As most of you know already, my mother died this past Monday. Her death was expected. In fact, I received word of it just as I was packing up the car to drive six hours to be with her. Her death, and the memories and grief that have filled my thoughts over the last week have certainly recast my experience in this Advent season. But I realized that so much of what I was feeling, the emotional turmoil is consistent with the themes of this season of Advent.
We tend to think about Advent as focused only on preparation for Christmas, that it is a season of joy, hope, love, but it is so much more than that. In fact, it is only on this Third Sunday of Advent, when we light the rose candle, and in many Episcopal churches change the colors from purple to pink, that joy is emphasized. Traditionally, this Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday” Rejoice Sunday, and it is seen as a break from the more somber aspects of Advent as a whole, and the emphases of the first two Sundays of Advent. In fact, at its core Advent is a penitential season, a season that looks ahead to Christ’s Second Coming as well as his first, and emphasizes themes of judgment and preparation for that Second Coming.
On this third Sunday, we begin to hear other notes in Advent’s song. Our readings today at least the first and second ones, as well as the response, the First Song of Isaiah, are full of images of joy and calls to rejoice:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
From the First Song of Isaiah:
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
From Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
It would seem that all has prepared us for a lovely, reassuring, celebratory Sunday, helping us to turn away from the challenging side of Advent, with its emphases on waiting, watching, the Second Coming and judgment. But then comes the gospel reading which stops in our tracks: “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist cries out to the crowds who have come out to see the show.
In last week’s gospel, the first six verses of Luke 3, the gospel writer introduced us to John the Baptizer. He set the political context, naming not only the Roman emperor, but the rulers of all of the surrounding provinces. Then Luke writes, “The word of God came to John in the wilderness.” Then, quoting Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.”
A voice crying in the wilderness, John, yes but this week the voice of a little seven-year old girl who died in US custody because she didn’t receive the medical care she needed. Voices crying in the wilderness—immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers.
Voices crying in the wilderness—those who advocate for humane treatment of our fellow human beings, who seek only to make better lives for themselves, who are so desperate to flee the violence and poverty in their own countries that the uncertainties, dangers, and difficulties of a long journey seem a reasonable risk, or the only option. Voices of now 15,000 children in custody in the US, torn from their parents, crying in detention centers.
Voices crying in the wilderness: the dire assessment of our planet’s future due to climate change. Reports that 40000 people died from gun violence last year; more than were killed in car accidents, more deaths from gun violence last year than in decades.
John is such a voice crying in the wilderness, crying for repentance and judgment, crying against oppression and injustice.
John the Baptizer, as presented by Luke, was a prophet in the style of the old Hebrew prophets.Luke offers us a rather lengthy description of the preaching of John the Baptist. He was, by all accounts, an apocalyptic prophet and his sermon begins with fiery language condemning his listeners and foretelling destruction. John’s language is both threatening and seductive. Depending on our perspective, we might be filled with fear and trembling at his message, or we might, if we think we’re on his side, be eager to see the destruction of our enemies. Our attention may be so focused on the powerful imagery that we don’t notice the rest of the story. We don’t realize the significance of the crowd’s response. They don’t fall on their knees in terror, begging forgiveness. They don’t run away in fear. They engage the prophet. They ask him, “What then should we do?”
It’s an obvious question but John’s reply isn’t exactly what one might expect. Remember John abandoned the civilized towns and cities of Roman Palestine. He went out into the wilderness. He dressed in camel skins, and from the wilderness, he preached repentance and predicted destruction. One might expect that his response to the question, “what should we do” would be to tell them to come out and join him in a counter-cultural movement that could be pure of the immorality of the cities. But he didn’t.
John’s advice is rather straightforward, ordinary advice, well within the range of possibility for most people.
“If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have food, do likewise.” That’s what John says to the crowds, to all those who ask. Luke has other people, specific groups come to John and ask the same question. And to them, John responds in much the same way. Tax collectors ask him what they should do, and he replies, “collect more than the amount prescribed to you.” And to soldiers, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone, be content with your wages.”
Now, as you probably know tax collectors and soldiers in the Roman Empire were not simply government workers. Tax collectors made their income by taking a percentage of what they collected. Soldiers supplemented their meager wages by extracting money from the people they protected. In other words, they were both part of a deeply oppressive and profoundly unjust system. Yet John did not demand they leave that system.
Instead, he gave them relatively simple and easy-to-follow advice. Don’t game the system, he said. Do what you can. In fact, it’s not a message of fear at all, but rather of hope. He gives to his listeners a way of living in a corrupt and evil society. The only options are not to either flee from it or to make your peace with it. Instead, you can live within it and do our best. It’s a message many of us might find appealing as we try to make our own way in a difficult world. How many of us find us in situations, in jobs that present us with difficult alternatives, in jobs that are dehumanizing or exploitative, making decisions that are far removed from the ethic of love espoused by Jesus.
Our world is so full of evil, injustice, and oppression. The problems are so great and apparently intractable, our political classes seemingly impotent and unwilling to face them—from climate change to mass incarceration to the crisis on our borders. One only needs to look at the debate over Brexit in the United Kingdom to see that our failure to address and take seriously the problems we face is not unique to our state or nation.
“Come quickly, Lord!” We may sing and cry out. We may want a divine, supernatural solution to this mess of a world. But John challenges us that our waiting not be passive. He encourages us to take action: to change our ways, to offer what we have to those in need, and to try to act justly in unjust and oppressive systems. When we do that, we become signs of Christ’s coming to a world full of hopelessness and despair. May we find hope and joy and may we offer hope and joy to the world.