Sunday, December 16, 2018
The Turning- Sermon for Advent 3C
Our gospel reading today starts off, like so much of our lives do these days it seems, with name-calling and threats. You can't even escape it at church this week, friends, and THIS is the Sunday we call "Joy Sunday" during Advent! Of course, our gospel ends with John “proclaiming the good news" to the people. Words matter. We live in a time when name calling and fear-mongering take up all the air in the room. So it may escape our attention how harsh John's opening words are.
They say thay a soft answer turns away wrath. John does not use soft words. He preaches a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and he makes it clear to all who approach him that they ARE sinners. In particular, three groups are mentioned specifically: the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers. Those in the crowd John addresses specifically are those that have the MEANS to do something about the poor, those who have more than what they need for basic security. The tax collectors could be those who collected the Temple tax for the Jewish authorities, or those who collected taxes for Rome. Since John also mentions being “children of Abraham,” it could be either one. Nonetheless, tax collectors were objects of scorn, then and now. Soldiers, likewise, could be Temple soldiers like those who arrested Jesus and then handed him over to Roman soldiers, or they could be Roman soldiers, although that makes the references to Abrahamic descent problematic. The first gentile convert in the book of Acts was the soldier Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
Three times John is asked by specific groups of his listeners: “What should we do?” His answers are actually not that difficult: He tells them to turn. To embrace true repentance. To embrace true community. To change their hearts and minds completely to live abundantly.
To the crowds, he answers, If you have extra, share what you have with those who have none. To the tax collectors as a foreshadowing of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10, he states, Perform your work ethically and don't take more than is owed. To the soldiers, he urges, treat people with respect (especially if that type of work you do lends itself to suspicion of dishonesty and tyranny). So John’s suggestions are all meant to point out that it is not WHO you are, especially by birth, that matters—being “children of Abraham” means nothing. Instead, he emphasizes again what one DOES matters more. This is not intended, however, to support what our Lutheran friends call “works righteousness.” We ARE saved by grace alone. But that doesn’t mean that once we are saved, that’s the end of our obligation to god or to each other.
The life of discipleship is based on proclaiming our faith, but also in DOING right as part of our testimony to the power of God’s transformative grace in our lives. John’s answers are also, at their base, economic in nature. They are directed specifically at economic injustice and imbalance. And in this time, when a few dozen people possess the majority of the world's wealth, that admonition is needed today more than ever.
At an even deeper level, John's answers are directed at transforming our focus from being upon ourselves to being-for-others. “What are we to do?” is a question that still grips us today. How do we live not just a “successful” life by the standards of the world, but a good life? This is a question that goes deeper than “What must we do to be saved?” which we have heard previously, because THAT question is still centered on the self. In our common Christian context, that question often is more accurately translated as “How can I make sure I go to heaven?” And how many of us have noticed how that concern ends up leading AWAY from living a life shaped by God’s love and grace?
There is so much injustice, inequality and grief in the world. On Friday, I attended a prayer vigil at Christ Church Cathedral for the sixth anniversary of the terrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. After the scripture readings and the prayers and litanies, Kathie shared a Facebook post by the father of Ben Wheeler, one of the first-grade children slaughtered in that terrible act of evil, who was one of her parishioners from when she was rector there. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear this father acknowledge and mourn the realization that, from now on, Ben will have been dead longer than he was alive. The grief that radiated from this father, grief still as fresh and incomprehensible as it was on the day his little boy was confirmed murdered, was as sharp as a sword’s edge.
And it is in the face of that grief that we also can ask, “What should we do?” And we know that the answer lies in acting in concrete ways to try to prevent more griefs from being inflicted upon an aching world filled with losses. In the face of injustice, hunger, homelessness, and violence, it is clear that the path of salvation starts with the acknowledgement that we cannot give in to the enormity of the world’s anger, greed, or grief. Repentance is not just an attitude or decision. Repentance involves ACTION. The fruit of repentance is not assurance of our own personal salvation, but our determination to work for the good of others, to work for the repair of the world from all its human systems that produce inequity, injustice, and oppression. And not tomorrow, either: “even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” The time to act is now.
One of my favorite sayings that gets shared on social media is this one that combines a rereading of Micah 6:8, with commentary attributed the Talmud: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
We are given life by God to embody God’s love right here, right now. John’s answers to those who come to him for his baptism all make abundantly clear two things: salvation is found now, not after we die. And salvation has more to do with how we treat others than about whether we save our own skins. Eternal life, if it truly is eternal, doesn’t begin after we die. It is truly eternal, just as God’s love and knowledge of each and every one of us exists beyond the limitations time and space, as Psalm 139 reminds us:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,
you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
… For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
What can we do with the knowledge that we are loved and treasured as much as this? We turn. We repent. We ACT, especially where previously we have not. And in the turning, we turn away from the death-dealing ways of the world, and instead embrace life. Life for ourselves, and life for others as we ourselves long for. Dedicating ourselves to the turning, to the loving, to the embracing of the life that God has dreamed for each of us as God’s beloveds.
The repentance God continually calls us to is embedded in the famous peace prayer attributed to St. Francis:
where there is hatred, let us turn instead to sow love;
where there is injury, let us turn to forgiveness not just for the sake of those who have wronged us, but for the sake of ourselves, that we can lay down the lead weight of anger and resentment;
where there is doubt, let us welcome that doubt to strengthen our faith;
where there is despair, let us turn instead to seek what strengthens our hope;
where there is darkness, let us determine to be light for those around us;
where there is sadness, let us comfort each other, and offer the gentle gift of companionship and understanding until joy can be rediscovered.
What should we do? Surely the answer is to live our lives not for ourselves but for others and for God, as Jesus himself modeled in his time on earth. That’s the life we are called to as disciples. And it requires a turning, a repentance of heart and soul that would be impossible—if it were not for our assurance that God empowers us by that same love.
It is love, Love Incarnate, love come down at Christmas and every day and animates our souls if we let it.
Love that brings us to repentance and to embracing the turning.
Love that brings us to everlasting and immediate life.
Love that strengthens.
Love that heals.
Preached at the 505 on December 15 and at 8:00 am on December 17 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.