Sunday, December 16, 2018

"What Should We Do?" A Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent.

John the Baptist (an icon from the Orthodox tradition)

"What Should We Do?"

Luke 3:7-18

The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as Joy Sunday.   That’s why we lit the rose candle today and heard the apostle Paul urging the church to “Rejoice always and in everything.”
            Yet, as I meditated on the scripture passages for this Sunday, I kept remembering how painful a season this can be for many people-- people who are lonely, people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, people who are struggling with illness and wondering where God is in the midst of it all…  people who are depressed, people who are trying to maintain their sobriety during a season of parties… people who are too poor to be a part of the festival of extravagance the merchants would have us believe is what Christmas is all about. 
            There are people who are hungry or food insecure...or who are worrying about how they’ll pay their bills.  Then there are terrible events that have filled the headlines in recent weeks. The list could go on and on. 
            We grieve that there’s so much wrong in the world.  We’re still waiting for the kingdom of God, and we yearn for it.  We wait and hope for what we can’t yet see.
            During the weeks of Advent, we’re in a conversation with the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptizer.  In the scriptures, we hear words of consolation and of challenge.   Today, we hear John the Baptist saying to the people who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”               
            What do we make of this blunt talk?  Where’s the good news in it?     

            Apparently, a lot of the people who came out to hear John the Baptizer’s message did hear his message as good news.  Gospel from God.   Some of them even started to wonder whether John was the messiah they’d been waiting for. 
            Things were terribly wrong.  The people were living under the occupation of the Roman empire, and at the mercy of tyrants like Herod… or dishonest tax collectors.  Things were wrong, but they were hoping God was going to do something about it.  
            One of my colleagues suggests that when John compared people to a brood of vipers, he was saying they are like snakes curled up in hiding inside a pile of logs.  When the fire of God’s judgment comes near,  when the light of truth exposes us, we try to slink out from under God’s gaze.[1] 
            “Hey, don’t look at me!  I didn’t mess the world up!” we protest.  “I’m okay.  After all, I’m a child of Abraham.  It’s those tax collectors and Pilate and Herod that are to blame.  It’s those criminals and greedy corporate honchos and crooked politicians… or immigrants…  or [fill in the blank].  It’s those other people who are to blame for this mess-- not me!” 
            We make excuses and look for others to blame precisely because, in our heart of hearts, we know that we are not clean.  We, too, have contributed to the mess.
            I think John the Baptist is right.  “This means you,” he declares.  “Don’t even think about relying on the fact that you’re a child of Abraham…or a good Christian…or whatever, to exempt you.”
            So…how can a message like this be good news?

            I’m grateful to Richard Rohr for some new insights on John the Baptist I found in his book,  Jesus’ Plan for a New World.[2]   Father Rohr, who is a Franciscan priest, suggests that John the Baptist is probably far more important than we have realized.   The beginning of the gospels tells us that John appeared and preached in the wilderness, “proclaiming a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 
            John “cries out in the wilderness,” radically questioning the very legitimacy of the existing religious order, and showing how religion needs to constantly reform.  The keepers of the religious status quo kept sending people out to question John.  
            When John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, it was revolutionary.  Jews were supposed to follow the Law—the Holiness Codes of Torah. This upstart was making it too easy to get God to love you and forgive you. 
            The people were filled with expectation.  They were questioning in their hearts, whether John might be the Messiah they were looking for.  But John was pointing to the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire. 

            Luke's gospel tells us that, when Mary found out that she was pregnant with the Son of the Most High God, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  When Mary spoke, Elizabeth's child leaped for joy in her womb.
            That child grew up to be John the Baptizer.  God called him to be a witness to the light of God, revealed in Christ.  John knew that a lot of things get in the way of receiving God's love and joy.   That's why John was preaching about getting ready for the more powerful one who was coming.   Prepare the way!  Repent! 
           
            In Charles Dickens' play, "A Christmas Carol,"  Ebenezer Scrooge is London's most notorious miser.  He's a mere shadow of the joyful person he was created to be, hunched up against the world...  stingy and suspicious.  When the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave, the reminder that he will die breaks through all the defenses and helps to put things into perspective.  He's overwhelmed with a piercing sense of remorse for how he has been living.  He repents!
            Seeing the light of truth after living in the darkness for so long can be scary.   But what follows his rebirth into new life-- is joy!
           
