Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Did you know that each Sunday in Advent has a theme? You can often see that theme played out in the liturgy of the Advent wreath. The themes are, in order, Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Today’s theme is Joy, which is one reason why we light a pink candle—to symbolize joy. Medieval preachers focused on Advent themes, as well. But their themes were a tad different. They were, in order: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell (Anna Pinckney-Straight, quoted from James Kay in a paper for the Well, 16 December 2012). Nothing says “Fourth Sunday in Advent” like Hell, I suppose . . . Undoubtedly none of them used a pink candle in any of their ancient liturgy. If they even had an Advent wreath, it was probably a bunch of barren, old sticks held together by wire. No Christmas flowers for them decorating the sanctuary. No purple banners. No angels. I can imagine the medieval church in Advent was just pure starkness and warning.
Our friend John the Baptist would have fit in with the medieval religious environment quite well. I told you last Sunday that I typically only want to deal with John the Baptist one time during the season of Advent. Today’s scripture reading is a great illustration of why that is. “You brood of vipers!” he begins his sermon. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Frankly John’s preaching style and content sound somewhat like the old-time preachers in our Protestant past. In particular, he sounds like a nineteenth-century revivalist preacher. Those preachers would stand in the pulpit and preach for at least an hour at a time or until enough people felt so guilty about all of their mistakes that they came down front and sat on the “anxious bench.” The anxious bench was a pew near the pulpit. It was reserved for people who needed to have special prayer for repentance or a confessional word with the pastor. The hope, apparently, was that by occupying such a public space of remorse, the people would feel great external pressure to just go ahead and fully give into Jesus, letting him change their lives (https://theanxiousbench.wordpress.com/about/).
This technique sounds just like something John might use. Indeed, in this sermon from Luke’s Gospel that he preaches to us today, John seems to desire for all of us to sit on that anxious bench so we, too, might just go ahead and fully give into Jesus, letting his claim on us change our lives. “Even now,” John warns, verbally pushing us down the aisle, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” So get your good in gear, John insists.
Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of Duke University’s chapel and a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, has much more patience for John’s style than I do. He recently said this of John’s message: It comes down to this: “John was tired of all the Jesus talk without justice walk” (“A Sermon for Every Sunday,” www.asermonforeverysunday.com). Powery’s interpretation of John’s sermon is that even before Jesus’ adult ministry had started, John the Baptist already knew that baptism had to be tied to action, to living differently, to caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the bullied of the world. And he wanted all of those coming out there to hear him preach to know that link too.
For John and, frankly, for us, the act of baptism is inextricably linked to mission in the world. Baptism has everything to do with working for justice and mercy for all people. Why do we care about people who need work or those who need a home or kids who need Christmas presents or a broken incarceration system or a police department in need of reform or a city segregated by highways and poverty? Why does it matter to us? Because we are baptized disciples of Jesus. That’s why. When you are baptized, Powery preached, you are plunged into a new way of living, being, and acting in the world. When you are baptized, it is not just into water, but into the ethics of Jesus. The invisible grace expressed in baptism becomes visible in the actions that follow baptism (“A Sermon for Every Sunday”).
I must admit that even though I do not like John the Baptist’s techniques, I agree with the professor about John’s message. One thing this passage from Luke reveals is that John the Baptist wanted that wilderness-occupying congregation to understand first and foremost that living out their baptisms would be grace-full and serious work.
Being a disciple of Jesus, expressing Christ’s love in every aspect of our lives, presents the opportunity to change the way we live, not just to tweak the way we live. John the Baptist desired to convince his congregation in the wilderness that a life of faith consisted of more than coming to worship, singing the songs, and then going back to business as usual. What God hopes for, John might say, is a desire for constant change, a repetitive turning back to goodness, back to God, as frequently as needed. Now, our Reformed tradition also reminds us that God never asks us if we are there yet, if we have arrived at perfect faithfulness. That is not possible. Rather, God simply asks us if we are headed in the right direction—in the direction of good, in the direction of God. John wanted to help his congregation head in the right direction by making the link between baptism and action explicit.
But there must have been some muttering going on as John preached. At least a few folk must have felt like Sunday morning did not need to bleed into Monday afternoon. There must have been at least a few folk who refused to even consider going down to the anxious bench and fully giving into Jesus. What happened in the sanctuary needed to just stay in the sanctuary. Life was easier to handle that way. Besides, they must have complained to each other, they had a religious pedigree. They knew who their people were. They did not need to change anything about the way they lived their lives just because John baptized them.
John must have had at least a few folks muttering those kinds of things in response to his sermon, for he called them out. “Don’t tell me that you have Abraham as your ancestor. That does not mean you are not called to practice what you preach. It does not matter if you are a fifth-generation Presbyterian, or if you have been a member of this congregation for the last thirty-five years, or if you have served as an elder or a trustee or a deacon, or sung in the choir.” (Now remember—this is John talking). You, we, John says, cannot rely on either our past piety or our religious pedigree to make us whole, to make us faithful. “Past-borne fruit that was once fresh and juicy is now just stale and rotten” (“A Sermon for Every Sunday). We are called to bear good fruit now, John preaches to us, to take our baptisms seriously now. Again, Powery: “John wants that congregation to know that praying without prayerfully acting is a source of an anorexic faith. It will make you spiritually thin and will lead to death.” Strong words. Sounds like John. Our anxious bench might be starting to fill up a bit by now.
