On Vipers and Joy
“On Vipers and Joy”
December 12, 2021
3rd Sunday of Advent
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, an Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
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 axe 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.
This year on my Christmas cards I thought I’d take a page out of John the Baptist’s
playbook and say “Merry Christmas, You Brood of Vipers!” … with locust clipart around the edge. Nice, right? Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, right?
I’m not really going to do that, don’t worry. I’m not brave enough. But it’s fun to laugh about it because we don’t really know how else to take today’s scripture lesson without trying to make a joke out of it. I mean, really? I feel like a broken record this Advent each Sunday by trying to make funny jokes out of absolutely terrifying scripture lessons. It’s not just you silently wondering in your seat if we have our calendars out of sync. These are not the warm and fuzzy scripture passages that we might expect at this time of year. They are passages that talk about the end times, about fathers who are made mute while they work through their self-centeredness, and today, our favorite rough-around-the edges wild man John the Baptist who doesn’t think very highly of people. Especially people who want to be called good but who actually do nothing that amounts to good. I don’t know about you, but JOY is not the first emotion that washes over me.
Love it or hate it, this is Advent. A season that is pretty dark and pretty raw and
perhaps speaks a little too honestly into a world that has made its houses too small.
We call this season Advent and not yet Christmas, because we take seriously the idea that Christ can’t come into this world until we’ve confronted the parts of our own lives that are not big enough to let him in. Advent speaks to a world that has made its houses too small. Like the houses we build around ourselves where we can draw the blinds to the world’s problems; or where we can drown out our own responsibilities with the blue light of a screen; or where we can just shut the door to whatever makes us uncomfortable and live in a world that revolves around the façade of a perfect Christmas whose value is judged by money spent and presents purchased.
I’m sorry. If you came here today looking for a cheap sense of joy that would prop up that kind of world, John the Baptist is talking about something entirely different.
Last week we heard the story of John’s prophetic birth and how his father learned to take himself out of the center of the picture so that his son, John, could stand on a solid foundation. This week we see that grown up John standing tall on that foundation with a message that carries across the ages.
Get ready, the Messiah is coming.
Get your act together.
Smooth out the rough places.
Get rid of the obstacles.
Straighten up your life.
Build your houses bigger and your tables longer.
This was a compelling message when John preached it the first time, as it is now, too.
And the people flocked to John. The message resonated with them. They didn’t want to not be ready when the Messiah came. So they asked John to baptize them and help them straighten up their lives. But John saw right through it because here’s what they didn’t understand. You can’t say you want a different life without actually living a different life. You can’t just white wash your life the day before Christ comes and pretend like that makes you ready. You can’t just finish your shopping list and aha, NOW I’m ready for Christmas.
I was asked the other day, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I looked at the woman
blankly in my head thinking, Ready? Like in what sense do you mean? “You know,
finished your shopping,” she continued reading my confusion. “No,” I said. “No, I
haven’t finished my shopping (hadn’t started my shopping) and I’m also not ready for Christmas yet.” Because even if I was the type of person that was finished with their shopping by mid-December, I would still have miles to go to be “ready” for Christmas.
What does being ready for the Christ child really even mean?
So the people that had come to John, who he affectionately named the “brood of
vipers” then asked an honest question. If we can’t just be baptized and instantly made ready for the Messiah, What then should we do, John? You say we can’t just get saved and everything be okay. What then should we do?
And to his credit, John gets really specific. If you have two coats, you must share with anyone who has none. And if you have food, then you have food to share. He said to the tax collector: If your job in the world expects you to be honest, then be honest. He said to the soldier: If your job in the world expects you to protect and take care of people, then protect and take care of people! Don’t cheat and cut corners. And to the religious leaders of the day he said: Don’t think that God owes you anything just because you say you’re religious. That will make you arrogant and complacent. To everyone who has anything, John, says, you have something to give. So stop hoarding. Stop procrastinating. Stop making excuses. The day of repentance is now.
If this was John the Baptist’s way of saying Merry Christmas, he clearly didn’t
understand the concept of sugar-coated anything. He had a message to deliver about what Christ’s coming should mean and he didn’t mince words.
As much as I love the sugar-coated things that Christmastime brings, I would be lying if I said that deep down I didn’t need John the Baptist about this time in December.
There something about him and the gravity of Advent that feels necessary in order to cut through that sweet façade of surface-deep Christmas platitudes.
True story, I went to actually make my Christmas cards this year online and I was
scrolling through the hundreds of very tempting and cute templates on Shutterfly.