            This Advent, John the Baptizer comes to us, telling us that we need to change our ways.
            The message of Advent is that God in Christ is coming into the world.  In Jesus, God's Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.   What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

            Edward Hicks was an American sign and stagecoach painter in the early nineteenth century.  He’s known almost exclusively for his many paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom. 
            One of these, entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners,” was painted during a time when tension and separation had split American Quakers into two groups.  In the background is a cluster of very somber-looking people.  But in the foreground is a depiction of the peaceable kingdom:  a leopard is lying down with a lamb.  A little child is embracing a lion. 
            Those somber-looking people in the background are connected to the peaceable kingdom by a banner that declares, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy.”  The sinuous ribbon with its beginning in the mists of eternity weaves its way through and among them, braiding them together.
            Our Christian joy and faith aren’t based solely on the evidence we see in the present-- but on the hope of the future.  Our Christian joy comes to us in our experience of God’s presence.   So, how are we called to live?
            Three times in today’s gospel lesson…  “What should we do?”   That’s a question for us today.
            What should we do, as we yearn for God’s peaceable kingdom?  What should we do, to live more fully into the reign of God? 
            I don’t have any simple answers for you today.  But I think our faith is calling us to move beyond the simple answers on either side of important issues, to listen to one another’s perspectives, and to pray together and work together, and open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading.
            One of the challenges we face today is our desire to live in safety, while responding faithfully to the needs of our neighbors near and far.  It isn’t uncommon during an electiAon season for us to hear political rhetoric that plays on our fears.  But we need to learn from history... and be guided by our faith.
            During Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, too many religious leaders and others were silent.  When fear and xenophobia prevail, there can be terrible consequences.
            Over the past few years, some of us have been thinking about historical parallels between the current debate over refugees—from Syria and now from Central America—desperate people seeking safety and refuge in the United States   and the plight of European Jews fleeing German-occupied territories on the eve of World War II. 
            Among the many who tried-- and failed—to escape Nazi persecution were Otto Frank and his family, which included his wife, Edith, and his daughters, Margot and Anne.  The Frank family visa application documents were discovered in a New Jersey warehouse in 2007. 
            As historian Richard Brietman wrote, “Otto Frank’s efforts to get his family to the United States ran afoul of restrictive American immigration policies designed to protect national security   and guard against an influx of foreigners during time of war.”[3]  And so Anne Frank and her family perished in concentration camps. 
            In contrast to those who were silent and passive during the horrors of the Holocaust, an entire town in occupied France sheltered 5,000 Jews at great risk, in a “conspiracy of goodness.” 
             In occupied France, collaborators delivered 83,000 Jews, including 10,000 children, to the Nazi death camps, and only 3,000 returned.  But the residents of Le Chambon and the surrounding area quietly took in and saved as many Jews as their entire population, who came to them for shelter and refuge. 
            The people of Le Chambon were Reformed Christians, descendants of the French Huguenots.   Motivated by their faith and remembering their own history of persecution, they welcomed the refugees and housed them in private homes, on farms, as well as in local schools.   You can read about this in the book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.[4]
           
            What should we do?   What do the “fruits of repentance” look like?
            Our scriptures say in various ways that we are to orient our lives to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
            This Advent, God is ready to be born in the cradle of our hearts and lives, either for the first time or as a renewed birth, as God-with-us reaches new depths within our very souls.  And this, my friends, is reason for JOY! 
            Do you remember what Ebenezer Scrooge was like when he was re-born that Christmas?  He couldn't keep his joy to himself!  He was filled with the joy of new life...   and he just had to share his joy with others!
            When we receive the JOY of Jesus Christ, we're called to proclaim the light that outshines all darkness.  We're called to carry the light out into the world    and be witnesses of the light. 
            God calls us out of darkness-- into the Light that overcomes the darkness.  Our job as we wait for Christ to come again in power and glory is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, who is the light of the world… the Christ who calls us to live lives that reflect his light!  
How shall we live?  We are called to feed the hungry…and minister to the sick… to show God’s mercy and justice in our lives.   In Matthew 25, we hear Jesus saying we will be judged by how we feed those who are hungry, how we give those who are thirsty something to drink, how we visit those whose who are imprisoned, how we welcome the stranger.”[5]   
In the words of one of my favorite hymns, we are called to “live into hope-- of captives freed...  of sight regained...  the end of greed.”[6]  We are called to live as God’s blessed peacemakers.[7]
            On this Third Sunday of Advent, there is good news—joyful news.  No matter how dark things look, we know that darkness does not have the last word.  Jesus, the Light of the world, has come and shines in the darkness.  The darkness does not and will not overcome it.
            So--  let us rejoice always.[8]  Let us live prayerful lives-- lives that show gentleness to all we meet... and embody God’s love for those who are lonely and hurting.   Let us pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything…  for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.
            The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
            Come, Lord Jesus!
            Amen!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 16, 2018




[1] Mary Harris Todd, in a sermon at www.goodpreacher.com.
[2] Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount.  (Kindle Loc 1668)
[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/24/anne-frank-and-her-family-were-also-denied-entry-as-refugees-to-the-u-s/ 
[4] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed:  The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.  Harper, 1979. 
[5] Let it be noted:  there were responses to the “fill in the blanks.”  The people at Littlefield Presbyterian Church are well acquainted with Matthew 25.
[6] “Live into Hope.”  Lyrics by Jane Parker Huber.
[7] Matthew 5, in what we know as “The Beatitudes.”
[8] Philippians 4:4-7