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Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012

Last weekend my chorus sang the Messiah, Part I, with the Hallelujah and Amen choruses. The instruments accompanying the piece included a harpsichord, an organ, trumpets, timpani and a chamber orchestra. A friend of mine attended the concert. She enjoyed it very much, but told me it sounded like one of the violins was out of tune and that was bothersome to her. I could not hear it, but I have heard instruments in groups out of tune before, and it is very annoying. It grabs people’s attention and takes them away from full enjoyment of the piece that is being played or sung.

John the Baptist is the out-of-tune violin during the Advent season. Last week, we had two lessons of forgiveness and blessing, and this week we have two lessons about rejoicing because the Lord is near. We are going through Advent gently, expectantly waiting for God’s greatest gift to those God loves to enter our hearts and our lives, and our reverie is interrupted by an in-your-face John the Baptist, a prophet with a single minded cause – to get people to be baptized as a sign of repentance for forgiveness of sins. We have a rough, strident-voiced oddball hurling insults at the crowd and threatening all kinds of punishment from God if we do not do what God wants. We have a messenger who issues a dire warning instead of ones that promise gladness and rejoicing because God has already forgiven our sins. And Luke has the nerve to call what John is doing preaching the good news.

I can see good news in Zephaniah that calls for singing and glad shouts; it is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians with its call for rejoicing and the peace of God that will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. But there is no peace in John the Baptist, no rejoicing either. So where is he good news? It all seems like bad news. But John’s screaming and shouting does have the desired effect. It draws people to hear him. It is a discordant note that insists on being heard. The question is why do we hear it and come to John. Are threats what is necessary to get our attention? If the message were one of God’s love and mercy expressed in Jesus that was given to us in softer language, would we pay attention, or would we just let it wash over us like our liturgy does sometimes?

Would the message help us feel good about ourselves and our relationships with God? Even if it called for repentance and we went through the motions of confessing our sins, would we turn our lives around and go forward into a new way of existence? John doesn’t think so.

It is clear that John is not going to go easy on those that come to him from his first words. Calling one’s audience a brood of vipers is not a good introduction to a speech. It might scare some people away or make them angry. John risks losing the audience he wants to hear his message. I certainly have never called you a brood of vipers to get your attention. Instead I usually use Dear People of God. So does the Book of Common Prayer, even on that most solemn of penitential occasions, Ash Wednesday. I would not accomplish anything by calling you names and insulting you.

But John apparently holds his audience spellbound, hanging on his every word. After the name calling comes the talking not about mercy, but about wrath. God’s anger is so big against the people that he uses that strong a word. God has an ax that God is ready to use to cut down trees (the people) that do not bear fruits of repentance, and nothing will protect them from this fate. John is clear about God’s power of life and death. Even the Jews cannot claim their ancestor Abraham as a reason that they should be saved. Abraham lived a life filled with faith, especially in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and you can’t be children of Abraham if you don’t live a life of faith. It is easy for God to make more Jews. God can even make them from rocks, John tells the people. What a comedown for anyone who thinks they are entitled to a free ride based on their heritage, or for that matter, any other circumstance of their birth or station in life.

The people are caught by John’s message. They understand that it is not enough to be able to affirm the correct beliefs. What do we do to bear the fruits God wants from us? We don’t want to be cut down like a dead tree. Here John has some practical advice. None of it has to do with piety or the temple or correct worship. It has to do with loving one’s neighbor. The normal person there is to be generous, to give food and clothing and whatever else is needed to those who have less than they do. They are not to beggar themselves in the process, but sharing the excess is very important, however limited it may be. The tax collectors, who often charged more than they were supposed to in order to line their own pockets are called to be fair and just with their collections. And the soldiers are told to stop intimidating people and to be content with what they have. All of these things are very hard to do if it is not your habit, but they are the behavior changes God wants.

But John is not finished. The people want to know if he was the Messiah, but he says he is not. There is someone really powerful who is coming and will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This coming attraction will also be a figure of judgment. His implement would not be an ax, but a winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff, gathering the former into his granary and throwing the chaff into unquenchable fire. The word used for Holy Spirit can also mean wind, and this coming One will use wind and fire when he judges. But the Holy Spirit and fire is also a reminder of how Jesus created the church at Pentecost.

So where IS the good news Luke says John spoke? John’s exhortation to the people is full of judgment – of fearful things happening to those who do not listen to his words. But the good news is in the fact that there is still time. The coming One has not come yet, and people have time to clean up their acts before he does, or else John would not be there to warn them. The good news is in John’s ethical proclamation about righteous behavior toward one’s neighbor – righteousness is the same as it always has been: love God and love neighbor. The good news is that there will be wheat to save, and saving the wheat is what this gospel is really about. The chaff could be either those who do not repent or the parts of us that need to be excised so that we may become healthy and whole grains of wheat serving to help bring the kingdom into the world (Veli-Matti Karkkainen).

So the good news of that out-of-tune violin string becomes good news for us. There is still time to repent and change our ways. We still have time to be generous to others. We all tend to be more generous at this time of year because it is the season of giving, but we need to share ourselves all year round, giving what we can, when we can. Brian C. Taylor says that the change of mind and action we will need might also include giving up some behaviors or beginning new ones. Or it might be the act of getting real with God. It is not about being stuck in guilt and shame, he says, it is about being humble, about giving up our illusions of self-perfection and being naked before God. Actions and thoughts like these can be scary stuff. But Brother Eldridge Pendleton of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, says “Do not be afraid. The Gospel challenges us to take a new path and to begin today. The good news for us is that we have been baptized by water and the Holy Spirit and given new life in Christ, who will help us grow into the people he wants us to be. Our sin is no barrier anymore. We can be the trees that bear the fruit of repentance; we can be the wheat that is gathered into the granary at the Second Coming. Hopefully without being insulted, harangued or scared out of our minds, we can become ready to receive the Lord when he comes. The baby, the teacher and the One who will come again all love us more than we can imagine. We can return that love by being fruitful trees and nutritious wheat that bless others with our gifts.


   - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:

Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, Theological Perspective, p. 70
Brian C. Taylor in a series of Advent meditations from CREDO – “Advent 2012: God’s Victorious Light”, Day 11: Repent for God’s Kingdom is Near”
Brother Eldridge Pendleton, Society of St. John the Evangelist, “Fear”, Blog Post December 12, 2012