Fancy fonts and beautiful pictures with greetings like Merry Christmas! and Happy
Holidays! and Best Year Ever! And I just had to close the internet down for a few
minutes while I grappled with why none of those templates seemed to fit this year.
Maybe this is just part of the reality of what it’s like to be celebrating Christmas in 2021.
The season is supposed to be about merriment and we want so much to be able to fully feel this, yet the circumstances around us are unrelentingly hard. True joy seems to be an arms-length away. Part of that is the pandemic which continues to loom over us. And another big part of that is the division over how we collectively end the pandemic. And if all that wasn’t enough, there are wars brewing across the world and fierce, destructive storms that have destroyed entire towns in our country.
What is joy and how can we find it?
This might come as a surprise given the picture I’ve just painted of John the Baptist, but here’s a little ironic fact: John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy.
So maybe that’s our clue. What is spiritual joy?
And for that maybe it’s easier to say what it’s not. Spiritual joy is not sentiment.
Spiritual joy is not a sugar-coated Merry Christmas when inside you feel no merry and no Christmas. Spiritual joy is not even happiness. Spiritual joy is not purchased in the store when you buy household décor that spells J-O-Y. Spiritual joy is not that cheap. This kind of joy, John the Baptist’s kind of joy, is a choice. A choice you make when you decide to stop living in a small house with the windows drawn. A choice you make when you decide that Christmas can’t come unless you excavate some deeper meaning from this season. A choice you make when you see for the first time how your actions have consequences. This kind of joy is a choice. It is the practice of seeing your own excess and living with less. It is the practice of acting like a Christian and not just calling yourself a Christian. It is the practice of being honest and fair every aspect of your life, even when no one is looking: your job, your family, your community, your friends. This kind of joy
goes against the grain of a monotonous, quick-fix, sugar-coated, everything is fine kind of world.
Spiritual joy takes discipline and intentionality. And because of that it stands out as
different. It is a bright, vivid pink in a circle of blues and purples. The reason why we
have a pink candle in the Advent Wreath is because the third Sunday is Advent is
traditionally the Gaudete (GOU dete) Sunday… meaning rejoice. Advent in the church has traditionally been a season of inward examination and repentance. All of the days in the Advent calendar were focused on how we could live our lives as better people and so the Gaudete Sunday was started as a reprieve from the penitential season. Celebrate! Christ is near, break your fast and feel the true joy of your hard inner work making room for Christ.
I’ve always been somewhat of an Advent nerd, this may not be a complete shock to you. My sophomore year of college, I decided to give up sugar for the season of
Advent to clear away some of what distracted me from authentically focusing on what was most important about the season. This is not something I can entirely recommend doing again. But there was something about John the Baptist’s simplicity and asceticism that really spoke to me that year. Like I said, Advent nerd. And so I remember really well when the third Sunday of Advent arrived because that was Gaudaete, the day to take a break from the Advent fast. I wore pink from head to toe and after church I invited everyone in my dorm hall into my room for a party where I served graham cracker sandwiches with bright-pink-dyed icing in the middle. It was amazing and not because of the sugar rush, but because of the way the smallest of things became special. A group of exam-weary dormmates, a burst of unexpected color, the extreme delight of a graham cracker sandwich.
I don’t think I’ve ever tried a sugar-free Advent since then, but here’s what I learned.
We don’t make room for Jesus by sweetening our lives with surface deep happiness.
You can’t be ready for Christmas by simply finishing a shopping list. Jesus sees right through that. We make room in our lives for Jesus by tapping into a deeper joy. The joy that comes from loving our neighbors, caring for the most vulnerable in our midst, sharing when we have plenty and also when we just barely have enough. Joy is not about happiness, it’s about mercy. It’s about doing our part to make bigger homes where we see each other in our grief and our joy alike. It’s about building longer tables that fit more people, strangers and friends alike. Spiritual joy doesn't claim that all is sweet and wonderful. It tells the truth-- When we say we’re Christian, do we act like it, too?
Let us pray.
(prayer from a friend who lives in a Tennessee town that suffered a lot of damage from
the tornado this week)
O God, “May we sit in the dark places with the people who need us to be heartbroken
with them. May we allow ourselves to journey with those who are suffering and allow
our very own hearts to be broken. Isn’t this what Advent looks for? Aren’t we fixing our
eyes and hearts on the one who is willing to leave the throne of Heaven to enter our
suffering and walk with us? He is with us most palpably as we are with those who are
hurting. May we make room. Lord, have mercy. Lord, be with us.