December 16, 2018 – The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
During this time of the year, the phone in the church office rings pretty often with calls from people who are looking for financial assistance. Utility bills are climbing, holiday expenses are piling up, and lots of people need a little help. I never promise to help people over the phone, but I will promise to listen to them if they will come down to the church and talk with me face-to-face. Several years ago, when I made that offer to a woman, she asked me where the church was located. I gave her the address and told her that we were right downtown. She then asked if there were any landmarks nearby, and I replied, “Ma’am, we are the landmark.” I had always presumed that our big, beautiful, nineteenth-century structure with the bell tower that stretched up toward heaven was an icon for everyone, but today’s gospel lesson reminds me how easily I make that mistake.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Remember, these people hadn’t gone downtown to get the help they sought. They had traveled out into the countryside, into the wilderness, where the word of God had come to John, the son of Zechariah. Sure, they knew where the temple was, but they also knew that they wouldn’t find a place for themselves in the principal religious institution of their day. They were sinners. This crowd was made up of tax collectors and soldiers and other people who had either been turned away by the religious authorities or who had given up on religion altogether. They had ventured out into that place beyond where the comforts and security of civilization reached, and John wanted to know why: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Were they curious? Did they want to point their fingers and snicker? Did they want to see whether the rumors about the wild-eyed prophet were true? Or were they looking for something else? John, too, had given up on the religious practices of his day. He didn’t teach in the temple or worship in a nearby synagogue. He stayed out in the wilderness, where a fanatic like him was less likely to encounter resistance from the authorities. When John saw the crowd coming toward him, he naturally was suspicious: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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.” In other words, “Are you like everybody else—people who think religion means showing up on the holy days and saying all the right words—or are you interested in a real relationship with God?”
Even after being taunted by him, the crowd asked, “What then should we do?” proving their genuine desire for the kind of spiritual transformation that only he could offer. With those words, John knew that they were serious. He had done his best to push them away, but they wanted more. So John told them what the fruits of repentance look like. If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none, and, if you have enough food to eat, share with those who are hungry. If you’re a tax collector, collect only the amount prescribed for you. And, if you’re a soldier, be content with your wages and don’t try to extort money from anyone with threats or false accusations. And that’s enough for now.
Notice that John doesn’t tell them to leave home and family and join him in the wilderness. Nor does he say to the tax collectors and soldiers that they should quit their unholy occupations and take up a more respectable trade. John’s invitation to a change of heart is far more modest than that. Be content. Follow the rules. Don’t threaten others. Share with those in need. And, if you do that, you will prepare yourself to receive the one who is to come.
To someone on whom the dominant religious culture has turned its back, that is good news. Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, however you’ve lived your life, however far away from the faithful you have strayed, the invitation to return is as simple and near as a genuine gesture of holiness. How often in today’s religious culture does the message of repentance sound like that? We hear plenty about the “brood of vipers,” the “axe…lying at the root of the trees,” and the fire that consumes those who do not bear fruit, but we don’t hear much at all about the simple step that it takes to get back on track. The religious voices of today have convinced the world that the only way anyone can belong to God is by being perfect. And, if you and I won’t do anything about it, the world will think that they are right. The crowds will take one look at a church like ours—a symbol of the dominant religious culture of our day—and presume that they won’t find a welcome here.
One of the great gifts that the Episcopal Church has is a downtown presence. In many communities like ours, somewhere within a block or two of the center of public life is an Episcopal Church. We have an historic place in the life of our community, but, as the religious landscape has changed, that place has become as much a liability as an asset. Just as in John the Baptist’s day, the line between the corridors of power and the corridors of religion has become blurred. Institutional religion and institutional authority are inseparable. The strange marriage of American Christianity and American politics has made it difficult to be a church in the world without being thought of as a church of the world. People who walk down the sidewalk and see St. Paul’s assume that a big fancy church like ours is full of big fancy people who believe that their big fancy God only cares about big and fancy people like them. I know that’s not true, and so do you, but what are we going to do about it?
We need to become a wilderness church without abandoning our place in the center of society. We need to be a path that leads those who have been pushed out into the desert back to the center of public life. We need to be a refuge for those on whom religion has turned its back. We need to take our message of God’s infinite grace, acceptance, and love to those who live on the fringe of civilization so that they might discover that they belong right at the center of God’s reign. But, in order to be a church like that, we have to become like John the Baptist. We have to become a little bit wild, a little bit uncouth. We must leave the comfort of these pews and meet the crowds of disenfranchised people where they have gone—far away from center of public life. They aren’t coming downtown to find what they seek because they assume that downtown gave up on them long ago. To them a downtown church isn’t the icon of hope that we intend to be, but we can change that.
To do so, we must offer the good news of repentance to the world—not as a threat to the imperfect but as an invitation for the disaffected to return home. Repentance is simply a turning around, a coming back. The dominant religious voices of today would have us believe that some people just aren’t worth saving, but that’s not the good news of the gospel. The good news is a message that brings crowds of people streaming toward the prophet in search of a place to belong. The good news is a message that offers healing and restoration for those who are willing to turn back from their wandering and take that first step towards home. But who will invite them to take that first step? Who will take that good news out into the wilderness so that those who have been driven away might find their way back? Will we? We cannot believe that God’s love belongs to all people and then pretend that someone else will share that love with the world. There are eight days until Christmas Eve—eight days to tell someone who has given up on church that our church is different, that all they have to do is show up with an open heart. Whom will you invite to come back home?