December 13, 2015
In these final few weeks of 2015, articles highlighting the Best of… and the Worst of… are starting to appear. People are taking stock and summing up. There is a sense of finality and closure. Beyond that, in light of the horrible violence that seems to shake our nation and the world weekly, it’s hard to avoid meditating on the fact that any day might be our last.
This milieu of “last things” made me wonder what I would preach if I knew this were my last sermon. It’s kind of perfect to be contemplating final things during Advent, actually. In addition to preparing us for the Christmas celebration of God-with-us, we are also getting ready for Christ to return in glory, bringing in a reign of reconciliation and justice and peace. “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” Today’s readings from the Old and New Testaments pave the way for an end-times sermon rather well.
Our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah is a hope-filled text, calling people who have been struggling for a long time to rejoice because God is coming in victory and might. “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst. He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing.” I love the idea of God singing over me! To be fair, however, I should point out that this passage from Zephaniah is possibly the only glimmer of hope in his entire book.
Most of Zephaniah’s words condemn people who have strayed so far from God’s dream that God is ready to wipe them out and start all over again. This passage is so different from the rest of the book that many scholars conclude it might have been added by someone else later. But this is what we have for today, and I am grateful for it. This conclusion of Zephaniah’s prophecy, with its emphasis on God’s mercy toward us, portrays God dealing justly with oppressors, saving the lame and outcast, and turning our shame into praise. I think I could happily face the end of the world by clinging to this promise from God recorded by Zephaniah: “At that time I will bring you home.”
Likewise the apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, suggests that the proclamation “The Lord is near” is a good thing, not a scary thing. He tells the people not to worry but to rejoice, pray and be filled with peace at the coming of God.
And then we turn to today’s Gospel lesson. Here, Luke records a sermon from John the Baptist that begins with the unforgettable, endearing greeting, “You brood of vipers!” and concludes with a reminder that the Lord will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire.” And then Luke audaciously adds, “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Which makes me wonder what he would consider the BAD news! John the Baptist’s announcement that the Lord is near is much more sobering and dark than Paul’s or today’s portion from Zephaniah. He demands that the people repent, for every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cast into the fire.
So that’s the spectrum. If our lives end this week, we are either to spend our last days rejoicing and waiting patiently for God, or getting busy reforming so that we will be ready for the Messiah to come. As usual, our answer is yes/and, rather than either/or.
Yes, we are to wait for God to bring justice to the world. It is God’s axe that is at the root of the tree, not our own judgment. BUT, we are not merely bystanders. We have been named and claimed by God in the waters of baptism, and we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world. We cannot simply ponder what we ourselves want to hear or say on this last week in the world, we must also consider what our world needs to receive from us as bearers of God’s grace. If this week is the last chance you will have to speak to a weary world about God’s love, what would you say and to whom? How will you express your message? In poetry? Touch? Art? Food? Music? Financial support? Stories?
We need to pay attention to whom John the Baptist delivers his fire-and-brimstone sermon in today’s Gospel lesson. Although the Gospel of Matthew records almost this exact same sermon, he has John the Baptist talking to the Pharisees and the Saducees, the theologians of the time. They listened to John as professional church folk. But Luke has John preaching to an entirely different crowd—people who are on the fringes of society. They live in the places your realtor won’t take you to and hang out on street corners you go out of your way to avoid. They are tax-collectors—Jewish people hired by the Roman government to squeeze money out of their Jewish neighbors to finance the occupying Empire. They are soldiers—not like our armed forces, but mercenaries—again, probably Jewish people hired to kill their own countrymen for a certain price. These despised groups and other outcasts and losers are the people who flock around John in the wilderness. So if you are worried you aren’t qualified to speak God’s word to a dying world, consider yourself a part of that derelict company, and you’ll see that you fit in quite nicely.
Why are these people coming to hear a preacher in the desert? If they are interested in God, why aren’t they in the synagogues, listening to the rabbis or the Pharisees and Saducees? Why are they with this guy who is wearing animal skins and living on locusts? Maybe because, as is the case in our time, they are suspicious of religion and religious people. Maybe they aren’t sure that they would be welcomed by other worshippers because of the way they dress or talk or live. Maybe they come to John because John does not condescend to them, but sees them for who they are and meets them right where they are. He preaches to them as if their lives matter. He talks to them as if they had choices, not dismissing them, but offering significant spiritual questions and ideas.
John tells them what God wants and needs, and explains how the world fails to measure up. But the crowd doesn’t slink away quietly to feel bad about themselves or to judge others. They feel empowered to ask John what, exactly, they should do about the situation. Imagine ordinary, sinful people feeling like it were their business to be about the work of building up God’s kingdom!
Even more impressive, notice how John thoughtfully responds to them with very concrete measures. He doesn’t over-spiritualize his response, telling them to leave behind their daily lives and go to seminary or move to a monastery to ponder what it means to live a Godly life. Instead, he addresses their questions in real ways. He tells a crowd of very poor people to share what they have. He tells business people to take only what is fair. He tells mercenaries not to extort more than their wages. He honors their lives just as they are living them, with an emphasis on reform and intentional transformation.
John the Baptist doesn’t introduce new ideas; he simply reinforces themes we’ve probably known since kindergarten: share, be fair, don’t bully. This is his agenda for living our final days. They are simple ideas, but they are not easy. How do they apply to you? If you were to raise your hand and ask John: “And we, what should we do?” how do you think he might answer?
Maybe he would suggest that if you are a student, you should study hard so that you can put to work all that you learn in making our world a better place to live. Or if you are at home with children, teach them to love God by loving their neighbors. If you are retired, maybe you can pray for people who are in the workplace, for those who cannot find a job, or for those who are unhappy in their work. There are many ways to serve God right where you are in whatever you are doing. Your choices matter. Your lives are important.
Maybe the world won’t end this week. But that doesn’t change the fact that we live between the promise that the Lord is coming and the actual event. We are here, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises, just Advent always reminds us to do. But let’s not sit here passively, anticipating that God will make everything ok soon. We can—we will—wait actively.
We can follow John the Baptist’s practical suggestions—share, play fair, don’t bully. We can honor Paul’s suggestion to the squabbling people in Philippi—rejoice always, pray with thanksgiving, be at peace. We could follow Zephaniah’s admonition to the people of Jerusalem: Do not fear. Do not let your hands grow weary.
Martin Luther was asked once what he would do if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow. He is reputed to have answered that he would plant an apple tree. If the world is going to end tomorrow, or next week, what will you do, people of God? How will you live this remaining, precious time?
~Pastor Susan Schneider