Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Dec. 12, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Dec 12, 2021 in Advent, Sermons

The Third Sunday of Advent

The Wakeup Call

Dec. 12, 2021

In this morning’s Gospel from St Luke, we watch John the Baptist turn on his heel to challenge the crowds who are following him. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And thus John proceeds with many more such exhortations, which St Luke sums up as “John proclaiming the good news to the people.”

Say what? How can a priest read aloud these clashing opening and closing sentences—first invoking God’s wrath, and then calling it good news—how can a priest read this pair aloud and keep a straight face?  How can a congregation listen to them, without either tuning out or walking out?  You and I are right to take pause over this morning’s Gospel, and dig deeper into its meaning.   

First, we need to remember that John the Baptist is a thoroughly Jewish prophet, meaning he takes the Old Testament fully to heart. He builds upon the book of Genesis, where God creates humanity in his own image, to be good as God is good. But in the blink of an eye in slithers that snake, a perpetual liar who starts hissing that Adam and Eve needn’t live within the limits God has set.  They can be their own judges of what is right to do and what is wrong.  Adam and Eve take the snake-bait; they reach out and eat the forbidden fruit.  By the time they learn it has all been a lie, it is already too late.  In flouting their personal covenant with God, their joyful, thankful hearts have turned murky.

What is true for the first human beings turns out to be true for their progeny as well. Four chapters later, in the generation of Noah, God laments the wickedness spawned by those shadowy feelings in human hearts.  The Hebrew name for this dark mood—yetzer hara—is on the tip of John the Baptist’s tongue as he calls the crowd a brood of vipers, the enduring posterity of that lying snake.  John cherishes this biblical truth not because he obsesses over a literal Eden inhabited by a man called Adam, a woman called Eve, and a snake called Bad News.  John cherishes this truth because this story is the perennial human story.  Goodhearted as we may be, the yetzer hara, the evil inclination lurking within our hearts, never stops hissing. So what if the speed limit’s 60, we can get away with 70. So what if our job description says “40 hours per week,” it’s Friday afternoon and the boss is out of town. Trivial examples, you might say.  But that’s the whole point.  This kind of stuff goes on all the time, under our radar. It’s the inclination to break faith that undercuts the goodness in all of us.  The Church has long recognized this undertow as Original Sin, a lifelong habit of doing things we know we shouldn’t, and not doing things we know we should. Original Sin is the only Christian teaching for which there is absolute empirical proof, and only Jesus Christ was able to enter the shadowy yetzer hara darkness, and not give in to it.

Today John worries over this unnerving gap between who God created us to be, and our own routine behavior.  We are playing on a slippery slope of white lies, cut corners and worse.  What is to become of us if we keep carelessly ignoring our need for repentance and forgiveness? Especially now, with Christ coming so very soon.  There’s just too much at stake to look the other way. John snaps, and lets loose with a sobering wake-up call: “You brood of vipers!”  

If you were John, what else could you do?

Every Sunday we heed John’s voice as we join together in confessing our sins, and turning to the Lord in heartfelt penitence and faith. This season’s Advent Confession comes down to us from the pen of St Alcuin of York, a truly brilliant light shining in Europe’s dark ages. Alcuin wisely realizes that no matter how many bad deeds any of us may have done, our confession is not about condemning ourselves before God.  It is about stopping what we’ve been doing, turning back toward our Creator, and trustfully opening our souls to the divine light.  Like the Prodigal Son plodding homeward, we pray “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your child.” And before we’re even done speaking God exults,” Let’s make a feast and celebrate. For this child of mine was dead and is alive again; this child was lost and now is found.”  This child is ready for Christmas morning.

In anticipation of Alcuin’s Confession we’ll be making in a moment, I invite you to enter a brief period of reflection with me. 

Bring to mind the last seven days, scanning for situations where you now see that you withheld yourself from caring for others, or perhaps even deliberately said or did something hurtful. 

Times when you impulsively argued rather than listening, or overreached and took more of something good than you really needed. 

Times when you served your own interests by cheating or risking the welfare of others.

Times when, you now see, you foolishly gave in to the hiss of yetzer hara.

O you beloved brood of vipers! The Father is already waiting to forgive you, for his Son is coming soon. Amen

© 2021 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.