Powery’s reflection on John’s call for action brought to mind an interesting conversation that has sprung up in the newspapers and on social media in the last one-and-a-half weeks. Scott Simon even addressed it a week ago on NPR. It began with the headline from the Daily News titled “God Isn’t Fixing This,” the “this” being the fact we have had more mass shootings this year than we have had number of days. The conversation that headline prompted is about the link, or lack thereof, between prayer and action. Some have named this conversation or debate as “prayer shaming.”
Prayer shaming emerged as politicians and others wrote or said they were praying for the victims of the San Bernadino shooting. In response to their expression of prayer, others wrote or said that praying was not nearly enough. One could not just pray this violence away. We had to “do” something, journalists and other leaders said. Take action. Don’t just sit and pray. “God isn’t fixing this.” Now, as one who believes that prayer is action and that prayer is always the beginning step for action, I have wrestled with that prayer-shaming conversation. But this week I have wondered if John the Baptist might have agreed with the Daily News’s premise. He might have agreed with that headline, for he keeps warning, “Bear good fruit or else.”
And even though there was no anxious bench out there in the wilderness, the people did respond. Yet it was not just your normal church people who responded. Not at all. Luke makes sure to point out that all kinds of people responded to John’s message about the link between prayer and action, the link between the Jesus talk and the justice walk. Luke writes that the crowds—usually a symbol of those who are fickle and often miss the point—responded to John. The tax collectors, typically symbols of greed and dishonesty, responded to John. The soldiers, always symbols of the oppressive Roman regime, responded to John.
Luke wanted to make sure we knew it was not just the good church people who heard John’s call for action, who jumped up off the bench, plunged into the baptismal waters, and then desired to know more deeply just how the waters of their baptism were meant to soak into the rest of their lives. All of those gathered asked John to help them think about particular ways their baptism, Jesus’ claim on them, could change their lives, not tweak them.
What do we do, the crowd asked John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, then share what you have with those who have less, John replied. Do that with both your possessions and your food. Don’t just hoard it for yourself or your family. Don’t be selfish. Don’t take more than you need. Let your baptism affect what you do with what you have.
What do we do, the tax collectors asked John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, then don’t be greedy, John replied. Do your job but don’t administer a shakedown. Practice good ethics in your work life. Make decisions that reflect whose you are. Let your baptism affect how you do your daily job.
What do we do, the soldiers asked John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, then do not cheat or extort, John replied. Don’t take advantage of people who do not have the same kind of positions of power. Don’t step on the vulnerable to make your way to the top. Let your baptism affect the way you use your power and your voice.
What do we do, some of us might ask John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, then make sure you watch your words, John might respond. Make sure you use your voice to respect and lift up people of all faith traditions. Make sure they know they matter to you, their lives matter to you. Don’t let hate talk go unchecked. It is not who you are.
What do we do, some of us might ask John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, consider how you might get involved in the conversation about justice reform, John might respond. Maybe that means holding a protest sign. Maybe that means reaching out to a police officer and listening to his or her story. Maybe that means using your power and voice to try and ensure the conversation leads to action and good fruit, not just to more talk without justice walk. Educate yourself and do whatever you can to keep the movement towards reform going, for everybody’s sake.
What do we do, some of us might ask John. If you want to live out your baptism, if you desire to be a disciple, to express Christ’s love, befriend one of our new members or the person next to you on the pew, John might respond. Help them find their place here in this faith community. Put flesh and blood on to our words of welcome. Or stand with the parents of the newly baptized. Make sure they know they are not alone in this parenting work, in this faith-nurturing work. Love those kids and remind them of their baptism and all that it means for their lives. Do whatever you can to be the family of faith for each other—young and old.
What do we do, some of us might ask John. How can we not just use Jesus talk but also act with justice walk? How might we not just speak in Christian rhetoric but also live out a Christian ethic? How might we be both spiritually ignited and socially engaged (“A Sermon for Every Sunday”)? What does it mean for us to bear good fruit, to live out our baptism, to give fully into Jesus, letting his claim on us change our lives? John’s response would probably be different for each of us, like it was for the different groups who approached him out in the wilderness. He was, after all, quite down to earth, very practical with his suggestions on how they could each live out their baptisms in every aspect of their lives.
And, with many other exhortations, Luke writes, John proclaimed the good news to the people. After all, for John, anxious bench notwithstanding, the reality that our baptism leads directly to our action was full of good news. It was nothing but good news. How could it not be? It is the way we partner with God in God’s transformation of our world. What could ever be better news, more joyful news, than that?