A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”
I love John the Baptist. Not because of his haircut and wardrobe. He was known as a prophet, and indeed he was. But let’s get clear what that term “prophet” means. Biblical prophets were not guys who sat in a room with Ouija boards and made predictions. They weren’t predicting the stock market or the outcome of the Super Bowl. When the prophets spoke, they were holding people accountable to God. They pronounced God’s love for God’s people. They reminded the people, especially the rulers and the wealthy, that God’s love included justice for all the people God loves. The prophets pointed out that God was not there to protect the gains of the proud, the privileged, or the wealthy, but rather God protects and heals those who have suffered and lost, and is with every person in their grief. When the prophets pronounced the judgment of God, it was with the ferocity of God’s love for justice for all people.
So that’s what we hear from John the Baptist this morning. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John was doing was calling people to repentance, to a change of heart, a change of how they lived their lives, and he baptized people as a sign of that repentance.
So it says, “the people of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him.” It was quite a trek, going out there into the desert by the Jordan River, down a steep mountain trail, from the hills down almost to sea level. It would take some commitment to do that—you must be repentant if you went all that way! Right?
In many cases it was, but it also became a trend: the thing to do, the right place to be seen. Take a few days off work, get some sun, meet up with the right people and get all the social credit for being woke for going down and taking a little bath with this John guy.
So John looks up and sees a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees—that is to say, the religious establishment. They were there to receive baptism and demonstrate that they had ticked off every possible box of pious behavior, just as they had been doing all along. John says to them: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” A prophet can be harsh. Certainly, that’s how John came across.
What does this have to do with pronouncing God’s love? The key thing in John’s presentation of the word of God was Repentance. That is to say, a change from how you have been, a transformation of life. A transformation into the compassion of God—this is why John is pointing toward the one more powerful than himself, to Jesus who is the compassion of God, incarnate. The thing about being pious and religious is that we have a tendency to get comfortable and complacent; patting ourselves on the back for observing one respected practice or performing an act that will gain approval from all the other pious folks. Sometimes, even the term “faith” or “love” becomes a check box for the complacent, a way to defend against the need for transformation, the need for repentance.
In the context of first century Judea, John says to these people, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’” Today he might say, “Don’t presume to say that you are a Christian, or that you say you have faith, or that you have received the sacraments of the church duly and in order.”
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
What fruit? This sounds complex and out of this world! No. It is quite simple. The fruit of repentance is humble respect for others, it is compassion that gives up on being self-interested and takes up being interested in the well-being of others instead, it is generosity that seeks not return, it is good news to the poor—that they are respected—not as objects of charity—but as the true children of God, from whom we learn of God’s Kingdom. Repentance. Transformation into a life of compassion happens throughout our lives, we are constantly called back, because heaven knows, we are constantly tempted to turn inward to self-interest and complacency. John the Baptist reminds us that no one is entitled to be smug, no one can dismiss the dignity of others and claim to be righteous. Everyone is called to be transformed into the generosity of Christ.
Our lesson from Isaiah describes the ideal king of Israel. It was written at a time of difficulty—invaders had conquered and taken away much of the population—it was a time of desolation. The image is of a stump of a tree that has been cut down or destroyed. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Life emerges from that desolation, hope in the midst of discouragement. But this prophet then explains what the characteristics of that new hope, that anointed king, that Messiah, will be: “He shall not judge by …what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity FOR the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Justice, equity, for the meek, the poor, the powerless. And that same justice is fierce judgement against the wicked—those who profit from exploiting those with no power for their self-interest.
Advent is a season which is focused on the judgement of God, the final coming of God’s kingdom. Some people think that it is separate from Christmas, but I don’t think so. We are preparing for that season where God came into this world, not just as a human being, but as an infant in a poor family. Before he could properly walk, they became refugees in Egypt, because of the violence of a powerful king. It is in him, that we are called to transformation, to respect those who we might dismiss and to live in generosity in every season.
Let us once more pray our collect for today:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.