A sermon on Luke 3:17-18 by Charles Tyrone on December 12, 2021…
When Kilby and Cal were very young, we celebrated Advent with Advent calendars that they opened each day, with an Advent wreath we made, and with candles that we lit each Sunday at the dining table. It was a sweet experience, our awaiting and preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus. Only much later did I begin to understand the meaning of Advent. It is a season of paradoxical tension and nuance. We are in the middle at an intersection of the remembrance of the first coming of Jesus and the anticipation of his second coming at the end of time. And yet, we stand at the nexus of what Julia Gatta calls, “his coming intersection with the everyday … in the sacrament of the present moment.” Today is the Third Sunday of Advent in which we, in this present moment, are to repent, to be sorrowful of our sins, and to rejoice in our forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ.
Zephaniah tells us to “say aloud” and to “rejoice and exult” for God “has taken away the judgement against you.” Zephaniah tells us that as we rejoice for our forgiveness that God rejoices with us, “he will rejoice over you in gladness, he will exalt over you with loud singing.” Isaiah rejoices that “God is my salvation.” In a beautiful image, Isaiah tells us that we, who are saved, ”with joy … will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Paul locked away in a Roman prison, facing judgment and death, sings, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice… The Lord is near.” Paul in his prison cell is in a thin place, where in that moment, the presence and love of God is close and palpable.
The Gospel lesson from Luke today seems to grate against this Advent theme of joy. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, surrounded by crowds of people, who want to be baptized by him. He shouts at them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” That is hardly a greeting that promises joy. What compelled these people to journey through the desert to the Jordan River to find John? I think it was because they heard John was preaching a call to repentance and through his baptizing offered forgiveness for their sins. These people came not out of curiosity, but out of a sense that their lives were amiss and their relationship to God was awry. Full of a sense of sin, they came seeking John’s baptism. John’s baptism is in the Jewish tradition of “mikva”, an immersion in water that was a ritual cleansing and restoration, allowing a return to God’s presence and a return to the community.
John’s greeting to the crowd is stark. He tells the crowd, who consider themselves Chosen by God out of all nations, to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ for I tell you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John tells these seekers that their perceived privilege as Jews, as the covenant nation, does not save them. He presses on relentlessly calling them to realize each of them must repent because time is short, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John invokes an eschatological image, an image of an impending time of judgment that is terrifying to the crowd. The crowds in response ask, “What then should we do?” My sense is that they ask, “What then should we do now?” Today. At this moment.
John’s answer to this crowd of common people, who are likely not among the elite, but rather are poor, struggling, yearning, is surprising. John doesn’t ask them to do extraordinary things. Rather, John asks them simply to share, “Whoever has two cloaks must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do likewise.” John’s message to them is to bear fruits of compassion to those among them who are needier than they are. They are to repent their selfishness in response to being forgiven and restored by baptism. They are to act out of love and share with those who are naked or hungry. They are not to leave the wilderness thinking only of themselves, forgiven of sin, but must reach out and bear good fruit in response to God’s cleansing them, making them new, and restoring them.
Remarkably, in the crowd are tax collectors and soldiers, who are instruments of the power of Rome. The tax collectors, who in the Gospels are reviled as sinners, are there no doubt because of their guilt in how they exploit the people, which makes them outcasts from the community. “Teacher, what are we to do?”, they ask. John doesn’t tell them to resign their jobs and repudiate Rome. Rather, he gives them to a do-able act to perform, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” John says go and be honest in your dealings. The soldiers, no doubt sent to keep the rabble in check, are also moved by John’s call to repentance with the end time being near. “And we”, they ask, “what are we to do?” John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.” Again, the soldiers are not told to do anything extraordinary but to stop terrorizing and oppressing the people and to use their authority lawfully and honestly.
John hears he crowd mummering, “Is this the Messiah? Is this the long expected one?” John says “no” for he is a forerunner, a messenger, a prophet of the Messiah. He tells the crowd, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John points to Jesus and a new baptism. This new baptism is evocative of Malachi in last week’s Old Testament reading, “For he is like a refiner’s fire. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. He will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” While certainly an apocalyptic image of a fiery judgment can be read in Luke’s Gospel, an image of a purifying fire is also present. Present is an image of a fire that purges sin and redeems those precious to God. There is a cause to rejoice in that salvific image.
On the third Sunday of Advent, we are called to repent and rejoice. Repentance throws open the doors to forgiveness. In the season of Advent, we remember Jesus, God’s incarnate Son, who came to reconcile us to God, to forgive our sins, and save us through his grace. In response, we are called to bear fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All of these are in our capacity to do. For us, as believers, that is the cause of the great joy that we celebrate today.