Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Rejoice, you brood of vipers there is still time to repent!
I love the juxtaposition of this week’s lectionary readings. Zephaniah says sing and shout, be renewed in God’s love. I will bring you home. Joy and love and home. Nice. Then the epistle reading from Philippians tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice! Do not worry. Pray. Peace will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. Lovely. Then we come to the Gospel lesson, Luke’s version of John the Baptist hard at work. John’s opening salvo might not draw a receptive crowd today: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not even the Grinch gets this in-your-face during the holiday season.
Rejoice…rejoice…wrath. One of these things in not like the others. But here it is, Advent after Advent, John the Baptist and his surly name-calling.
I confess, I am so glad to have John the Baptist in the middle of this season of unrealistic depictions of family and home and holidays. John the Baptist gets real when everyone else wants to get schmaltzy or at least wants you to go shopping. John the Baptist will not tolerate such trivial depictions of this the most wonderful time of the year. True rejoicing comes only after true repentance and real-life reparations. True rejoicing comes only after an acknowledgment that without the intervention of God on our behalf, we are dead in the water or burning in the unquenchable fire. But rejoice, you brood of vipers, because John has warned you of the wrath that is to come — so there is time to repent, mend your ways and be ready to meet the One who comes next.
Only Luke has the various constituencies in the crowd ask John what they need to do to make repentance tangible. Only Luke gives each an ethical to-do list. John tells them to have a moral compass, a life code, a clear, lived-out agenda of faith. No excuses here. Can’t say we don’t know. To the crowds (to everyone, then): Share. If you have two coats give one to someone who has none. Same goes with food. Even tax collectors – even the least ethical, least respected, most disdained among them – they, too, should live with integrity. Collect no more than you should. Soldiers, the ones tasked with keeping order for the empire, also must live in ways that reflect the will and character of the One who is coming. Do not use your power, your ability to exert violence, to extort money. Be satisfied with your wages. No inward, invisible, faux repentance here. Baptism shows, garners attention, reveals whether we’ve heeded the answer to our heart-felt question: What should I do?
So then, when have you asked: What should I do? Really, earnestly, pleadingly asked John the Baptist or God: What should I do? Sometimes that question comes not out of consuming guilt, but rather helpless desperation. God, what should I do? No option looks good or life-giving or viable. Show me the least worst or the most faithful or the somewhat palatable avenue, choice or action. Other times, though, if we are remotely honest with ourselves, we beg God for a means to set things straight and make things right and turn our lives around. The urgency of the question becomes a matter of life and death, a life in which we can live with ourselves or one that is a walking death filled with shame. What must I do to be able to rejoice in the Lord always? Be welcomed home in God’s love? Receive the peace that will guard my heart and mind?
In short: nothing and everything.
Nothing we do can or does save us. Nothing we do fully bridges the divides we create, erases the wounds inflicted by self or others, rolls back the clock on regrets or mistakes. The last verse of this passage from Luke tells us, “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Ultimately John’s warnings and exhortations to this brood of vipers (to us) equals good news. Jesus, the one whose tennis shoes John is not worthy to untie, comes to save sinners, to burn our chaff and bring redemption. Jesus hears our pained cries for help in our despair. Jesus answers our begging with grace, mercy and the sacrifice of himself in order to make the amends we never could.
How, then, could we not give him everything? How, then, can we not change our behavior? How, then, can we not mold our actions into a better imitation of him? How, then, can we fail to see his face not only in the mirror but in the faces of those who hunger, the ones paying us taxes, those cowering in fear of the power of the empire we represent?
What should we do? Remember what Christ has done for us and rejoice. Rejoice, as we welcome into our homes those who have fled their own. Rejoice, knowing that the Lord has taken away the judgment against us. Rejoice, in the sure knowledge of God’s abundance and our privilege in stewarding all the gifts with which we have been entrusted. Rejoice, trusting that when we act out of integrity because our lives have been transformed through the love of the Triune God, others’ lives will be changed for good, too.
Like many, I was deeply moved by the funeral service for President George H.W. Bush. I was touched by his son’s obvious affection. The deep friendship between James Baker and the president heartened me greatly. Would that we all had a friend who would rub our feet in the last moments we have on earth. The hymns, the Apostles’ Creed, the leveling liturgy that referred to our 41stpresident simply as “George,” a sheep of God’s own flock. But the admonishment that I keep pondering came from President Bush’s priest, Russell Levenson. He said: “Some have said in the last few days, ‘this is an end of an era.’ But it does not have to be. Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”
Each disciple of Jesus Christ who has been moved by the present, coming and inexplicable grace of God to ask, “What should I do?” has an invitation, in whatever job, role or position they occupy, to answer that question in real-world ways that exhibit grace, mercy, kindness, love, honesty, humility and integrity. In doing so, through the power of God, we participate in the divine transformation of the world. Surely a cause for rejoicing.
- When have you asked, “What should I do?” To whom did you ask this? Why? What did you do?
- How do you rejoice always? What does rejoicing look like for you?
- Imagine John the Baptist showing up at your church this Sunday. What many exhortations would he proclaim? Would they feel like good news?
- In your role, what specific things are you called to do (or stop doing) to respond to God’s grace?
- The prophet says people will be brought home. Who do you know who needs to be brought home literally or figuratively?
- How many coats do you have? Seriously, count them. What about other things? If you have multiples of things, should you consider giving some away?
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