A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, Year C, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
John was quite a preacher. He could call people snakes, and threaten them with fire, and they called it good news!
At another time, in another place, Jesus said of John that no prophet greater than him had ever arisen – and that even so, John was but a speck of a man in the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:11). Why would Jesus say that? People were thrilled with John’s message. They were convicted by his preaching. They were filled with expectation, wondering whether he might even be the Messiah.
But John said, “No; I am water, he is fire. I am wheat, he is the sickle and the scythe. I am prophetic, he is powerful.”
The encompassing message of this story is that while John is good, and his message is sound, and his heart is on fire for God, nevertheless, the repentance that he preaches and the instruction that he gives is merely a baseline for living. It is not revolutionary. It is not messianic. It is enduring, but it is not eternal.
Take his advice to the tax collectors and soldiers: don’t exploit people. Don’t extort money. Do the right thing, even if others around you seem to be profiting from doing wrong. It might be counter-cultural, now as then, to promote honesty over gain, fairness over profit, humility over success; it may be counter-cultural, but it is hardly ground-breaking. It’s how we know the world should work, how we know we should act, if we could only keep our heads, our consciences, God’s commandments, even in a cultural context that has a tendency to excuse a sliding scale of corruption. It’s as though a border patrol agent asked him, “What should we do?”, and he told them to treat asylum seekers as children of God, or a drug company CEO, and he told them to put healthy people ahead of inflated profits. What would he say to a police officer today, or to a parent, or to a parishioner at Epiphany? Do the right thing. It is pretty basic stuff.
Or take his invitation to share our abundance with those experiencing scarcity. “If you have two coats, give one to someone who has been left out in the cold,” offers John. “If you have enough to eat, show your gratitude by sharing with someone who doesn’t have enough (instead of complaining about how they spend their food stamps, for example, or whether they deserve them).” It is good and sound policy, based on God’s law of loving our neighbours as ourself, and showing kindness and mercy to the orphan and the alien. But let’s face it, it’s pretty basic. It is almost literally the least we could do.
John’s message, the need for his words, the impact that they have on the people around him – “He said to do good, to share, to be fair and merciful! Could he be the Messiah?” – the fact that such basic tenets of human cooperation are received as astonishing and revolutionary should be shocking, to us, and to his original brood of vipers. If it isn’t, then it’s time for us to wake up and smell the wickedness that has seduced us into accepting an environment of tawdry and banal selfishness, casual corruption. Have we fallen so far that simply not doing evil sounds like salvation?
We will not save ourselves by the baptism of John, but God has more in store for us. We will not save ourselves by the baptism of John, but to get our own house in order, to deal with our own sin, to clean up our own station, to share what overflows from our bucket of blessing: that is almost literally the least we can do. Because God wills so much more for us than to be concerned with counting tokens. We will not get into the Good Place because we earn enough points.
The good news, John prophesies, is that there is more to the story than trying not to do wrong and fighting to do good. It would be so depressing if the pinnacle of human achievement, the redemption of humanity, the restoration within us of the image of God were so pedestrian, so basic. But the gospel was not designed to be depressing. The gospel was designed for our rejoicing, for the revelation of the overwhelming, unimaginable, indescribably, beyond reasoning goodness of God, revealed to us ultimately not by the prophecies of John, but by the presence among us of Jesus Christ.
Of course, you know that two months ago we travelled to the places where John was preaching, to the cave of Elijah where he made his wilderness home, on the banks of the Jordan River, still militarized, still full of soldiers. We went to the hilltop palace where Herod Antipas imprisoned John and had him killed, and it was empty, and razed to the ground, stripped of its glory and abandoned. Such is the fate of tyrants, and the end of egotism.
But the glory of God endures for ever, and the grace of God cannot be destroyed. Even in death, Christ became alive. Nothing can burn down the kingdom of God.
And what does that look like? I’m sure you all know the story of Silent Night during WWI. Last month, we celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War, which was supposed to end all wars. We know that it didn’t. But even in the midst of that turmoil and great suffering, there was a glimpse of what life could be like in the kingdom of God. You remember that at Christmas, the carol Silent Night served as a sign of truce that produced a pause in the fighting. But more than that, the troops came out of their trenches and played football together. But more than that, they shared the gifts they had received from home. Those of you who have served away from home and family know what a sacrifice that was. These people, these men, not only ceased from fighting, but more than that, as a sign of the coming of Christ they shared their mothers’ home cooking with the enemies they had been paid to kill. That is what the kingdom of God looks like. That is what we are looking for.
We follow the preaching of John as a prelude to the coming of Christ, not as an end in itself, as though if we could only keep our heads down and our hands clean while the world swirls around us in systems of sin, we could earn our own salvation. We know that’s not how it works. We’re in this world together, and we do the best we can, not for our own sakes but for the sake of the gospel that is breaking through with good news for all people, for the poor and the neglected, for those in pain and the forgotten, for the lost and the last in line for benefits and blessings. We do it, not for our own salvation, but because we know that it is the will of God that all should know the coming of Christ, the love of God born into the world, and rejoice.
Christ is coming, with his winnowing fork and his fire, with his infant cry and his table-turning rage, with his death-defying life and the blazing love of God. That’s the good news.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.