I was pleasantly surprised as I checked the preaching schedule to find I would be
preaching on this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Advent. We light the rose colored candle
on this Sunday which often is referred to as Gaudette Sunday symbolizing joy.
Zephaniah, the prophet, praises God and tells the people to rejoice and exult, to be in
high spirits to leap up even. He reminds them that God is in their midst, he will rejoice
over them, he will renew his love for them, he will rejoice over them with loud singing.
This prophet offers words of encouragement, jubilant hope and joy to a people living in
oppressive turbulent times.
Next, we read together the song of Isaiah, words of praise for all the great things God does for us. In the short reading from Philippians the apostle Paul reminds us twice to rejoice. He says, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice."
And then we encounter John's harsh, jarring words, "You brood of Vipers." Now many preachers begin their sermon with inviting words such as "Grace to you and peace from God our Father." Joyce usually uses this greeting. Another one often used is "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable to you O Lord." Others still may open with "The peace of the Lord be with you."
But not John! After all the beautiful, joyous words in today's opening scripture passages we get, "You brood of vipers." It’s like running into a brick wall, we're stopped dead in our tracks. But he obviously held the attention of the people for no one left, in fact, tax collectors and soldiers joined the crowd. That part about the not bearing good fruit which would be cut down and thrown into the fire surely prompted them to consider whether or not they were in good standing with God. They respectfully ask, "Teacher, what shall we do?"
A story has been told of Abraham Lincoln who worshiped each and every Wednesday when in Washington DC at the Presbyterian Church near the White House. One Wednesday evening as Lincoln was leaving the service one of his assistants asked him, "Mr. President, what did you think of the sermon tonight?" Lincoln responded, "The content was excellent and the preacher spoke with great eloquence. It was obvious that he put a great deal of work into that sermon." "Then you thought it was a great sermon, Mr. President?" the assistant asked. "No, I did not say that." "But Sir, you said it was an excellent sermon." Lincoln replied, "No, I said the content was excellent and that the preacher spoke with great eloquence. But on this night he forgot one important matter. He forgot to ask us to do something great."
John very clearly gives us something to do. To the crowd he says, "If you have more than you need, whether food or clothes, you must share." To the tax collectors who were often guilty of adding for them selves a little extra taxation on top of the regional and Roman taxes, John says, "Stop stealing from your neighbors." And to the soldiers John says, "No more using your power to take advantage of simple citizens. No hoarding, no skimming, no extortion." John is done with those who stand on privilege or disregard those in need and use power for personal gain at the expense of others.
We have an aging apple tree in our back yard, the first fruit tree we planted after moving to our current home. It's misshapen from the effects of numerous wind storms, too large to prune properly, the apples aren't that tasty and they're not good for cooking. Bob would like to cut it down but I say, let's keep it for the birds, rabbits and deer. So its still standing supplying late fall fruit for the wild animals. If we took John's words literally that apple tree ought to be chopped down and cut up for fire wood.
There is no hint of sentimentality in John's message. John understands God's judgment as being uncompromising and imminent, to be taken seriously. And the crowd that day listened to his harsh words with concern for their own well being for earnestly they ask, "What then shall we do? I wonder if at that point they were mainly concerned for their own salvation. In a manner of speaking he essentially said to them, Turn your lives around, repent, look around, see your neighbors needs, do something for others, be honest, treat others fairly. Go do great things for others.
In Jesus ministry we know he too preached a message of repentance and conversion. He also gave the assurance of God's abundant grace poured out for us and through us. Again and again the Lord has done great things. We are called to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open so that we might live into the fullness of that grace with love for our neighbors.
Here at St. Mark’s we take seriously the budgeting for outreach ministry as we give to numerous needs in this community and the larger community as well. The single greatest donation goes to the Montesano Food Bank. Then there are the monthly birthday cakes for Monte Health and Rehab, teen backpack project, Children's Advocacy Center, Domestic Violence Center, Union Gospel Mission, Camp Victory and a few others outside the region. We are doing good things. Each of us individually then are called to respond to the needs of others as we see fit. The question before us is what will I do?
On Friday I had nearly finished this sermon when I heard the first horrible reports of the shooting in Connecticut. It's only been a short time since we watched the tragic destruction caused by Sandy, the storm of the century as it roared into the east coast. Then came the news of the shooting at the Clakamas County Mall in Oregon. More trauma and death. As the number of fatalities were revealed and pictures of hysterical parents were shown rushing to the elementary school I could not bear to watch so turned off the TV. It makes no sense at all that any human can commit this kind of crime, taking the lives of young, innocent children. One deranged person causing unimaginable grief to parents and families will change this community forever.
I believe I have a responsibility to preach the gospel so the sermon stands as reflection on the lectionary scriptures. But it was impossible to ignore this latest tragedy.
The continual onslaught of hours and hours of media reports on these dreadful happenings affect us deeply. We can easily feel completely overwhelmed as though our whole world is filled with tragedy and sorrow.
Still, good things are happening around us. So what can we do? Remember God is always with us, goodness is greater than wickedness. Love wins. Everyday pray for those who grieve. Everyday be thankful for God's bountiful loving kindness and share it with others.
I offer the words of Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There's a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in. AMEN