Advent 3, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
This is the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, which takes its name from the reading of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Rejoice, Gaudete, is the first word in verse four. You may have noticed that there is pink candle in the Advent wreath, among the purple, and often a parish will use pink or rose colored vestments on this Sunday. In fact in the decade that I worshipped at St. John the Divine, in Springfield, Oregon, I quite often tried to convince Father Peter that we should have a set of rose vestments. He had a fairly strong opinion about not wearing them; so much so that I really wanted to find a cheap set I could have shipped here just for this morning. But alas.
There is actually purpose behind the change of color. This Sunday is meant to be a reprieve from the fasting of Advent. Its origin comes out of a time when Advent started on November 11th, with the Feast of St. Martin, and was referred to as St. Martin’s Lent. That’s in part why it historically shares a liturgical color with Lent. So in the fasting during the 40 days of Advent, much like there is in Lent, it made sense to have a Sunday of a lighter color and a lighter mood. Today’s readings are meant to reflect the joy of the coming Messiah, the triumph of the salvation that is at hand. We hear from the prophet Zephaniah how all of Zion is to rejoice at its salvation. To dance as its oppressors are cast down. The song of Isaiah speaks of that day when God saves us, and the joy we will experience. And until then we trust in this expectantly and not fear. As I’ve already said, the name itself comes from the opening of Paul’s letter that we heard. And then there is John the Baptist.
Now, at first glance, I’ll be honest, John the Baptist seems to fail the hallmark test. I’m not sure where you would look to find the cards that read, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers” but asking someone why they are trying to flee the wrath of God in such a scornful way doesn’t sound like it has much to do with joy. And yet, the author of the Gospel describes John’s work in verse eighteen as proclaiming the good news. Surely then what the Baptizer is saying contains more than dire warnings. We recall from last week that John is in the wilderness. He’s out far beyond where anyone reasonably lives, in that harsh environment, and yet people are coming to see him. We hear about the crowds, and some of the people in them. There are even tax collectors and soldiers who have shown up to hear what John has to say, to be baptized, and to see this man who some might even think is the messiah. He is the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of Lord, and these people have come to do just that.
Though he calls them a brood of vipers, though he admonishes them for seeking relief from the judgment of the coming messiah, the weight of his statement is not on the phrase that is fun to repeat, “you brood of vipers” but on what follows. He says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The narrative John is working against is one that says because these people are already the chosen of God, they can offer acts of contrition and all will be well. John is using this righteous anger to wake them up to the new reality that your bloodline does not save you. Your works are not going to save you. Being associated with the right crowd is not going to save you. The one that is to come will be the only way to salvation. The baptism that John offers is not an insurance policy or a just in case action, he means it to be an awakening and a true amendment of life for the people that are coming to him.
Once the crowd begins to grasp that John’s message is about more than regular purification rights they ask him, “Well what are we supposed to do then?” When all that they have understood about how to please God is no longer the message, and the time of God’s reign is at hand, they ask this wild haired, raving prophet in the wilderness what the alternative is. I’ve talked before about how I sometimes imagine these scenes playing out, as if I’m the director behind the camera. I almost want to see John the Baptist get a sly little grin and say something like, “well I’m glad you asked.” John has the most nightmarishly radical admonishments for living. Take your excess and give it to those who have nothing. He doesn’t tell them to give all they have so that they are impoverished. He says, “if you have two coats, give one of them to someone who has none. Whoever has food must do likewise.” That is the sort of kingdom values that Jesus will later preach to the people, but John is trying to help make straight the way for the kingdom to come now.
Likewise for the tax collector and soldier. He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs, and follow him. John is not the messiah after all. But he is helping them prepare for even more difficult ways of living than simply not cheating people or extorting money at the end of a sword. They will be called to an even more radical denial of the values of the world for the values of the kingdom of God, but this is a good start. And that my friends is where the joy comes into it. This is a start in how to live out a life worthy of the inbreaking of the kingdom.
Not only is the messiah coming, not only do we have the invitation and guidance on how to turn our lives in a direction that welcomes Christ into our midst, but we have the joy of faith, that the one that is to come, baptizes with fire and will be there to help us clear out all those parts of our lives that don’t fit. I’m not a biblical scholar, and by no means am I the last word in biblical interpretation, but I do not believe that the same word would be used twice in verses sixteen and seventeen without having some shared meaning. John says that the one that is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That baptism is not an either/or, and is not to say some will be saved and some won’t. John then uses the allegory of gathering wheat into the granary and burning the chaff away with fire. I do not hear that as an explanation of Heaven and Hell, or of selective salvation. How I hear that is this: We all have chaff in our lives. We often have more coats than we need, we have places where we can give of our surplus to those who have nothing. We have spaces in our being for improvement. Like the tax collector or the soldier, there are ways we can continue to do what we do while aligning more with the Kingdom of God. Our joy is in the knowledge that the one who was, and is, and is to come has indeed baptized us with the spirit and with fire, and that fire can help burn away everything that we need to get out of our lives. Everything that stops us from making the path straight, everything that dims our hope for the return of Christ, everything that seduces us from living into the Kingdom of God that is at hand. All of it is burned away if we are willing to take that step. As John says, to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” This Gaudete Sunday rejoice in your salvation that is at hand. The Messiah, the God incarnate, has come and soon we will tell the story again of his incarnation. Now is our reminder to clear away the things holding us back from living into the Kingdom of God, and to follow the Christ who removes our burdens and burns away our chaff.