Luke 3: 7-18
Good morning and grace and peace on this Third Advent Sunday. The Proper Collect began with the words “Stir Up.” "Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us." As some of us may recall from era before what I still call “the new Prayer Book,” the old “Stir Up Sunday” collect for 500 years or so in the Anglican world was for the Sunday before Advent, 25th after Trinity—“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people . . .”--and the custom was that “Stir Up Sunday” would be the reminder to all the cooks in village that the festivities of Christmas were approaching and that it was time to get going on the preparing of traditional holiday fruit cakes. Third Advent may be a little late for that, but there’s probably still time to pick something up at the bakery . . . .
Also the Sunday of the Rose Candle on the Advent Wreath, Third Advent, traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” In the Middle Ages there was a customary introit sung on this day--from the opening words of the Epistle Lesson appointed for today, Philippians 4, as St. Paul wrote to that little church that he loved so much. (We don’t have an Epistle Lesson in Morning Prayer, but if you look back on page 3 of the service leaflet at the order for our 9 a.m. service you can see it.) Gaudete, Latin for “rejoice.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
In the old BCP lectionary from the 16th century and until the 1979 Prayer Book with its three-year lectionary this reading was the Epistle for Advent IV, not Advent III, but always then a part of the season.
I would pray that we would each one of us hear the Advent message and word of encouragement in that reading. That our lives and our relationship individually and as a congregational family, in our families and schools and where we work, everywhere, that this word of Gaudete would settle in as we wait for his coming. So that the world would say, those Christians, how gentle they are, and full of joy. The Lord is near.
The gospel reading appointed for this day in Year C of our three year lectionary is from Luke 3, another glimpse of John the Baptist. Second week in a row, as we remember the reading last Sunday, when the Saduccees and Pharisees came out to see John and find out just what he was up to, who he was.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that if you’re wise you don’t preach on this morning’s text until the annual stewardship campaign is complete. So we’re running a few weeks behind, and I hope nobody takes the message too personally. There’s also appropriately for this Sunday a picture floating around Facebook showing a greeting card with a wild-eyed John the Baptist on the cover, dressed in rags and long scraggly beard and hair flying in every direction. Printed over the image: “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” And Happy Advent to you too, John. Seasons greetings!
Of course, that’s just the catch line. If John's congregation was just settling back for a 15 minute snooze, this would wake them up. Something about being called a “viper” that causes you to pay attention I guess. In any event, John is out there in the wilderness preaching about metanoia, usually translated “repentance.” Literally something like “another consciousness.” Maybe a preacher today would say, “get your heads on straight, people!”
It’s not just tweaking around the edges, a few good resolutions aimed at personal improvement. It’s not just about the careful outward performance of religious rituals or about formal subscription to a set of verbal doctrines. Rituals and doctrines have their place. But what John is talking about on that desert strand across the Jordan is about something that goes deeper: a thoroughgoing transformation of life.
The line about, “don’t go saying, ‘but we have Abraham for our ancestor,’” is going to say that our relationship with God isn’t established by having our names on the membership roll of the local tabernacle. The tree can look the part but be all deadwood. This is about being the kind of tree that is alive, and that puts forth good fruit. The point is letting that four word sermon from Philippians 4 really settle in and have its full impact. A promise. A warning. The Lord is near.
The people are excited by John, about John. The crowds are streaming out from the Holy City and the towns and villages and all the countryside to come to hear him. I don’t think he ever read a book about church growth. But whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working. The crowds coming out in great numbers in a way cause the authorities to begin to feel real anxiety. A crowd like that, and who knows what might happen?
John’s congregation. Filled with “expectation.” Not in spite of his bold demand, but because of it.
They don’t come to hear John announce, “I’m o.k., you’re o.k.” Preachers do that a lot. What a great bunch we are. So much better than those guys over there. But that’s not what John is saying. He's not just encouraging a little tweak of midcourse correction. If somebody says, “we could all stand to lose 5 or 10 pounds and do a little re-ordering of our leisure time priorities, well, that’s one thing. Probably good advice, but nothing earth shaking.
If somebody says, “change, or die,” that’s a different story. More urgent.
I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflection, in her autobiographical essay called “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” when she talks about growing up over here in Shadyside and in her childhood at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church. They had distributed Award Bibles to the Children of the Sunday School, and she went home and began to read, and was astonished. They give this book to children?
She says, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … [Remember, this is about Presbyterians! Not Episcopalians. So don't take it personally!] Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
And on this Third Advent Sunday John points the way by saying exactly that. The time is short. The message for us to have in our thoughts and in our hearts at Christmas and the New Year. Change or die. “One who is more powerful than I is coming . . . . He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with Fire.” Be ready for that! Crash helmets, life preservers, and signal flares will be available for those who know what’s good for them . . . . The Lord is near.