Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
May the whole earth be renewed in its God, the universe sound with Christ’s promise of coming life, and the Spirit surround us with a cloud of grace. Amen.
The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been a day for rejoicing in church. In the days when this season had more of a penitential flavor — perceived almost like a little Lent — and purple vestments were worn, the change of color was a way of lifting the somberness in the certain approach to the feast of Christmas.
We light a pink candle on the Advent wreath and, although the difference in the mood of the day is not so striking for parishes such as St. Paul’s that use the color blue during this season — a color that suggests the hopeful, reflective, peaceful season that Advent is meant to be — still we find in the readings today the resounding invitation to “rejoice.” This used to be called “Gaudete Sunday”because “Gaudete” which means “Rejoice” was the first word of the introit—the entrance psalm for the day.
Now I will tell you that while there is liturgical and scriptural support a change of the color, I received email the other day from a friend who shared another perspective. He said that twenty-or-so years ago, a very pious Anglo-Catholic priest shocked and delighted him by telling him: “On Gaudete Sunday we use rose vestments because Mary wanted a girl.” (There is no liturgical or scriptural support for that.)
In the first lesson today the prophet Zephaniah proclaims, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart!…The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness.” The theme is continued in the canticle and Paul in his letter to the community at Philippi says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, “Rejoice.” Evidently, someone didn’t get the “rejoice” memo in time to select an appropriately happy Gospel.
Enter John the Baptist in all his crusty glory: John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts — hopping mad armed with pitchfork in one hand and an ax in the other. You may be familiar with his kind of preaching from the church of your childhood or from searching the channels on your car radio, or maybe even some of the signs along a highway or in front of a church — the kind that say “Repent if you want to avoid the fires of hell!” Some of these signs actually identify what kind of people are headed there.
That’s not the kind of message most of us would flock to hear. Throughout the history of the church, the hellfire and damnation brand of Christianity has been used to threaten, chastise, and scare people. Is that really what we have here in John? Listen again to John’s ranting: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” Then after another tirade about burning in an unquenchable fire, the Gospel ends with these words: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Say what? Good news? Yes, there seems to be good news in the Old Testament lesson and in Paul’s letter but I’m not sure that being called “snakes” and threatened with an axe and unquenchable fire qualifies as good news. John the Baptist as you may know is a second cousin of Jesus. Mind you, you would not have found him preaching in the big downtown synagogue. You would have had to go out into the wilderness to get a sermon like John’s. And who would trek there to hear him blast his audience with fire and brimstone preaching? Multitudes. Crowds went out to listen to him.
What ever drew so many eager listeners to this strange character? Could it be that they knew that his preaching — hard as it was to digest — was somehow prophetic, that he spoke the truth. And isn’t there a part of our human longing that makes us want to hear that kind of truth — even when it’s not easy to swallow?
I read an article this week about Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan that draws some 5,000 people every Sunday to hear the pastor — an admittedly theologically conservative evangelical — preach a message that resonates with them and the roughly 25,000 more who download his sermons. Most of the audience is made up of young professionals in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. The gist of his preaching is that “we all suffer from the same malady — trying to fill our empty spaces with achievement when only accepting God’s grace can do the job.” His mission is to call people’s attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them discover the spiritual benefits of following the way of the Gospel.
Like the crowds who flocked to hear John the Baptist, these New Yorkers have identified a prophetic voice that speaks to them, not unlike the prophetic voice of Cindy Straver’s young daughter Nellika, about whom she spoke last week, a voice that asked her mother “how can we spend money to buy us a tent for Christmas when for the same amount we could provide clean water for people in Africa?” By Cindy’s own admission, that was a hard voice to hear, as often is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Some might say these are the voices of agitators.”
John saw that many of God’s people had lost their way and were walking down paths that took them in the opposite direction of God. Are we far removed from that Biblical time and can we see a connection between life today and life then? Turn on your television and you will hear voices crying in the wilderness: voices from Sudan, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Africa, and the Middle East; voices from Appalachia and the Bowery and the shelter in South Norwalk; voices on the unemployment line. Voices of those who wonder where God is and voices of those who are lost. John’s message is addressed to a world that needs to turn away from it preoccupation with wealth, achievement, and ambition and turn to God for healing and wholeness.
You and I know that world well. It’s a world where people who were partly responsible for the problems of the country’s economy are given huge bonuses and where a multi-millionaire can have multiple extra-marital affairs and find redemption on his 22 million dollar yacht while the number of people who need food stamps continues to grow and children living in poverty in Norwalk increased by 200%. And, as a prophetic voice reminded me earlier today, it’s a world where spending has been out of control for a long time and will get us in trouble down the line again if people’s attitude about it does not change. Will we — have we — learned from all this economic crisis?
Returning to the wasteland, I think we might cut John the Baptist some slack. It must have been frustrating to preach such a hard message and wonder if anyone was listening. His diet did not help — locusts and wild honey — and he wore rags and no sandals and probably had bug bites from the backwoods and sore feet from the rough terrain. He’s cranky and so his choice of words is pretty harsh. But look what happens when he recognizes that the people are listening, when they actually ask him the question, “What then should we do?”
His demeanor changes and he gets, well, downright reasonable, even likeable. No radical demands, rather a very sensible, low-key call to be faithful to one’s circumstances in life: share with those who have less than you; be honest I your dealings with one another and in your jobs; do not take advantage of the vulnerable; cherish those whom God has drawn into your life; be grateful for all you have; be good neighbors and live in peace.
That may all sound familiar and hackneyed, but it is really a way of life that speaks to how the Gospel asks us to live. We can all buy into the secular trinity of money, ambition, and achievement and forget about our dependence on God’s grace. We need a voice crying in the wilderness — a voice like John the Baptist, a voice like the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a voice like Nellika’s to help us get back on the right path because it is so very easy to get lost in this messy, complicated world.
Oscar Wild once said: “Agitators are a set of interfering people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.”
So this morning I will add my name to the list of agitators and ask a different question — not “What should we do?” but rather “What is God doing?” What is God doing to awaken you, to stir up God’s power in you, to disturb you, to help you discover how your sins may hinder you, to affirm your value, to fill you with expectation, to let you see what areas of your life need some amending and what ones need feeding?
What is God doing to give you cause to rejoice — not in a giddy, meaningless way but in recognition of God’s love and presence in your lives? And, if you aren’t overly disturbed by this agitator and his meddlesome question, why not tell me about your experience so that together we might rejoice?