Advent III, Year C
Is 12:2-6 (resp)
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
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. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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 accusation, 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.
“Repentance is the greatest spiritual gift of all” – Dick Domer, Rifton NY Bruderhof.
Religion is a useful generic category that encompasses all kinds of sub categories, e.g., rituals, prayers, theologies, liturgies. Each of these can be studied in a scientific manner. When it comes to the study of spiritualities, however, there is more than just an intellectual sympathy with the subject matter, there is an emotional empathy as well. This added epistemological dimension helps us to treat the subject matter of religion as an Other, as a Thou. Scientific study of religion tends to remain on the neutered plane of the flat surface of a two-dimensional subject. That which is other is an It.
This is not just true of the scientific study of religion, it is true of the spirituality of much of modern Christianity. There is a general malaise in North America. The ‘It’ gods are in heavy competition with one another. They all hate each other, just like the gods of old. Roman Catholicism in North America has suffered greatly as a result of the pedophilia scandal as well as Rome’s inability to make the transition from a medieval hierarchical structuring to modern democracy. Protestants have for the most part seen declines, especially so-called mainline churches. There appears to be a growing irrelevance posited for the church.
Except for those church traditions that juxtapose or even fuse the State and the Christian faith. These are growing. They are giving people a theological justification for expressing their desire for vengeance and retribution and worse still, is that they are doing this in the name of the Prince of Peace. And this is why it is so
difficult for them to give up their ‘treasured devotion.’ Particularly their devotion to religion, to an IT God, to a god who demands sacrifice and honor. Or an alcoholic in the sky, however you want to look at it.
It bears repeating: Religion is for those trying to stay out of hell, Spirituality is for those who have been there. The people coming to John the Baptist were practitioners of religion. John does not give them an ethic, or commands. He re-orients the value system of each person in this narrative encounter. Each orientation is toward the economic aspect of the mimetic system. Like the Hebrew prophets before him and like Jesus after him, John the Baptist sees the connection to be made between religion and money and that a critique of one entails a critique of the other. This is no surprise for as we saw in Year B, both religion and money are a form of exchange which arise from the substitutionary element of the victimage mechanism. If John first critiques the inadequacy of the spirituality he observes, when he is questioned, his answers reveal the problem: evidently, people felt that as long as they made sacrifices to God and appeased and atoned this God then all would be right for them. They were just trying to stay out of hell.
Mimetic spirituality operates out of fear. Fear of divine retribution. It does not care about the concrete consequences expressed in relation to ‘others,’ except as they attract or repel this retribution. In short, it is self-centered and its predominant approach to God is that of ‘do ut des’ (I give in order to get). John implicitly tells the crowds that their expectations that run high for deliverance include deliverance ultimately from negative mimesis and its social effects. Then as now self-worth equaled net worth. The ‘crowds’ were exhorted, in short, to value the other. Mother Teresa is an excellent contemporary example of someone who understood this aspect of the prophetic message.
A question for you: Is Luke trying to make John the Baptist sound like Jesus? Or is he making Jesus sound like John? Or is he making both sound like Paul? Or does he make Paul to sound like Jesus (or Jerusalem Christianity for that matter)? Is Luke’s John the Baptist ‘unhistorical?’ Many scholars think so. This section of text does contain a fair amount of Lukanisms. It is a structured text with parallels in many ways. “There may be a structural motivation underlying his account of John addressing the crowds, tax gatherers and soldiers. Jesus also meets crowds (Lk 4:40-41, cf. Lk 3:10-11), then Levi the tax gatherer (Lk 5:27-32: cf. Lk 3:12-13); and a soldier –the centurion (Lk 7:2-10, cf. Lk 3:14). Could Luke have structured John’s activity as a parallel to Jesus’ ministry?” (Luke’s Use of Matthew). Sure he could have and probably did, but that does not mean this text lacks historical credibility. John is no less eschatological here than in Matthew, nor is he less christologically focused. Could John have had contact with those Luke says he did? More than likely. Does what John says make sense in the Jewish context in which it is uttered? Sure it does. Luke’s John the Baptist may not satisfy modern historical canons, but his portrait is authentic.
Furthermore, there is a complete disjunction in much of American Christianity between spirituality and ethics. It is not the mercy code of Jesus that is taught and extolled in the churches, but the militant holiness code of his contemporaries. We will not appreciate either the Gospel of Luke or Jesus if we are not willing to listen to this deep hermeneutical challenge presented in the gospels.
In Advent, we wait, but we can do something while we wait, we can repent. We can ‘change our way of thinking’ (metanoia). We can allow God to correct us and show us that which is truly new and precious on Christmas morning: namely, that God the maker of heaven and earth is a God of Peace.
America is not a dark and evil country. It has many qualities that are beneficial. It has many people who struggle every day to care for their neighbor as best as they are able. It has given the world some great people. But like all countries and governments throughout history, it has a dark side that is easily manipulated by the elite, those ‘exousia’ who are often the power behind the throne. These ‘powers’ have succeeded in merging Christianity and culture, Jesus and retribution over and over again. If Christian America wants or needs some kind of ‘divine’ authority to engage in retributive acts then it must stop calling itself Christian and call itself something else. “Good,” “virtuous,” “moral,” “upright,” “just. Whatever. Appeal to ‘natural law.’ But don’t say it is Christian. Don’t blame it on Jesus.
Some Sermon Thoughts:
This is our second encounter with the Forerunner, and the frightening tone of his words refuse to be ignored. If we do not deal with the fear or self-righteousness John’s words have no doubt created in our congregations, we will probably risk irrelevance.
Some of our folks will hear the phrase “brood of vipers” aimed at themselves. They may be accustomed to the twisting of the prophetic voice in modern Christianity, and may have come to believe that this kind of hyperbole is meant for them, that they are, in fact, no better than “vipers,” at least in John’s eyes.
Some of them will hear “brood of vipers” and be just as sure that these words are meant for those “others” whose values they do not share, and whose “otherness” merits the contempt that John seems to rain on them.
We mentioned in the Historical-Critical section above that Luke seems to have laid out the encounters here to parallel other, similar encounters in Jesus’ ministry. It is worthwhile here to contrast Jesus’ response with that of John.
John is not the Messiah. He is not the Word Incarnate. If his response and Jesus’ response to similar people differ in some ways, whose will you choose to treat authoritatively? I realize that we are accustomed to thinking of John, the Forerunner, as being fairly accurate in his understanding of the one who will come after him, but does Luke really see him that way? Again, contrast his response with that of Jesus to similar kinds of people.
Luke, we believe, uses irony throughout these introductory chapters to contrast the reality of Jesus and his ministry with the expectations of the people. John speaks of Jesus as “mightier than I,” and yet, Jesus’ ministry exhibits nothing that would have been understood as “mighty” in the first century. Earlier, Zechariah sings praise because by the Savior he expects, he and his people will be “saved from their enemies and from the hands of all who hate us.” By the time we reach the end of Acts, this still has not happened. Only Mary seems to get it right, understanding God’s favor granted to the victims, without creating a new category of victim along the way.
As preachers, it may be our task as we listen to John this week, to speak to the way that we, who are too prone to think like John, identify with his values, whether they condemn or justify us. It is encouraging for us to look at John and see that, as close to Jesus as he was, he could still think like us, in a way that still envisioned a kingdom that excluded the “vipers” of this world. John, like Peter, doesn’t quite get it all the time. Neither do we. Fortunately, just because we’re in Advent, it doesn’t mean that we have to omit the Gospel Jesus preached from our preaching!