Zeph 3: 14-20; Cant 9 (Is 12: 2-6); Phi 4:4-7; LUKE 3: 7-18
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice. AMEN.
My preaching guide, the one I so often use, oddly titles this Rose Sunday “A Call for Repentance.” Many of us are far closer to that feeling this morning, despite the Zephaniah and Philippians readings and Isaiah’s Canticle, which we just sang—“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid.” Even after today’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist’s naming the crowd, “You brood of vipers,” it ends with the observation that, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Luke begins, though, with: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him: ’You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flea from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’” Last week Chip Mills told us about the historical context of these vipers—that Luke was referring to Sadducees and Pharisees in light of the destruction of the Temple and their responsibility for that disaster. That’s important information, and yet today I hear “vipers” as a perfectly understandable label for a crowd. There are “vipers” all around. Like the poor whom we’ll always have with us, I imagine there’ll always be vipers too. When I hear myself included in a group being called vipers, here’s what I think of, “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God.” We reply, or have since time out of mind, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy divine Majesty.” Whether we acknowledge ourselves, as individuals or in crowds, at minimum as having viperous moments, if we’re not actually full-blooded vipers, we find ourselves convicted. Incidentally, I don’t think we have characteristics of vipers because Public Schools are not permitted prayer—what an outrageous claim in a couple of days of outrages.
Anyway… Whether we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, because we can name our own misdeeds, or because we know there’s evil out there (and in here from time to time,) or simply because we’re not the Creator— we’re just human, and so imperfect, it doesn’t matter much. We can work towards goodness, but perfection is a country mile outside our range.
John’s exhortation to the crowd may have been to specific folks, but I’ll wager that virtually anyone paying attention, whenever this sentence is proclaimed, squirm a little from self-recognition, and that’s ok. Luke then has John give people good counsel about what to do to ameliorate their lives, our lives. Share. We are to share both material possessions, like coats, and sustenance, like food. (Why is that so hard for Congress to get — can we not hear, “If you have two fortunes, give one to the poor,” and no one’s even suggesting the tax rate to go to 50% on those with two fortunes, but I digress again.) The tax collectors ask what they should do—they were the petty administrators of an occupying force—they were told to be honest in their jobs. Soldiers asked as well. They were told as people of force not to use it to bully, terrorize, or in other ways wreak injustice on those weaker than they, through their might, and also not to whine about their pay. Does any of this sound other than true today, true yesterday, and I fear, true tomorrow?
Even those in the crowd, those called vipers, some tax collectors, some soldiers, even people of all times and places, all stations, all kinds asked, ask to be baptized. Each of us is promised that we’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, and we have been. It’s at this point, thinking about our baptism, I plead, “Stir up your power, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins [yup me too] let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Zephaniah tells us, “The Lord our God is in our midst; he’ll rejoice over us with gladness, and will renew us in his love. Isaiah proclaims, “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”
The teacher who barricaded her students in a small bathroom and kept telling those small children that she loved them, explained somewhat defensively in that she’d crossed personal boundaries, kept telling them she loved them in case they all died then and there, then that would be the last thing each heard, rather than gunfire. That’s what The Lord, the Creator of the World, the Holy One sent his Son to do: to tell us God loves us so that whatever sin is at, around, or in us is not the last word we hear, not the last word heard of us. It’s that God is love and loves us, and will see us through sin, through even death.
Paul adds, “”Don’t 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 minds in Christ Jesus.” That peace, certainly surpasses my, I’d guess, our, understanding today. I have no understanding of what happened in Newtown—it makes no sense to me or to any of us, nor is there real sense to anything so awful.
A response is: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of wherever, ring out your joy, for the great one in our midst is the Holy One of God.” Some days, maybe even today, that’s hard to do. One year there was a General Ordination Exam Question like this. “You’re the rector of a small town church, planning for the Christmas Pageant, the Midnight Christmas Eve Service, and the service for Christmas Day. On the 22nd of December the star of the pageant, leader of the youth group, and a Warden’s son is killed in a car accident. What do you do?” Some students wrote that they’d cancel the Pageant, Christmas Eve, and certainly Christmas Day service, since that was the logical day for the funeral. My own feeling was they should get zero for the question and fail the overall exam, whatever else they did, for not getting the role of the Savior, not understanding God’s plan in sending his expression of himself to people to save us from our sins, and from death. I believe I was dissuaded from doing that. Jesus was not sent into an easy, reasonable, sin-free world. Jesus lived to triumph over sin.
People in Newtown had that discussion yesterday in various ways. Should the pageants go on? Should the Christmas lights be lit? It’s what pierces the darkness, pierces the gloom, pierces the hearts of vipers, pierces through sin, pierces through sin both to let light in and transform it to light too.
Bishop Neff Powell sent this thought along. Remember “the hymn: Now Thank We All Our God by Martin Rinckart. He was a pastor in Eilenburg, Germany, during the Thirty Years War. In 1637 the walled city was flooded with refugees, struck by plague, and sacked by the enemy. The other pastors fled or died. Martin was burying 30 and 40 people a day. In May he buried his wife. Yet, at the end of the year he wrote:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands, and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mother's arms hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
The hymn was set to music and when peace finally came, it was sung throughout Germany.” This is more than whistling in the dark. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid.” That’s what many of those teachers, children, and first responders did urgently and in a determined way, few of them knowing Isaiah’s promise. They didn’t know Zephaniah’s assertion that the Lord would remove disaster from them. Some of them might have heard the “Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,” whether from Isaiah, or from “A mighty fortress is our God.”
As the Lord’s bountiful grace and mercy come, we do receive help and deliverance. People reaching out to be baptized, stretch towards those promises. John understood that he was just the beginning of that process, and that The Holy Spirit and fire would follow somehow in some form. That’s why he knew that even though people are imperfect, some sinners, some selfish, cheats, or bullies, and could seem like snakes, there were none immortally imperfect. John sensed that the one who would follow would be more powerful, more to be in awe of, and that he would bring new freedom from sin and ultimately from death. John understood what would follow would be the longed for good news, that of salvation. Had evil not killed him, John would have learned to shout with Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always’ again I will say, Rejoice, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will keep your hears and minds through Christ Jesus, our Lord:” Rejoice in the Lord always. Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 16 Dec 2012 St. John’s, Boston