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Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Dec 16, 2018

Passage: Luke 3:7-18

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Category: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Detail:

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent- Year C (2018)
December 16th, 2018
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU) 

Zephaniah 3:14-20      Philippians 4:4-7       Luke 3:7-18

 

When taken all together, there might seem to be a bit of dissonance going on in the readings for this morning. If you recall, in the Old Testament reading the theme is restoration and rejoicing. It begins with the exhortation, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” and it ends with the promise that God "will restore your fortunes before your eyes.” In the Canticle, the theme is salvation and rejoicing. It begins with the confident assertion that “Surely it is God who saves me,” and ends with the exhortation, “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” And in the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, the them is rejoicing and peace. It begins with the familiar encouragement, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” and it ends with the promise that the peace of God will be your guard. So, just from the lessons we had before the Gospel reading, if you had to guess what the theme of today is, you’d probably be able to come up with the answer: REJOICING! 

Incidentally - for all you liturgy geeks out there - the third Sunday of Advent widely came to be called “Gaudete” Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday back when Advent was observed as a penitential season of preparation much akin to Lent. “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday was observed as a sort of festive break in the penitential somberness of the season. The way that some churches came to mark the day was by wearing rose or pink vestments. Hence the color of the candle that we lit at the beginning of the service. See! When you you come to church, you might just learn something that could come up as a Jeopardy question. But I digress…

In any case, the theme of rejoicing is an easily discernible common thread throughout the first few readings. And then we get to the Gospel reading, where the theme is, ostensibly, repentance and judgment. It begins with John the Baptist calling people “You brood of vipers!” and ends with the promise of a fiery judgment. So you might be thinking that today’s theme of rejoicing didn’t quite survive the Gospel reading. But I think it actually does. 

Last week, we had a bit of a laugh over how John’s message cannot really be seen as a softly delivered word of encouragement. Instead, his message was a harsh call to action. But lest we think that John was just a grumpy prophet, it’s worth remembering that important messages can sometimes come across as harsh. If you think back to late September, you may remember the message that the Highway Department issued over flooded roads: “Turn around, don’t drown!” Which some might say was a pretty forcible command. 

But it conveyed the desired message effectively; much more effectively than if, say, the message had said something like, “It is possible that when driving you will discover that water on the roads is deep enough to pose challenges to your ability to keep your head above water. If you would like to ensure that you will keep your head above water, the highway department politely recommends that you consider your own safety when making the decision about whether or not to continue.” The Highway Department’s aim was to keep people alive and safe, and their brusque message was meant to drive home the seriousness of the danger. 

Much the same way, John the Baptist’s message was delivered with earnest severity so that the people would appreciate the seriousness of the call to repentance and the necessity of living their lives in response to God’s desire for their salvation. John’s message was that, instead of passively banking on their identity as descendants of God’s chosen people, his hearers needed to act in ways that were consistent with the reason God chose a people in the first place - to create a group of people who would be known for their fairness in dealing with each other, for their hospitality to strangers, and for their active dedication to a life lived in joyful response to God’s love.      

That’s why I think that John’s exhortation to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” can also be read as “Bear fruits worthy of a people who rejoice.” Because the kinds of things John was telling people to do - being content with what you have, sharing what you have, and not using your power for selfish gain…when these things are done with the best intentions, they can be joyful responses to God’s providential care for us. So, again, I think John’s message is a call to take joy seriously and to turn away from doing things that stand in the way of people’s ability to take joy seriously. 

Even John’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah and the people being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, I think, fit in with this Sunday’s theme of rejoicing. I know I’ve said it before, but I think we can get so used to the images in scripture of hellfire and punishment for the wicked that we can forget that such images are not there to frighten us into loving God; loving a God who is angrily watching our every move with the intention of punishing people for their wrongdoing. Rather, those images are there to drive home the notion that God’s will for us is to bring us to a place where righteousness will be at home and where everything that prevented us from living in peace and wholeness will be utterly removed.        

I’d be willing to bet that there are burdens in your life that, if someone were to come to you and offer to take them away, you’d jump at the chance. I’m not talking here about things like having to pay bills. I’m talking more about things that you see in yourself or know about yourself and wish weren’t there. For example, if you struggle with addiction, then such an offer like the one I’m talking about would probably sound great. Maybe even too good to be true. Because as most people who struggle with addiction know, even if you’ve been in recovery for YEARS, the temptation to relapse is always present, always there threatening to drag you back down. And wouldn’t it be nice if that temptation would just go away. Wouldn’t the removal of that temptation be a cause for rejoicing! I think it would.  

So I read John’s prophecy about the Messiah gathering the wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire as a promise that God will utterly remove from us all the chaff - all those things that stand in the way of our wholeness - and bring us to a place where we will not have to live in fear of the chaff ever sprouting up again. And if we live life in the expectant hope that this is God’s desire for us, it give us reason to live our lives in a constant state of repentance; in a constant state of orienting our lives towards rejoicing in God’s promise that we will be made whole. That, I think, is what John the Baptist’s message of repentance is about. 

And so I’d like to close with a thought from another John - John Climacus, a 7th century monk who wrote about the nature of repentance. In his words, 

“To repent is not to look downwards at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s love. It is not to look backwards with self-reproach but forward with trustfulness. It is not to see what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I might yet become.”