Advent 2 Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Since my arrival here at St. Andrew’s I have sought ways for the church to be more involved in the community, more visible, more connected to the life of this area. One of the ways to do that which has been in the back of my mind is being more involved with celebrations. For example, having a table at the county fair like the other churches do, and having a presence in the parades, such as the Red, White, & Blue festival, the fair parade, and of course the Christmas parade. I will admit though that I’ve always been upfront that I’m not going to be the creative genius behind designing any floats. That isn’t something they covered in seminary, nor is it my forte. But with that in mind, on Friday evening I attended the Christmas Parade, to see what sort of ideas people had come up with and to see how the community experiences that.
Perhaps it’s because all week I have been thinking about our readings for today, perhaps because most of the Episcopal community across Facebook is posting about Advent, perhaps it’s because keeping Advent amidst the cultural consumption of Christmas already but not yet feels more difficult every year; but as I watched the parade full of nativity sets and Santa’s workshops, and the exhausting imagined need for “Keep Christ in Christmas” slogans the only thing I could think that would fit best in that parade would be a banner stating: “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers.” I suspect however, that would go over about as well as any of the messages from God’s prophets ever did, including of course John the Baptist.
We are, I think, conditioned to miss the outrage and scandal of so many of our biblical readings. Even growing up in an Evangelical Tradition didn’t seem to offer me a perspective on how radical and downright offensive many of the words we hear in today’s readings would have been to the people that were the first to hear them. Isaiah speaks about the, ‘stump of Jesse’. Jesse was the father of King David, who in turn was the father of King Solomon. The tree of Jesse is the Davidic line of Kings, some of the most glorious in the history of Israel and Judah. So when Isaiah talks about a, ‘stump of Jesse’, he is calling out the fact that the line of kings is no longer proud, or glorious, or even worthy. It would of course be a huge insult to anyone who kept the history of that monarchy dear to their hearts.
But those words from God’s prophet rang true at the time. The two kingdoms united as one was no more, the line fractured and the people scattered. So Isaiah is given these words to speak about the messiah to come, a little shoot springing out of the stump. Something small, fragile, something you might miss if you weren’t paying attention. From the ruins of a once great line, a dynasty that is now nothing more than a shadow, a baby will be born.
Prophets are pretty much always met with disdain. Isaiah was, and finally God’s last prophet before the incarnation, John the Baptist was too. John doesn’t care what Herod or his wife thinks of him personally, or what anyone thinks of the message that God has given him to cry out. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he doesn’t seem to care what people think about how he dresses, about his (even for that time) rather eccentric lifestyle. And even though those in positions of power are constantly trying to silence him, clearly something about this man draws people in. People are going out into the wilds, not necessarily on safe journeys, just to find this prophet, to hear what he has to say, to be baptized for repentance. John is heralding the approach of the Messiah, helping people prepare and come to grips with the sin in their lives, to understand that the Messiah was coming, and that there is a judgment by God for their actions.
Which brings me back again to where we find ourselves right now. Every direction we turn we see Christmas. Rose-y cheeked elves, candy canes, and nativity scenes, everything that makes us feel warm and happy about the upcoming holidays. Except then you go to church and hear about John the Baptist. If there is one thing we aren’t interested in right now, in our Advent-esque Christmas jubilations, it’s a reminder and call to us about the judgment of God that comes down through the ages. When we hear John the Baptist call out, “You brood of vipers” I think it is our best effort that goes into hearing that admonition only for the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to try and let it slide right off our own hearts. We just aren’t interested in applying that judgment to ourselves. The world brings enough of that to bear on us every day as it is.
But even when John cries out to the Pharisees and Sadducees, even as he calls them a brood of vipers and admonishes them for resting on their laurels as the elite of the Temple, there is still a flicker of hope in those words. It isn’t that God doesn’t bring judgment; I think our scripture makes that fairly clear. It’s that God cares about us enough to walk among us, to be with us in flesh, and ultimately to take on that judgment alone so that we have no need to bear it. That is the hope that the prophets are always trying to bring to the people, to tell them that God’s love is limitless and if they trust and obey all will be well. That’s why every second Sunday of Advent our theme and our readings are focused on what the prophets have told us. We kindle a second light in the gloom and darkness, a light that brings us ever closer to Christ’s return.
Advent is a time of repentance. That’s not such a bad thing. Yes it can seem a harsh juxtaposition to the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the little dancing Santa Claus whose batteries keep mysteriously disappearing. But in reality it is a call from God who loves us so much that the most important thing is to reconcile our lives again and again to the ways in which Christ shows us to live. Just as John didn’t exactly know when the Messiah was going to show up, it is the same today that we cannot know when Christ will come again. Our work in the mean time is to repent, which does not mean that we lead joyless lives full of guilt and pain, but rather means to continually seek a restoration of relationship with God.
So yes, Advent is a time that calls the Church to prepare. A time for us, all of us who at times certainly do live into that eloquent title, “brood of vipers” to reflect on the time we have to prepare for Christ’s imminent return to fulfill God’s promises to us. John the Baptist doesn’t just stop at shouting the word, “Repent!” but follows with, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Every second of our lives draws us closer to God’s kingdom. It is our task to make those seconds count, to live faithfully, and to continually turn again to God’s love and promise as we ourselves proclaim, perhaps even as disdained prophets, to a world that needs reminding again and again that there is hope of Christ’s second Advent.