Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sermon I Had Planned on Preaching

Advent 3C
Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers!” screams John to the crowds who came out to see him.  Let me fill you in on a little company secret:  there’s not a priest alive who has served a parish for any length of time who hasn’t wanted to say this very thing to their congregation at one time or another.

And while that may be appealing, therapeutic or even applicable, it is short-sighted.  Or it’s narrow-minded.  Or it’s easy.  Or it’s cherry-picking.  Or it’s all of the above.  How easy it is to pick one verse out of the text and create an uncomplicated theology of God that fits neatly into your definition of what a good Christian is.  Unfortunately we see that all too often.  So let’s look beyond an easy theology of a one-verse faith.

What is John trying to do here?  For starters, he’s trying to get the attention of the crowd.  I suppose that calling them a brood of vipers will do that better than calling them a herd of cattle.  But in the bigger picture, what is he trying to do?

Before I answer that, let me tell you what he is not trying to do.  He’s not trying to scare the hell out of people.  He’s not preaching a “turn or burn” gospel.  He’s not preaching a message of believing out of fear, which some people feel is the appropriate method of evangelism.

What John is trying to do is to preach a message of loving your neighbors through acts of social responsibility.  Luke, as gospel author, is convinced that the gospel has social implications, and here John addresses the injustices and inequalities of society – his and ours.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  Last week we heard that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  That means more than simply getting baptized and claiming salvation in church history; for God is able to raise up children of the Church Fathers from these prayer books.  If we truly repent, and truly believe that our baptism washes us clean, then we will live differently.  Our lives will bear the fruit of that repentance.

What might a life of baptized repentance look like?  What might we do that shows we truly have changed?  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Have you thought about going through your closet?  How many clothes do you have that you never wear?  How many clothes do you have that you “might wear someday?”  If you’re like me, “never wearing” and “might wear” are the same thing.  Why not take those clothes to the Goodwill or St. Vincent’s?

Food is a different issue, because it’s hard to give away once it’s in our house.  But I’m willing to bet that we all can afford a few extra items to donate to the food bank or drop in our FISH box.

A baptism of repentance means that we live differently.  We are called, at the very least, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If we love ourselves enough to provide food and clothing, how can we not help those who have none with a few extra items of food and clothing?
A baptism of repentance means that we see people as God sees people – worthy of our love, respect and care when we can provide it.  In his exhortations to the people, John is asking them and us to see the bigger picture of humanity.  He is asking us to notice both those in need and our complicity in their mistreatment.

This, I think, is why he calls the crowd a brood of vipers.  He does so because vipers are only concerned with their own survival, have no sense of community, and strike out at those who annoy them.  John sees the behavior of people in general and tells us there is a better way.

This better way is to see people as God sees people – worthy of our love, respect and care.  If we repent of our self-centered, viperous attitude, then we begin to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord.  Preparing our way for Christ in our lives helps us prepare the way for Christ in the world.

This was John’s mission – to prepare the way of the Lord, to raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains and hills, and to make the crooked straight.  In Advent, this is also our mission.  As we wait for the coming of the Lord, we are also busily preparing his way.

We prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of our sins.  We prepare the way of the Lord by offering from our abundance of food and clothing to those who have none.  We prepare the way of the Lord by seeking God in community and by not striking out against those who annoy us.

Today’s gospel ends with John talking about gathering the wheat and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.  At the Wednesday Eucharist, we heard the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus.  The crowd was eager to stone her for her sin (never mind that the law said the man needed stoning as well), but Jesus refused to condemn her.  While the crowd was hung up on her punishment, Jesus was hung up on her forgiveness.

Unfortunately that is often what happens with this passage today:  people get hung up on determining who is to be burned with the unquenchable fire. 

But that’s not the point.  The passage today says that John proclaimed the good news.  Burning with unquenchable fire is not good news.  What is good news is our ability to repent and God’s desire to forgive.  The point, John says, is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.

So here we are: a brood of vipers, self-centered, ready to attack those who annoy us and condemn them to the unquenchable fire.  John tells us there’s a better way, a way that sees people as God sees people, a way that prepares the way of the Lord both in ourselves and in the world, and a way that rejoices in God’s desire to save the wheat.

This Advent, may we work toward preparing the way of the Lord and rejoice in his imminent arrival.



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