A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read the scripture passages for the day, click here.
Every year as we prepare for Christmas during Advent, we hear the voices of prophets – Baruch, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Micah. It is in these voices that we hear God’s promise speaking to us across the eons, through the centuries and centuries and centuries of generations of people. These prophets belong to us as Christian people.
And how we have come to understand God’s promise as Christians, is through a human named Jesus. A person who healed and, in so doing, taught us to look more deeply within ourselves for God’s light so that we could shine it brightly for others and Love. A person who, as a Jew, reminded the religious leadership that following human laws wasn’t as important as following God’s law – to love God and love one another as we love ourselves.
Because we hear these prophets, these Hebrew prophets, speak to us about God’s promise and because we have come to understand God’s promise as the person of Jesus, many strains of Christianity have conflated the two. They have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the advent of Jesus, with the coming of Christ. This conflation has resulted in a very narrow reading of the Hebrew prophets, insisting that the prophets were all talking about Jesus.
Let me be clear – for us, they are talking about Jesus. For us, Jesus is God’s promise. For us, Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one. Jesus is our messiah, our Savior, our Rabbi.
But that doesn’t mean that for Jewish people, the prophets can’t be talking about someone else, something else. The Hebrew prophets don’t belong to us alone. And we must be attentive to this. Because God’s promise isn’t for us alone.
This time of year it’s very important for us to be mindful of the tendency to think God’s promise is somehow restricted to the birth of Jesus. Because this limited understanding of the Hebrew scriptures has twisted perceptions and resulted in evil attempts to erase a whole religion and, with it, a whole people.
We cannot forget how easy it is for religion, for God, actually, to be coopted for worldly purposes and used as a weapon by people and turned into a nationalistic god who only serves “my people.” We cannot forget because we have seen its ugly resurgence all too recently.
But why is this important to hear this time of year? For the same reason that John the Baptist’s message is important this time of year – to remind us that preparing for Christ means opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s promise: Unrestricted Hope. Uninhibited Life. Unbounded Love.
This joyous message, interestingly, starts off with John the Baptist offering chastisement – “you brood of vipers – who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”
John, who stood at the bank of the Jordan river, calling people to a baptism of repentance(remember that the Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia”… literally, a “change of mind”). John is reminding people that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you’re related to. It doesn’t matter that you can claim some inherent right based on the laws of the land. Nations rise and fall.
Change your mind, John is saying. And bear fruit that is worthy of God’s promise because what matters is how you live your life. What matters is how you treat God’s creation. What matters is how you love others.
John tells these people, who believe they are God’s chosen people simply because they can claim Abraham as an ancestor, that God can create children of Abraham out of the very rocks, out of the earth… because being a descendant of Abraham is not about lineage, not about bloodlines.
Being a descendant of Abraham is about worshipping the God of Love, the God of Life… who’s promise is always about the flourishing of all life because God is the ground of all being.
The God of Love is not a God of nationalism. The God of Love is the God of all Life.
So, the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” And what does John say?
He says: Give somebody your extra coat. Give somebody the food they need. Give out of your abundance because that’s how God works in the world – through us. This is what repentance looks like.
When you think that others are somehow undeserving you are in need of repentance (metanoia – a change of mind). Because those trees, the trees of greed and hate and entitlement and corruption, those are the trees that will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
This giving, this love, this care of life… this is joy. This is God’s promise in action.
Last month, after the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue, a number of us from St. John’s and from religious communities all around town, attended shabbat services that Friday at Congregation Emanuel. I spoke about it in my All Saints sermon, but it bears repeating here. Rabbi Yael said something like this:
When we use the phrase “God’s chosen people,” we are careful to understand its true meaning. It was never meant to be used to mean that some people are better than other people. It’s meant to be understood that our “chosen-ness” is in our unique-ness. When we live deeply into who we are called to become, we are God’s chosen people.
Paul says to his friends the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. This is when God is near.”
He says to stop worrying about what you might not have or what you might want. Put it out there as a prayer to God, if you need to. But worrying about it, only keeps you focused on making sure you have enough and that is not joy.
Joy is found in loving the God of Life by taking care of your neighbors, by tending to God’s holy Creation. Besides, nothing you could want is more satisfying, more nourishing than the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. This is Joy.
This, as Paul says, is what will keep our hearts and minds in Christ.
God’s promise that we hear echoing across time from the words of the Hebrew prophets is a promise of Light – of shining a light into these places that make us feel small and needy, places that make us feel like we need to protect and defend and withhold and grasp. We prepare for this Light by changing our minds, remembering that spark that knows we are loved beyond all our imagining.
This is the place, like Rabbi Yael says, where we find our chosen-ness, our unique-ness. This place that may feel tender and vulnerable in a world of grasping but that has been waiting to be seen and shine forth.
It’s from this place, John reminds us, that we can offer everything we have to the God of Love.
We become Joy. We become Peace. We become Hope. We become the manger where Christ comes to live once again, where Love comes down and illumines the whole world.
“Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”