Advent 3, December 16, 2018
Year C, Advent 3: Zepheniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
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If you’ve ever been a part of an Altar Guild and set up for the third Sunday in Advent you probably know that this particular Sunday is known a “Rose Sunday” or “Gaudete Sunday”. “Gaudete” means “rejoice” in Latin, so it is quite literally a day of joy and expectation as we are midway through the season of Advent and joyously awaiting and expecting the coming of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes the challenge is how to rejoice when our expectations are shattered.
In my last year of seminary, I was all set for Gaudete Sunday. It had been a particularly stressful semester in that Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York City and the seminary was still without heat in classrooms, the dining hall and the Chapel. Students were in the midst of final papers, final exams, preparing for the General Ordination Exams and I was preaching for the second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent and Christmas Day. But, I was ready. I was waiting. I was hopeful. I had my sermon finished by Thursday evening before Sunday and it was filled with joy, expectation, and rejoicing.
That Friday a couple of friends and I were having lunch when our cell phones started bleating like sheep at us. We were stunned to find out that 26 people had been killed at an elementary school, a mother was killed by her son, and the son was dead by his own hand. A nice, feel-good sermon about the joy of Gaudete Sunday didn’t seem quite so appropriate anymore.
And if it couldn’t get any more complicated, the priest I was working under, Mother Mitties, who so many of you met this past April, who was also my preaching professor at the seminary, called and asked for help with some tasks for a memorial service we were having at church the next day. I thought, “great. It’s an opportunity to pick her brain about how to preach this sermon.”
We did the tasks. We had dinner. She took the first bite of her steak and started to choke. Really choke. I’d learned the Heimlich maneuver, but I certainly never intended to use it. I used it that night.
Let’s face it. It is easy to believe in God when our lives are going well. But when our lives become difficult, when we experience senseless acts of violence, or we have to perform the Heimlich on someone we have come to love and respect, we sometimes start to question our faith.
The words of Paul to the Philippians presented a particular challenge to me that weekend:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand. I have no anxiety about anything.”
How can we hear those words and think about what happened in the world, what is happening in the world today, and rejoice? When a young child dies, perhaps because of a lack of appropriate medical care, when fifteen-year-old boys are chased into alleys and shot multiple times for no apparent reason.
That weekend, though, I learned it was possible to preach about hope. It wasn’t easy, but I remembered that when we are brokenhearted, we are sustained by our community, our faith, our God. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid”.
Those words bring us to the hope that Jesus Christ gives us, especially as we await Emmanuel in these last days of Advent.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He was sent into difficult, complicated times, and his message was simple: repent; turn your lives around; turn back to God. Trust in him and be not afraid.
It’s not about making ourselves feel bad about bad things we’ve done. It’s about opening our souls to God’s grace. It’s about transformation, about turning our lives around, turning back to God. And if the idea of turning your whole life around feels too hard if total transformation feels like more than you can manage, then just take the first step, and the rest will follow.
To take that first step, we need to look at the context and the background of any bible passage we encounter. That’s not explaining things away, but being thoughtful and thinking theologically.
We hear John tell us in today’s Gospel that “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. In this case, John wasn’t really talking about coats the way we think of them. The item of clothing he’s referring to wasn’t really an outer garment. It was a tunic that was usually worn under something else. John isn’t literally saying, give your extra coat away. He’s talking about clothing and food in general. He’s saying that if we have more than we need, even just of the basic things we need to stay alive, we ought to share with people who don’t have enough.
And when John tells the tax collectors and soldiers not to collect more money than people actually owe, not to extort money by false accusations and beatings, that’s a lesson about ethical business practices which is just as relevant to people who wear suits and dresses as it was to those who dressed in tunics.
And when John tells the people God could raise up stones to be children of Abraham, he’s saying it isn’t enough to be religious in name only, you have to act the part. You have to live the life.
Share what you have with people who have less. Do your business honestly. Do the right thing.
These are simple things, maybe deceptively simple.
They remind me of that book that came out a number of years ago: All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was a basic list of principles to live by:
Don’t hit people.
And it went on from there. So much wisdom, simple but profound.
So, what would a Christian equivalent of the kindergarten list look like? Everything I really need to know, I learned in Sunday School?
You don’t have to do it right this minute, but if you open the Book of Common Prayer to page 304, you’d find that list in our Baptismal Covenant. After the statements about what we believe, there’s more about how we behave.
As baptized people:
We promise to “continue in fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of the bread”.
We promise to “resist evil and repent” – turn back to God – when we fail.
We promise to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons”.
At one point in the baptism ceremony, after the water is poured, the priest makes a mark on the person’s forehead in holy oil, and tells them they are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
It’s a more or less invisible cross, although at least for a little while it looks kind of shiny.
So how will people know that you are marked as Christ’s own forever, once the shine is gone?
What matters is how you live up to it.
We proclaim our faith by living lives that have been transformed by the grace of God. And maybe that begins with what we do with our extra coats.
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