A Pragmatic Prophet
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" - John the Baptist
One of the hotly debated topics in homelitics classes in seminary – is how does one begin a sermon? “Please be seated” tends to be frowned upon, though sometimes its just necessary. The Trinitarian formula – In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – is a good standby, and reminds me of what I’m hoping to do. My favorite, but its kinda wordy – is what I just said – May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer.
From the psalms – it’s a prayer – and invites us to remember that while the preacher is doing the talking – hopefully, something that is said will inspire movement – curiosity, questions or reflections in our hearts as to the call of God in our own lives.
But for sure – never did a preaching professor encourage us to open with – you brood of vipers – who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. John the Baptist’s structure seems to be – insult, threaten and then instruct. Definitely not a style that would serve a parish priest.
And as I approach the text – I wonder, why is he so angry – at these people who have come to be baptized. They are there for something – why does he get mad?
But then I remember that last week we heard the first part of this sermon – the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. And that indeed is what John has been doing. He has been in the wilderness in prayer and fasting – opening his heart to God. And so, I don’t think his words are intended to insult – I think they’re intended to stir up, to shake up – to remind everyone listening that it isn’t about what happened in the past – don’t think just because you are one of Abraham’s children you get a past – and it isn’t about what is about to happen in the future – wrath or not.
Its about now – its about living into our God-given nature in the ordinary, real circumstances of our lives.
When I started the process to become a parish priest – you go sit with the rector, talk, write an essay – eventually form a discernment committee – and when the rector and committee feel like its time to put you forward, that you will be sponsored – they send your name off to the bishop. And you become an aspirant. I was a very eager aspirant.
And once the bishop has your name you are sent a thick packet of material with many forms to complete – life history, work history, an essay or two, references, medical records, background checks, recommendations – it’s a lot. And then once complete and returned you get to have your first appointment at the diocese to begin “the process.”
My process began with Canon Constance Coles in the Diocese of New York – and she said, you know Arianne, in all the years I’ve been doing this – I don’t think anyone has returned that packet of materials has quickly as you. Are you in a hurry to become a priest?
Yes – yes I was. And I thought – if I show them how capable and competent and perfect I can be – jumping over all their hurdles – then they will see how competently God is calling me to the priesthood – and then when I become a priest – it – life – will all fall into place.
We do that, don’t we – we look to some future event, goal, accomplishment – and then, like Christmas, it will all come together.
Well you know what wise bishops do when they see someone in a hurry to become a priest. They slow the process, way, way down. Which is exactly what happened in mine. Because the wisdom – that I came to see – that I am see growing in awareness of – is that life with God is not about our accomplishments – our efforts – and our achievements. It is about the far more mundane tasks of doing small acts of good news in the ordinary circumstances of our day.
John the Baptist’s fiery rhetoric – does get the people to start questioning in their hearts, what then should we do? And his answer – well its almost boring –
If you have more than enough food and clothing, share.
If you’re job is to collect taxes – then collect what is fair.
If you’re job is a soldier – then don’t take advantage of people because of your power – don’t bully.
Share – be fair – don’t bully. (Grateful to David Lose's commentary for this insight!) And if we add the first part of his sermon from last Sunday – pray.
Aren’t you surprised that repentance doesn’t have a higher bar? Why doesn’t he say – end world hunger, give up everything you have? Why doesn’t he tell the tax collectors – stop doing your job and overthrow the corrupt empire? Why doesn’t he tell the soldiers – lay down your weapons of war and bring in a reign of peace?
Because John the Baptist – like all prophets – know that our life with God – our creating God’s world in our midst – doesn’t begin with grand efforts to change the world. It begins simply with transforming our own hearts – our own hearts, and minds – it begins with seeing the world as God sees the world. It begins with sharing, caring for others, and using the resources and the power we have as individuals – to build up the common good.
Isn’t that what we are doing this morning after this service? We aren’t attempting to fix everything that is wrong with the disparity in this city. We are letting God connect us with children of God who are very close and very far away. We are sharing our resources our gifts, because we have them to share. We are creating kingdom moments in our lives – because that is the preparation we are called to do.
Today is joy Sunday – Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent where in
conjunction with listening to John the Baptist’s message for us – we hear that God has always, is always, and will always direct us towards joy. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” Jesus says. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice”
Paul writes those words from a prison cell – and he uses that letter to build his community up. To remind them that everything they do is meant for the joy of the world and their joy.
The personal and shared circumstances of our lives matter to God. The daily personal struggles and joys. One thing I can promise is that the circumstances for you of Advent and Christmas, this year – are different than last – and will never be the same again. For some of us, it is a joyful time everything going well – for others of us, that is not true. Our circumstances have changed and this Christmas is hard.
So – listen to the encouraging words of St. Paul – who really echoes John the Baptist, albeit with a different tone – let your gentleness be made known to everyone – let the peace of God guard your heart. Share – be fair – be gentle. Seek out people who will share – be fair – and be gentle with you. For with just these exhortations – we too make known the good news in the particular circumstances of our world. Amen.