight-loss, romance. But ultimately, none of those satisfy. Where we find salvation is in the Breath and Source and Ground of our Being -- the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation, the Love that has known us since before we were formed in the womb, the Ground of our Being that sustains us through all trials with the peace that passes understanding. This cosmic life force so far beyond our comprehension, yet also pulsing within every cell of our being. The cosmic God who has set all the stars in all the innumerable galaxies in their places and who also numbers the very hairs on our bodies. This is the God who is our salvation. Who enfleshed Herself so as to meet us more fully, who lifts us through death to resurrection, who will never leave us or forsake us. This is the Good News.
"With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3).Mostly this just makes me think of the hymn, but in really thinking about it, I find myself noticing the phrase "you will draw water" -- there is work involved here. I love the imagery of water from the wells of salvation -- the water that will never leave us thirsty ... like Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well -- "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14). But we are not passive recipients -- we are called to draw forth this water. God has placed it there in the well for us, and invites us to reach out for it, but we must reach out.
And sometimes we can't reach out ourselves but need someone to draw out the water for us. Which is why community is so important.
In today's Epistle, Paul exhorts us to help each other:
"Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life" (Philippians 4:1-3).We are called to do this work together.
We are all co-workers, co-creators of God's Heaven here on Earth.
No one is too small to be counted important in this work.
Whether you are named in the Bible or your name is known only in God's Book of Life, you are belov'd and your work matters. The work of each and every one of us is necessary to bring forth the Kindom of God. You all know that passage from 1 Corinthians 12, right? We are all a part of the Body of Christ -- each and every one of us. And just as you wouldn't want any part of your body, from your appendix to a thumb, to stop working, so we are called to all be working toward the fulfillment of the Kindom. But I don't want you to be intimidated. You do not have to be the body part of an Olympic athlete. God does glorious things with this flawed Body of Christ, just as persons with disabilities live rich and full lives not in spite of but with the limitations of their bodies. We are transformed through the resurrecting power of the love of Christ, into new creations -- empowered through the love of God and of community to be more than we could be on our own.
"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8).I don't think this is an exhortation to just "think happy thoughts" -- to turn away from the broken places of the world. Instead, I think this is a reminder to keep the vision of the Kindom always before us -- to remember the Good News. Even in the midst of all the pain and suffering, the Good News is still true.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on God's name; make known God's deeds among the nations; proclaim that God's name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for God has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12:4-5)God is breaking into our lives -- into the world in which we live and into our hearts. This is the Christmas event for which we are preparing during Advent -- the coming of Christ.
The prophet Zephaniah says, "The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory. God will rejoice over you with gladness and will renew you in God's love. God will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival" (Zephaniah 3:17-18a).
Through Zephaniah, God proclaims to the people: "I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes" (Zephaniah 3:18b-20).
God love us so much. God wants so much good for us. For all of us.
And so I encourage you to leave this place, in joy, strengthened by the Good News that God loves you and empowered to share that Good News with all you meet by extending that love to them through your words and actions, working toward God's vision of peace and justice.