Zephaniah 3:14-20 † Isaiah 12:2-6 † Philippians 4:4-7 † Luke 3:7-18
Well that was quite a turn wasn’t it. From the smooth certain assurances of the psalm:
“Surely, it is God who saves me;
I will trust and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
and God will be my Savior.”
And from the bright jubilation of Zephaniah:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.”
And from the lovely appeal for gentleness and patient prayer in Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
From all of that to John:
“You brood of vipers – who told you to flee from the time to come…..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.’”
It’s hard and confusing to hear these very different voices next to each other. Easy there, John, I want to say. So loud and harsh. What are you doing? Are you talking to us? To someone else? Don’t you know it’s been a hard season for us….for everyone? Like so many in your time John, we are uneasy, we see great injustice. We worry about those we love; we worry about those we don’t even know.
Hard as it is, and confusing as it is, I do think he is yelling at a part of us: that part of us that tries to manage our uneasiness, that tries to mask our vulnerabilities, by placing our trust in whatever power we can get our hands on. That part of us that, in fear about how much we don’t control, tries to exert control through that accumulation wealth or status or stories we tell our self about who the other is and what they’ll take from us. That looks for safety and certainty in all the wrong places.
John chides, well perhaps chides is too soft, more like rages against that part of us that hides from the things we fear, the things we don’t understand; that resists showing up in vulnerability and trust and hope.
And yes, it is confusing at first, but I think it makes all sorts of sense for the church to put this reading about John next to these others. Yes, there is righteous anger at the way we cause harm to ourselves and to others through a kind of accumulation and levying of power and status that hurts others. When we see this kind of hoarding of power played out on our screens and in our lives daily – yes, righteous anger is appropriate - but at the same time, and ultimately, God is a God of compassion, a God we can trust, a God who yearns for us to know that we will actually find what we need as we show up in vulnerability and hope, in gentleness and patience.
So, even as John echoes as a warning in our ears – a warning that life cannot be found in the destructive accumulation and levying of power, we might perhaps also attend to the real question, that I think is before us this advent and always really. And that is how is it with your heart? What do you need? What does the world need from you?
Do we imagine that this God who placed the stars and shaped the rocks, and who could raise up sons and daughters of Abraham, from the very stones, is interested in anything really but the answers to questions like these – questions about our authentic selves. The answers don’t have to be earth shattering, just honest – I need quiet, I need to share, I need joy and play and hope and wonder. Questions of the heart, authentic questions with beautiful real answers. That’s where life is – when we are honest with ourselves, honest with God and as honest as we can be each other.
So what does your authentic self need? What is it waiting for? How is your heart? Maybe we can enter that question with all of the smooth assurances of the psalmist: I will trust and not be afraid; the bright jubilation of Zephaniah: The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. And maybe we can apply that appeal to gentleness from the writer of the letter to the Philippians to ourselves also, and maybe we can have a little patience and little trust in God – who is the love our heart knows, the light that comes in the darkness.
So there are some bags at the end of your row. Take one if you want - it’s for a little crafty meditation that I want to invite you into….or if you prefer just meditate in your space while others work with the craft – that is just fine.
There is a wire inside in the bag. Take it and mold it into a heart – any size or shape. Go easy - shape it gently and carefully. It’s a thing of beauty and life – this heart of yours. Its where your hopes and your loves live. What a beautiful thing. How lovely it makes the world. Gentle and hopeful and good.
Now take something beautiful from the bag. Whatever you have been given or swap with someone else if you want and weave that beautiful thing it into your heart. Maybe this beautiful thing can symbolize a tenderness, a wound, that needs caring for, a yearning that needs assurance that God sees it and loves it – hear me clearly beloved siblings – God sees you and loves you. Knows you and holds you.
Or maybe this beautiful thing marks an intention; something you want to be about this advent, this Christmas - a way to serve or give yourself; a new thing – only you know what this is and what you have the strength for. Hear me say – God knows what you have to carry and no-one else gets to say what you should and shouldn’t be able to do and offer – only you and God.
Or who knows what it marks, maybe it just a mark of joy or fun – doesn’t have to mean anything really – it can just be lovely. Thanks be to God for lovely things and for you and for all you have to offer this world.
John has some righteous anger – he is mad that folks are not coming with their real selves. But this does not reflect a God that is all anger. God loves these hearts of yours and wants you to show up as you are able, only as you are able, with vulnerability and trust, and God will be with you through all of it.
So, if you are willing, before the end of the service, place the hearts you have fashioned in the manger. They’ll be included in this nativity scene as we move towards Christmas as a symbol of the real selves in which God delights and which make the world more beautiful. These real selves that wait and hope and act in the love of God and in the gentle justice that makes things right.
St. Andrew Sermons