Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

YEAR C 2018, advent 3

Advent 3, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be unto you from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Or, as John the Baptist might put it, “You bunch of snakes! The wrath is coming for you. Don’t say, 'My parents built this church’'; because God can make Episcopalians from these stones. The ax is cutting down trees, so don’t be a tree.  Amen.”

John the Baptist was not a hit at parties.  And he obviously didn’t have an ear for how to start a sermon.  On the other hand, the people definitely listened to him, so maybe we preachers should take a hint from his dramatic opening today.  He certainly got the people’s attention by calling them a “brood of vipers.”  And their response is to ask, “What shall I do?”

And then John has a prescription for each group.  To the general folks he says, share what you have with those less fortunate.  To the tax collectors he says, don’t cheat people.  To the occupying forces he says, don’t use your power to oppress people or take advantage of them.  Despite John’s crazy, radical opening, these are not crazy, radical demands.  And they sit nicely with you and me because they honestly sound a lot like saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking.  Or, never cheer for the University of Michigan when visiting a friend in Columbus.  Common sense rules of decency.

It almost seems like the people ask John, what must we do to be saved?  And John says, everything you need to know about being saved, you learned in kindergarten.  There’s nothing all that radical here.  Be nice, play fair, don’t cheat people just because you can.  If you do this, the world will be a better place.  And I hate to sound flippant, but . . . Duh!  If everyone was nicer to others, the world would be a better place.  And if I am nicer to my neighbor, then I too will be saved.  It seems to me, there’s no need for Jesus in this proclamation.  Everyone just needs to be a little nicer, okay?

In fact, if that is John’s point, then he’s really getting us ready for Santa Claus, not Jesus.  Making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out which tax collectors have been overcharging and which soldiers have been taking advantage of the weapons in their hands.  If you want candy instead of coal in your stocking, then by all means start being nice to people.  And there’s the rub . . .

If it were simply a matter of our decision and effort to treat people better, we’d have no need for Jesus.  If it were within our power to make the world into the kingdom of God, then we would not need a Savior.

I know it’s tempting to turn this Gospel reading into a social-justice message.  And I know many priests and pastors will be doing just that with this text.  Which is not to say that’s wrong, but--well, as I've told you a thousand times by now--I grew up Lutheran, and my catechism teacher would never forgive me if I did that in a sermon.  If I were to tell you that the point of Christianity is to be nicer to people, then I would forever be haunted by the Ghost of Catechism Past.  There simply has to be more to this text than, be nice, and play fair.

And, of course, there is.  But before we get there, I think it will be helpful to remind ourselves that one of the points of this time we call “Advent” is to remind us why we need a Savior.  To remind ourselves why we cannot do it alone.  Why it is that we welcome the birth of the long-awaited Messiah of God.

From the very start of our Scriptures, God lays out what people need to do to be reconciled to God and one another.  Way back with Cain and Abel it’s as simple as “don’t kill the only other child on the planet.”  And before that it was, “don’t eat the fruit off this one tree over here.”  Whether you view these stories as factual historical episodes, or as mythical plot points, the resulting message is the same: We can’t follow simple instructions.  Oh, sure, we think we can.  The ten commandments seem pretty straight forward . . . until we dwell on the meaning of the word “covet” . . . or until we consider what gods we put ahead of our Creator.  Not to mention that Jesus goes and ups the ante by saying that thoughts are as good as deeds when it comes to following these simple rules.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That’s how today’s gospel reading ended.  Remember that?  Did it strike you as almost funny in the context of what John tells this brood of vipers?  Like he lays out all this scary stuff about a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire and hell and damnation and then we get, and in many other ways,  “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the good news, John?  Really?  Please don’t say you’ve got some bad news, right?  But let’s follow the arc of this overall story here . . .

The people come to John to be baptized.  A few verses before today’s gospel text, he has been walking up and down the Jordan River, on both sides, telling the people they need to repent and be baptized.  And when the people come to John, he calls them a brood of vipers and asks, “who told you that you could flee the wrath that is to come?”  It’s tempting to picture them saying, “Uh, you did John.  Remember how you just told us to repent and be baptized?”  And this is a sticky little point we have to look at:  John tells them to repent and be baptized, but he never says that it will save them from the wrath that is to come.  It seems as if John is saying they need to repent and be cleansed, but the wrath that is to come is a completely different animal.  And that’s because, well, He is.

As John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water cleanses; fire purifies.  John baptizes with water; Jesus baptizes with fire.  What does this mean?  Well, everything.

If your car is broken down and also dirty, John will come along with a bucket and a sponge and clean the outside.  But your car still will not run.  If your house needs painting and the foundation is crumbling, John can slap a new coat of paint on it.  If you’re lying on your deathbed and your hair is messy, John has a comb he can use to straighten things out.

But on your deathbed, you need more than a cosmetic makeover.  You need someone who will save you.  You need someone who will purify your soul.  You need someone with a “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

You need Jesus.

In the here and now, you need to be baptized with water, yes.  And if you ask the preacher how you should live, the answer is to be nice to your neighbor, and share with those less fortunate, and not take advantage of people less powerful than you.  But those answers do not save us from the wrath that is to come, silly brood of vipers that we are.  What saves us from the wrath that is to come is one thing and one thing only: The baptism by fire of the little baby whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.  Only Jesus can purify our hearts.

The winnowing and the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire are not the wrath.  They are the purification.  The sanctification.  The things that make us what we were meant to be.  What is burned away is not what we are.  What is burned away is the rust that has accumulated.  The barnacles on the boat.  The stuff that clouds our true nature as redeemed children of God.  The wrath comes in not trusting the one who can make us whole.  The only wrath we face is the self-imposed one of not opening our hands to let go of the chaff and receive the gift of life.

And today, at this altar, we have yet another opportunity to unclench our fists and receive the gift of life, in body and blood, of the One who is coming to save us.  We need not fear his coming, because he is coming to cleanse us with a purifying fire, to be what we were always meant to be.  To sanctify us, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  And at the last day, this brood of vipers--this thing we call the Church on Earth--will join with all the saints, of every time and every place, in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.

Amen.
   

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