(A sermon for Advent 3C December 13, 2009 Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-18)
My son, Peter, is in his first year at New England Conservatory, which is right around the corner from Symphony Hall in Boston. The other night his Facebook status declared, “Peter Bauer has found a new reason to live, and it is the BSO Holiday Pops.” I had just been listening to the old Arthur Fiedler Pops recording; is it corny to love “Sleigh Ride,” with its whip-cracking percussion and trumpet-produced closing whinny? If so, I must plead guilty.
These are the sounds of the season in my family, the favorite CDs now uploaded onto our computers, then downloaded onto our iPods, playing when we walk the dog or drive the car or bake cookies in the kitchen. Whether it’s the Cambridge Singers or Burl Ives or A Charlie Brown Christmas, the mood is set, and we are in the timeless zone of Christmas.
This week the weather cooperated, leaving a white coating on everything, and accompanied by Handel’s “Messiah,” Sam and I walked on fresh snow Monday and on the remains of Wednesday’s storm later in the week. We explored the interesting textures of snow become balls of slush flash-frozen in a long, dark night. I watched my step more carefully than he, and because of the ear buds piping the joyful chorus singing about the “Glory of the Lord” into my head, I was not the first to notice the interlopers.
We had just turned right, making our way onto a side path in our favorite park in Portland, the squirrel-filled pleasure house that is Baxter Woods. Sam, ears up, alerted me to something, but what? Breaking through the music came another song, this one persistent and demanding. I looked up and above the pine trees and among their branches swooped the big black birds, calling to one another. This could mean one of two things. It might have been trash day in that section of Portland, and I believe that was the answer, but I had to wonder if it also meant something dead somewhere in the park. Suddenly the morning seemed less idyllic and I hurried Sam along, just in case he should be enamored of whatever attracted the crows.
A murder of crows, that’s what you call a group of them.
Sometimes when we read the scripture we puzzle for a long time over what a word means, what its context was at the time someone recorded the story. But a brood of vipers? Well. We form our own associations quickly.
How many of you like snakes? I’ll admit to being a person who doesn’t care for them. It’s an almost certainly irrational fear, because I can remember the day I became afraid of them, visiting the Reptile House at the National Zoo around age 6 or 7. My fear of snakes isn’t extreme; I don’t avoid hiking, for instance, just because there might be a snake somewhere on the mountain. But I wouldn’t want to pet one, and therefore I don’t know as much about them as an aficionado might. Uncomfortably, I did some research, about vipers, and how you might find them all wound around each other, and about how they will flee in all directions when they feel threatened.
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
You really have to wonder what brought people out to see John the Baptist, to listen to his preaching and to submit to being lowered under the water by him. I used to think he was calling them dangerous, because that’s how I thought of snakes. But now I realize he was calling them cowardly, like the vipers that skitter away. He was calling them hypocritical, willing to rest on the reputation of their ancestors. He was calling them unproductive and unrepentant and unacceptable. A tree that bears no fruit, John tells them, will be cut down.
It occurs to me that what makes this passage amazing is that the people heard all this and then they asked the question in their hearts: “Is this the Messiah?”
Is this the one who will save us?
Those first century Israelites lived with a lot of images in their holy scriptures that meant salvation to them. We hear a lot of those texts in Advent, spread out over the three-year cycle of the lectionary. We read of the day of peace on God’s holy mountain, and of a future of joy in which all nations come together and turn their weapons into the tools of hope instead of war. We read of one who will sacrifice himself for other, a descendant of David.
Those images were vivid, but what they really wanted, what they believed they needed, was freedom from the Roman oppressors occupying their land. To get that peace, didn’t they need to win first?
And so they asked the question, in their hearts. They turned to that inner measure of feeling and instinct, that barometer that tells us whether we feel right or not. Is this the Messiah? Is this the one who will save us?
What did they see in John that made them think he might be?
When they ask him what they should do to please God, he gives them the sort of practical recommendations that we might put down as simple, almost along the lines of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Share with those in need; don’t cheat people; don’t abuse your power. Weren’t those rules to live by already?
The brood of vipers protected each other from the truth they all knew, as soon as they heard John speak it. They didn’t need saving from Rome. They needed saving from themselves.
Because we are perfectly capable of holding ourselves hostage, aren’t we? We don’t necessarily need an outside oppressor to do it for us.
It’s no wonder we read these stories about John the Baptist and have a hard time hearing the good news. He’s comparing us not only to snakes but to fruitless trees, and to the chaff tossed out when we harvest the wheat. We’re cowardly, unproductive and useless. We’re all those things, sinners, every one of us. We all do things we wish we didn’t or know we should not.
I’ll raise my hand first. I’m aggravated about the apparent failure of the doo-dad that allows me to listen to my iPod in the car. I spent more time on worrying about that this week than I would like to admit. I believe if I could just buy a new, improved doo-dad, things would be better.
That iPod, my constant companion, my source of knowledge and music and email, too, fills me with joy right up until I get so frustrated about being unable to use it that I lose all sense of proportion.
Who will save us from ourselves?
God sent John the Baptist as a messenger, to clear the air and get people ready for Jesus. I think we meet him anytime someone stands between us and what holds us captive, whether it’s alcohol or cigarettes or something as seemingly innocent as planning the very most perfect Christmas anyone has ever seen.
For me, the prophet was the 14 year old sitting in the passenger seat of the car, looking vaguely appalled at my escalating aggravation.
Speck Mellencamp is the teenage son of John Cougar Mellencamp, and he’s trying to get his dad, now 58, to quit smoking. To this end, he started a Facebook group, hoping to get one million people to join to encourage his dad to quit. John Mellencamp thought this was funny, and he expected that Speck and a few friends would be the only members.When I joined the group yesterday, the number stood at 213,706. Speck reports that his dad hasn’t quit yet, but he’s slowing down.
And I think it’s just possible that we are surrounded by prophets turning us in a new direction. In Philadelphia, the electric company cancelled its gala holiday party this year, instead asking employees to spend a day volunteering in the community, then giving the money budgeted for the party to local charities. The budget for the party was $65,000.
It’s not a contradiction that our lessons in Advent speak of being threshed like the good wheat and the useless chaff at the same time they speak of joy being drawn like water from a well. At our Advent workshop yesterday, a group of us painted little retablos, our take on a primitive form of devotional art. You paint a scene and inscribe it with a hope or a prayer. Robin B. painted representations of her family, and she added the hope that they would all “choose health and joy.” I believe that whatever the circumstances of our lives, we have the capacity to choose to move toward wholeness and joy. And I believe this is what John meant for the people to do. It’s too easy to say he meant some people were “in” and others were just going to hell. That is much too easy. And Advent is not an easy season! I don’t believe this story is about cutting certain people off or out, or leaving them in the park or with the garbage for the crows to find.
They questioned in their hearts, was this powerful personality drawing people out from the safety of the city to the dangers of the desert the Messiah?
He was not. Instead, he helped them get clear about how they needed to change if they were going to embrace the one to come. Being caught up in our obsessions and our habits and our fixations will not leave us free to feel the joy of Christmas. We can try to fake it; lots of people will. We can dismiss the whole thing and slither away to hide. Or we can look at our lives and decide for ourselves, this is part of myself that nourishes the world, and that is part I could leave right here on the threshing floor.
What will save us from ourselves? What will save us has come and is coming in the person of Jesus, that intersection of God-and-us, the ultimate wholeness. What will save us is love prepared to embrace what we do right and to forgive what we would best leave behind. What will save us in the answer to the question in our hearts; when it’s time to answer, may we choose joy. Amen.