So today is the 3rd of the 4 Sundays of Advent, and so far in this season we’ve been going through the prescribed themes for each week according to some tradition. To be honest I didn’t even know about those themes until I think it was last year when I came across it. And it turns out that the set of themes that we’ve been using is just one of many different sets depending on which tradition and custom you’re following. So… I guess we won’t be doing that anymore…
Anyway, anyone remember what the theme was for the first Sunday of Advent? How about the second? Anyone have any idea what today’s is?
Today’s theme according to the one set of themes that I’ve been using is love. It makes sense as there is this progression through the whole season. It started with hope, which is what the whole season is about. Hope in the promise that life has more meaning than we often think and that things won’t stay bad forever. Then there was peace, peace that comes from that hope and believing that God knows us and chooses us. And today is love, displayed by God’s promises that give us hope and God’s actions that give us peace.
Also, John the baptizer calling people out. Nothing really says “love” like condescending name calling and belittling finger pointing. “You brood of vipers!” John exclaims, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Really though, for a week that is supposed to be about love, this seems kind of uncalled for. So out of line. But also ironic because it was basically John who told them about the wrath to come. He didn’t tell them to flee, mind you, but when you tell people that wrath is coming, I don’t know how many are going to stick around to see that wrath, at least without taking any precautions.
If you remember from last week, John just came out of the wilderness, calling for people to prepare for the Lord, who is coming to flatten the hills and raise up the valleys and sand down all the rough spots in life, and that everyone is going to see the salvation of God. Sure, this might not sound like “wrath” per se in our modern context where creating fake islands in the ocean and bulldozing mountains and just changing our landscape is a normal every day thing. But back in those days cutting down a tree was a feat. Walking to the well to get water for the day took like the whole day. Even having a cold drink was basically a high improbability as in those days, they simply didn’t have the means or the know how to do things like we do now. So when someone, let alone a crazy guy from the desert, says that someone is coming that can move mountains and lift up sunken ground, well you’d better believe that everyone would want this someone on their side.
Or at least, be on that someone’s side. Because when someone has power like that, I think I’d be able to compromise a bit to not offend them in any way. And how do we do that? Well, John also mentioned this thing about repenting and being baptized. Sure, saying sorry and getting a bit wet doesn’t seem so bad, I’m pretty sure we could swing that.
So people started gathering in droves at the river to be baptized. No time is better than the present as things are getting pretty rough around here with the whole Roman occupancy thing. It was in their heads that the world was ending soon, so they had to make sure they take care of their souls and be prepared for this power that is going to come and save them all. They had to make sure that they were save-worthy.
And can you blame them? I mean people have been doing this for all time. People do that now. There is a saying about how so many people claim that there is no God, but once the elevator starts to fall, everyone starts to pray. One of the big recent spikes in church attendance was the Sunday after 9/11. The go-to words of comfort has been sending thoughts and prayers.
So yeah, take no chances. Do what you can to secure your place in heaven, just in case. Get right with God because nothing else matters when it is all over. Better flee while the fleeing’s good, wrath and judgement are coming. Some people take this to the next level even. Not only are they so worried and concerned about their own eternity, but they go and try to control others so their eternity is in check too. You know those people who are quick to point out the wrongs in others, those who lean on their understanding of morality and tell other people what to do, or those who maybe call others out by calling them a brood of vipers…
So what do we make of John’s seemingly hypocrital response? How do we make sense of his indignation and anger? How do make sense of such an unloving response?
Well, I think the problem is that people didn’t understand what John was saying at all.
See the people of John’s time wanted to be saved, they wanted to be liberated, they wanted to feel safe… not too unlike us of our time. The people of John’s time wanted to be on the right side of history, wanted to protect their loved ones and their descendants, wanted to be sure that their ways and culture would be preserved and passed down generation after generation… not too unlike us of our time. The people of John’s time just wanted to do what they thought they were supposed to do, according to God, according to who they regarded as prophets, according to their own morality and beliefs, religious or otherwise. And that definitely is not too unlike us of our time.
And not unlike us of our time, the people of John’s time misunderstood the message. They didn’t get the promise. They didn’t fully grasp the concepts of grace, mercy, and love that God’s gospel teaches, and they filtered it through their own paradigms and worldviews and relied on their own knowledge and understanding.
See John wasn’t telling them to flee from this wrath that was coming, John was telling them that they were free from it. John wasn’t saying that they needed to get themselves right to be forgiven, but he was saying that because they can’t get themselves right that they even need the forgiveness that is given to them. John wasn’t saying that they need to keep up with the religious Jones’, that they had to be the epitome of discipline and command-keeping, that they should ensure they cross their T’s and dot their I’s in order to win God’s love. Rather, John was telling them that God already loved them before they were even conceived, that God loves them regardless of how much they screw up or make mistakes, and that God will continue to love them throughout the resurrection and eternity. The bottom line is that God loves, God teaches love, God is love.
But still this wasn’t good enough for them. They needed instruction, rules, commands to follow or else they wouldn’t know what do with themselves. It’s like they needed to feel a sense of accomplishment, feel like they’ve earned or deserve what has been graciously given to them, feel like they can check off the bullet points of their religious to-do list so they could be completely comfortable with accepting the salvation of God.
So they ask John, like literally ask “then what should we do?” and John, basically says in not so many words: “be nice, don’t be a jerk, treat others with respect.”
That’s it? Sounds easy enough.
But does it really? Because it doesn’t seem people are nice, especially these days of Christmas stress shopping and parking spot hunting. People are jerks now, because of their sense of entitlement as both privileged or under privileged. And it doesn’t seem like anyone treats anyone with respect, unless it is somehow beneficial to do so to get yourself more respect or votes or something.
So why is it so hard? Why is it so hard just to be nice? To not be a jerk? To respect? To… love?
Well, to be blunt, perhaps we don’t feel or understand love from Love itself. Perhaps we have filtered the love that has been shown to us through our own worldviews and beliefs. Perhaps we, like the people of John’s time, don’t get how we are loved unconditionally, before we could ever do anything wrong or even doing anything right for that matter, we are loved. And it is by that love that we are changed, we are shaped and reformed, we are made whole and strengthened to love others.
This isn’t to say that we should be perfect if we understand love. No, we will continue to make mistakes, continue to do the wrong things, continue to misunderstand even. But it does mean that through it all, our position and identity in God doesn’t change. It does mean that when we make mistakes and do the wrong things, we won’t be pushed out of God’s family and community. It is to say that although we might not always feel it or understand it, we are wholly, dearly, and unequivocally loved.
So you might be thinking, so what should we do? What should we do to prove, inherit, or deserve this love? The thing is, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I don’t have the right to do that. But I will tell you that you are unique, that you matter, and that you are loved. So very much loved. And that love in you will reveal to you what you want to do, how you can do it, and empower you to even get it started.
John tells us to be nice, don’t be a jerk, and treat others with respect. But I don’t think we can do that, not genuinely at least, until we more fully grasp what love is. This unconditional, liberating, grace-filled love that has been given to us by God, through the life and actions of Christ, and fuelled by the Spirit that joins us all together. But this love is there. It is given to us. And it is eternal and unchanging.
As we continue through this season of Advent, as we reflect on the hope, the peace, and the love of the season, as we look forward to the coming true love of Jesus, may we embrace the love of God graciously given, that we might faithfully reflect that love unto all whom we encounter. Thanks be to God. Amen.