Year C; Advent 3; 12.16.2018
This morning we pick up in Luke’s gospel where we left off – with John the Baptist in the wilderness. The people came to him to hear him preach and to be baptized in the waters of forgiveness. In last week’s passage John called out to the people that they should turn, repent of their sins and God would forgive them.
More and more responded to his message. They were full of expectation. Is John the Anointed One sent by God? He speaks with such authority and power.
He certainly DID have a message. But it was so insulting…calling them a “Brood of Vipers.” My grandmother used to say, “Carolyn, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” What was John thinking to insult them like that?
Certainly, the hopes and expectations of the people were so high that John’s message of repentance and release touched their hearts and souls beyond the insults. Their burdens must have been very heavy.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not assume that proper class, status or ancestry will get you the answers to the longings you have…” You have to bear good fruit. Turn back to God!
The people kept coming to hear him and to be baptized. I’m reminded of the Syro-Phoencian woman who came to Jesus. He pretty much insulted her heritage by saying he was called only to his own kind and not to her kind. But she bore that insult and pressed him further, asking for the healing of her daughter. She took on his insult and revealed her deepest longing that she knew he would deliver. “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table,” she said. I think it’s like that for the crowds coming to John.
In the on-line preaching class I’m taking this fall, we are learning ways to deliver the Good News and ways to deliver “Hard News.” We are NOT learning how to insult the people. I imagine this kind of name-calling in a sermon on a regular basis might result in a thinning out of a worshiping community.
Unless, of course, there was a mystical hope of unbridled love given by our Maker; a message delivered by someone with integrity and authority. And that’s where we find ourselves this third Sunday of Advent.
“What can we do?” the people cry out in faithful and worried response. And John the Baptist delivers his reply that the people could start by treating their neighbors with compassion and not corruption. He first gives ethical instructions; how the tax collectors and soldiers could change their ways.
“What can WE do?” Today, “What can WE do?” Something happening in our country that has bothered me now for months is the separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents at our border. I think one of the most urgent ways right now to help our neighbor is to give a protest voice to end children being separated from their parents at the border.
And now, major news outlets have reported that a seven-year-old girl died in the custody of US Border Patrol agents. She has a name, Jakelin Caal Maquin. No one knows how she died. And her family has called for an investigation.
Surely, John the Baptist calls us to raise our voice of faith to officials against Jakelin’s death, and to protest that what this country is doing to immigrant children at our border is wrong. I have the phone numbers and emails of my elected officials in my phone and will call them first thing tomorrow to lodge my protest. “What can we do?” This is the least of it.
The ethical demands of faith are very challenging for us at times. But they are the means by Christians lean forward to prepare for the coming of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Lord. The Baptist was really good at calling people to make the way for something more – someone more. Today, John brings us to the intersection of ethical fruit-bearing and the mystical hope of God’s saving love.
This year I sang with the women’s chorus for the Sing We Noel concert that was held Friday and Saturday here at St. Paul’s. On Friday night as members of my women’s chorus waited quietly in the Great Hall for our next entrance, one of the sopranos came over to me and held up a photo on her phone for me to see. She asked, “I wonder if you’ve seen this photo. I thought I’d share it with you if you haven’t. I keep it on my phone because it has such meaning for me.”
She leaned down to show it to me. There in the photo was a drawing of a woman with her head nestled in the crook of the neck of a man who looked a lot like images we might see of Jesus. Her arms were completely held around him as if she had finally reached her destination and was resting in joy and relief. The man he was holding her gently and lovingly. I gasped at its portrayal of love and said, “See the unbridled love in that photo!”
Somehow, the artist was able to render in that one drawing an emotion of complete release and deep joy in the body language of the woman. The artist also rendered a feeling of complete, unbridled love exuding from the person holding her. Immediately, I was drawn into the photo and felt a sensation of release and joy.
It was not a sentimental drawing. It was a drawing that caught my throat. My soprano friend said that she began to weep uncontrollably the first time she saw this picture. She keeps it on her phone to remind her of the joy of being released from the heavy burdens of life and the promise of God’s absolute forgiveness and love for her.
Yesterday, when I asked the woman if I could tell the story of her sharing the photo with me we both began to cry. We knew instantly that the essence of our faith ultimately is the arms of that loving, God made man. Our destination is in him. We are released. We are forgiven. We are loved beyond measure.
And in the meantime, John the Baptist calls us to bear fruit for God’s sake and for the sake of our neighbor.
Our longing and desires ARE fulfilled in the arms of unbridled love that God gives us in the flesh, Jesus God’s Son. We are to sink into that love as we prepare for Christ to come.