A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Stir up your Power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
I think this is one of the most beautiful and powerful collects in the prayer book. “Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” We look around this world, with so many frightened and angry people, so many looking for a way to use power to protect themselves, that we may forget. The only power that counts is
God’s power. What does God’s power do? Is it explosions and air strikes and gun battles and triumph over other armies? No. It is bountiful grace. And bountiful mercy. The prophet Zephaniah says it this way, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” The presence of God brings healing to us, and deliverance from all those things we fear, because the power of the living God is the power of mercy.
Again, in today’s lesson from the letter to the church at Philippi we read: “Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
“The Lord is near.” That’s the kind of pronouncement that we usually associate with the dark and dreary judgment of God. And it is about the judgment of God, but that judgment is not condemnation, but deliverance. It is in this world, with all its violence and fear and uncertainty that God’s mercy comes to deliver us. We live in hope, not because we are wishful thinkers, but because God is here with us, God’s love is among us, it is greater than our own love, or our fear or anything else. This season of Advent we await the judgment of God, and we rejoice at the same time, because we know, that as God’s power is stirred up, it will overcome the results of our sins and those that are all too obvious in the people of this world around us. The power of God brings mercy and peace—not of our making but of God among us.
The Gospel lesson today is once again about John the Baptist. I have a particular affection for that guy. Today’s lesson has one of my favorite lines, especially when I’m angry or in a grumpy mood: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John can be a bit scary. The way he’s depicted–as an ascetic, living in the wilderness, practicing self-denial, dressed roughly and strangely–makes it seem like he’s embracing a life that is so radical that we just can’t get there. Radical, he might have been, because he was challenging people to change things they didn’t want to change, but listen to what he actually said:
To tax collectors who asked, “What should we do?” -–“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To soldiers—“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
These are simply reasonable, they don’t overturn any law, they don’t make anyone impoverished. Except they are radical, because these categories of people were notorious for using their positions to gain wealth by dominating other people, and profiting by impoverishing others. Likewise when he says to everyone, “If you have two coats, share with those who have none” and “Share your food with those who don’t have.” That’s a little closer to home of course, because it says that to everyone who has enough to share, even when they aren’t wealthy. Even though John the Baptist lets no one off the hook, what he is saying is not crazy, or impossible—it requires unselfishness, and trust in God to provide for tomorrow, rather than stockpiling for ourselves while others are in need.
We live in a country where values that are just the opposite of this have been promoted, especially over the past 30 or 40 years. “Greed is good” was the famous line from a famous movie. Somehow the idea that having money is the same as being virtuous has gotten established in our culture. And this has happened at just the same time that more of that money is in the hands of fewer people. God is the god of life, not the God of money, no matter how people may twist logic and try to persuade us that gathering wealth is the same or better than serving the common good. This is where that “Brood of Vipers” statement comes in—John was talking to the elites of Judah, especially those who were ostentatiously religious. Those who used their position to make it seem as if they were the ones in the right, while being self-serving all along. We religious folks are often “sorely hindered by our sins” because we use whatever means to appear like we are righteous all the time, even if it means fudging the facts a little bit. That’s why God uses prophets like John to call us, not somebody else, but us to repent—we are in need of God’s grace and mercy, not approval of our own righteousness.
That mercy comes in Jesus Christ—born among us to live with us. He leads us into joy through his grace and mercy. We heard it this morning from St. Paul, who was writing from a prison cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.