Dec. 16, 2018 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Dec 16, 2018 in Advent, Sermons

The Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

December 16, 2018

I admit, I’ve been listening to Christmas carols—even while it is yet Advent! I’ll bet many of you do too. Yes, we love anticipating Christmas but not because it lets us escape the practices which Advent rightly calls us to, today in the words of John the Baptizer. These practices are what make us ready for this beloved annual celebration of the coming of the Christ child, this call to repentance and amendment of our ways is rightly put first again and again as we learn to do those things John speaks of as a pathway to genuine community in Christ and to deeper faith. We cannot get to Bethlehem and the infant messiah without first hearing this wilderness prophet calling us to account. Sure, people all around us might skip this part, but our arrival at the manger will be truly faithful and fruitful only after self-examination and thoughtful re-commitment to act.

John calls those crowds who follow him, who come from different occupations and levels of largess or power, to re-prioritize their lives and focus on love of God and care of one another. Much as we would like to jump right to those Christmas carols or come today and hear only easy pleasant messages, the way we prepare for the arrival of this humble, self-giving, unconditionally-loving Savior is to take John’s difficult words to heart; that the divine ax is to cut off our worst ways. To repent of our greed, judgmental-ism, self-indulgence, hypocrisy and posturing, is to give them over to God to be thrown into the fire!

Notice that John doesn’t catalog off of their wrongdoing, sins, and ugliness? He knows this is part of being human. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and brood means offspring and also fruit—he uses the same word to refer to drinking “of the fruit of the vine” later on. He may even be using a play on words to drive him his point, since he then speaks of trees which don’t produce good fruit being cut down and burned. He’s pairing these with his admonition about them not relying on having “Abraham as our ancestor” since “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” It points back to Isaiah’s words, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you.” It might be part of their makeup as fallible human beings that they are going to sin and being children of Abraham does not excuse them for acting more like to fruit or offspring of vipers. John’s preaching doesn’t let them give up as hopelessly beyond redemption or by assume an ancestral privilege of exemption, so they ask, “What then should we do?”  They can choose to turn to another way he tells them.

Remember we noted he doesn’t accuse each person and catalog each sin? Instead he gives them hope by answering their question with simple, familiar, and very humanly possible acts of mercy to undertake for themselves. Do you have food, clothing? Give some to others. You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to give away everything you own, you just have to share from what you have so that others may survive too. When the tax collectors and soldiers ask, he doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs or resign their commissions, he tells them to stop abusing or extorting people, so they can make more money. Don’t shake people down or leverage them but be satisfied with what you rightly earn. There is enough to feed and clothe everyone, but only if we each see it as part of what we can do, not just the wealthiest who people think won’ this it, but the rest of us who are comfortable, secure in day to day life—all of us need to consider where our accumulation of things or money stands when we’re confronted with this gospel. How money and things are attained and how we use or spend them are spiritual issues, and claiming to love our neighbors as ourselves rings pretty hollow if our having luxuries and constant material pleasures is protected more strenuously than our efforts to share with those who have none.

Lori Birrell told me she was so astonished at all you donated for the Holiday Gift Barn, that she stopped to count it! You all gave 136 gifts to people who might not otherwise have been able to give gifts to their children this year — and the paper and ribbon to wrap it all up too! Even as we recover from the largess of Thanksgiving meals and impending Christmas baking, there are 20 boxes downstairs for food for those who because of the school break might go without lunch for two weeks or more. These are things we do as a whole community, and I know individually many of you do more, you have found ways to share what you have and give of yourselves, purely out of love. That’s John’s point when he calls for repentance; a turning around, a change of mindset, a change in each inner self. Think of ways you’ve made that change in your life, even amidst all those pressures which tell us to value accumulating wealth over care for others, status over sharing, taking over giving. Now wonder with me how can we teach this and expand it?

I read an example in the news this week. A woman, Kelsey Zwick, wrote a letter on Facebook to an anonymous person she would somehow see it:

“To the man in (seat) 2D. I don’t know you, but I imagine you saw us somewhere. I was pushing a stroller, had a diaper bag on my arm and I was also lugging an oxygen machine for my daughter.” (Kelsey’s daughter Lucy is less than a year old, she and her twin were born 11 weeks early and spent their first three months in Neonatal ICU. Lucy has chronic lung disease, and both were happy to be on the way from Orlando back to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for treatment.) During pre-boarding they’d settled into their window seat, she writes, “making jokes with fellow passengers about having to sit by my yelling-but-happy baby. Then the flight attendant came over and told me you were waiting to switch seats. You were giving up your comfortable, first class seat to us. Not able to hold back tears, I cried my way up the aisle while my daughter Lucy laughed! She felt it in her bones too … real, pure, goodness. I smiled as we switched but didn’t get to thank you properly.” She wanted to say thank you, “not just for the seat itself but for noticing,” she wrote. This man saw them and realized that things were not easy for them. He had something he could give to someone who sorely needed it, and instead of just turning away, decided to stand up and help. It begins with noticing, being open to awareness of someone else’s need and to allowing oneself to actively consider how we can help, even in a seemingly small way. Kelsey Zwick did learn who he was (Jason Kunselman) and got to thank him again. Over 500,000 people shared the story, and perhaps without realizing it, also spread the gospel.

So when they asked “What then should we do?” John preaches this way of noticing, and acting with generosity, fairness, acting with honesty and being content with what one has, —and then what happens? “The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” because this opened their eyes to something bigger than their own drive to have more stuff or be more important, and they knew something great was happening, something more was coming. They yearned to hear it, but John tells them he’s not it; that One is still coming!

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His 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.” The refiner’s fire transforms us in our repenting, our turning and changing our ways. Some interpret this to mean our whole self, others imagine chaff as those wayward self-absorbed proclivities and acts which need transforming.

Consider Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words about this, penned from his prison years: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (From The Gulag Archipelago, based on research and his own experiences as a prisoner in the Gulag, published in 1973.)

We offer that piece of our hearts up for God to transform; to burn away, if you will, the chaff of it, and gather up the rich grain of us. God ‘notices’ this as our need, offering us generous loving redemption. None of us are all wheat or all chaff here, So God’s sifting out and transforming us, with our active participation, is the preparatory work for opening our hearts to that infant Christ we so hopefully await. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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