Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent 3C, Sunday

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
for St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, 2009


The holy gospel according to Luke.

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?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Do not begin 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.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees;
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;
and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them,
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation,
and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John,
whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying,
“I baptize you with water;
but one who is more powerful than I is coming;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand,
to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The gospel of the Lord.


There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings…

Ok, so I know just saying those words for some people will cause eyes to glaze over, ears to tune out, but hear me out here, just hang with me for a moment. If I promise not to speak in Elvish, can you hang with me for a moment? Ok. Here we go.

So there is this scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that always gives me the chills, and always makes me think of Advent.

Gandalf, the white wizard, is waiting and keeping watch in a city under siege. He has no allies, no friends with him, save one little hobbit, Pippin, who, in a sudden fit of conscience signed up for the king’s personal guard but who really has no skills to offer, has no business being there.

The skies above them have darkened. The air has grown unseasonably cold. The people in the city are afraid, and huddle in whatever they shelter they can find. And the leaders of the city, the stewards, those given the task of protecting the people, are lost in a mindless despair and are no longer able to see the task at hand clearly.

The situation seems hopeless. Gandalf tries to rouse the people; he is the only one who seems to see things clearly. He pushes the paralyzed leaders aside, bypassing them entirely, and goes straight to the footsoldiers and common people, urging them to live up their calling, to be the people they are supposed to be.

But he has no illusions about what they can accomplish on their own. He knows it can only get them so far. And so he turns to little Pippin and tells him to light the beacon.

The beacon is a great pile of combustible wood, a pyre sitting at the top of the highest point in the city. Little Pippin struggles, stumbles, scrapes his knee, hides from those who would try to stop him, and then, finally, he lights the beacon that is much bigger than he is.

The camera pulls back and reveals just how small the beacon is in the wide-angle lens. At the top of a mountain it looks like nothing more than a candle, just a little spark of light, just one little tongue of fire in a vast, vast world.

And then, off in the distance on the farthest mountain peak, another tiny flame suddenly flares up, as if answering the call of the first.

The camera pans up over the mountains, and again off in the farther distance, another flame answers the second, and then another, and another, and another, until the final beacon is lit in the midst of another city faraway over the mountains, and the people in that city see it and know.

The beacons have been seen. The call has been heard. Help will come.

Gandalf, the faintest sign of wild joy in his eyes, says simply this:

“Hope is kindled.”


Today, on the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist preaches his hardest words yet. Last week Pastor Carol described history that takes place far from the centers of power. Now John preaches to the people who live there, people who live in the far corners of the empire, in the far corners of their society. They have no business changing the world. What could they possibly have to offer?

Most of them, stumbling up to the River Jordan to hear this hard-edged prophet, have barely enough clothing to keep themselves warm on a cold night, barely enough food to fill their own stomachs. They struggle simply to stay afloat.

Even those among them who have stable, decent-paying jobs – the soldiers, the public servants – are hardly in a position to make big changes in society. They struggle simply to get it right, day after day, in jobs that make them little more than a cog in an overpowering machine. Empire. Conquest. Profit. Success. If you don’t want to fall in line on one of these ships that you are lucky enough to be on in the first place, then you are free to get off the boat. Good luck in the water.

Any self-respecting world-changer would not start here, with these people. But they are exactly the people to whom John the Baptist goes first.

When he opens his mouth to speak to them, he doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t beat around the bush, or treat them with kid gloves, or patronize them.

He names their brokenness, their weakness.

He reminds them of God’s power, a power that can bring life to stone.

And then he tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees. He tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees.

As if the ax-wielder, the great lumberjack, were already there.

As if, in the words of the prophet Zephaniah, the Lord, their God, is right there in their midst.

No wonder the crowds ask John, “What then should we do?”

Light the beacons! he tells them. Be the lights of hope! Not just with fire and water, but with the light of your very lives!

John the Baptist isn’t worried about how unimportant these people are in the grand scheme of things. He gives everyone a role to play, everyone.

And then he gives the most important role precisely to those who seem to have the least to offer – at least by the standards of empire and conquest.

He calls the crowds, all the most unimportant people, to light their beacons. Oh yes, they have beacons. Their lives, too, can be a light. John calls them to share their meager clothing and food with one another.

Of course, the important people think, this is not possible. They have nothing to share, nothing to give.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will break bread together. They will share their warmth. In the sharing and the caring, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.

They are followed by the tax collectors and soldiers, cogs in the machine of empire. These are asked simply to live justly, but that is not so easy at it sounds.

It requires them to swim upstream, against the current that pushes back against them at every moment, always threatening to overwhelm. Surely no one could survive, always swimming against the current like that.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will be fair. They will tell the truth. They will give thanks. They will not hoard what belongs to others. And in living this way, amid the counter-current, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.


Is this possible? Is there really any hope for this?

I find it hard to believe sometimes, when harsh words speak painful truths, awakening our worst fears, opening our eyes to the wrath that is already here.

A winter chill. A silent injustice. A casual act of violence. The everyday struggle to get it right. Our sickness unto death.

But then I look around, and I see them. I see the signs of a gospel that is so wondrous, so incomprehensible, so nonsensical, so foolishly wild that the peace it brings passes all understanding.

I see the signs of the season of Advent – signs that the Lord, our God, is in our midst.

Beacons of light in the hour of need:

Hands held under a streetlight,

Food shared under flickering fluorescence,

Rooftops strung with glowing bulbs,

An open door lit by a porchlight,

A cold street warmed by a hidden bonfire,

An evergreen wreath anchoring four candles,

Signs of a hope kindled.

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