St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for the exhortation: “Rejoice!” So that is the theme we should find in our readings. Let’s begin with the gospel.
Well, you have to admit, John the Baptist started his sermon in a way that got their attention: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” I think John anticipated their response: “Now, John. Wait a minute. You must remember who we are. As children of Abraham, we observe the sabbath, and we offer the obligatory sacrifices. Yeah, John, I attend the Synagogue regularly; I support charitable works. Why just last week I contributed to the widows and orphan fund.” John knew what they were thinking, so before they could say it, he further stated: “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” (Luke 3.7-9: NRSV).
John the Baptist was making it very clear that repentance entails more than feeling sorrowful for what one has done – repentance means turning around – changing one’s way of thinking, and even more importantly, of acting. He was reminding the people that right thinking and right action produce good fruit and righteousness abounds. If the tree does not produce good fruit, judgment is coming, the axe is lying at the root of the tree.
John had their attention. The crowd asked, “What then should we do? What is expected of us?” John told them to share with the less fortunate. If you have two coats, share with the person who does not have a coat. If you have food and someone is hungry, share your food. Look for ways to alleviate your neighbor’s suffering. We often do this through contributions to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund, the Food Pantry, Episcopal Relief and Development, and the United Way. But let’s face it, while these all accomplish a great deal of good, they are also rather sterile – they lack personal involvement with the one receiving assistance. Consequently, we lose much of our reward. We do not see a child’s face light up with joy when given a gift; we don’t see the relief in a single mother’s face when she receives money for diapers and food.
Luke next tells us even the tax collectors came to be baptized. John must have been a pretty convincing evangelist! They asked John, “Teacher, what should we do.” John told them to collect no more than the amount they were supposed to collect. Tax collectors, Jewish people who were working for the Romans, routinely collected more than the assessment and kept the rest. They were highly despised – not only were they working for the Romans, but they were gouging their fellow countrymen. Note that John did not tell them to abandon their job – he told them to perform their work in a fair and just manner.
Even soldiers asked John what they should do. Note that John did not tell them to desert their posts, to leave the armed forces. John told them not to abuse their power through extortion associated with false threats and accusations, and to be satisfied with their pay. That last point makes me wonder how well John knew soldiers – I never met too many GIs who were satisfied with their pay! Again, John is emphasizing justice.
John’s emphasis on repentance, baptism, and justice led many to believe he may be the promised Messiah. Luke tells us how John responded to such thoughts and queries: “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” (Luke 3.16-17; NRSV). And our reading then ends with these words: “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3.18; NRSV).
Yes, there is good news here, but it is somewhat hidden in this passage. John the Baptist is preaching repentance and baptism along with a good healthy dose of judgment! The axe is lying at the root of the tree – bear good fruit or get the axe! There is going to be some winnowing, the wheat will be gathered into the granary, but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. But one is coming who is mightier than I – he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!
John was clearly expecting the appearance of a wrathful, vengeful Messiah who would execute God’s judgment – but Jesus does not really fit this image. In Luke 4, Jesus announced his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Vs. 18-19; NRSV).
Here we have cause for rejoicing! There is even greater cause for rejoicing when we realize that Jesus omitted some words from Isaiah, for Isaiah reads, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61.2; NRSV). Jesus never portrayed God as wrathful or vengeful, yet that is a common interpretation assigned to Luke 3.17: “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” (NRSV).
When John was in prison, he wrestled with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. I suspect he was fully expecting evidence of a wrathful Messiah, and it simply wasn’t there. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah. Jesus did not give him the “Yes” or “No” answer for which he was looking; he told the disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7.22-23; NRSV).
As Jesus disciples, we are the wheat, but it is rare that one meets a disciple that does not have a bit of chaff mixed in. I confess, I still have some rather chaffy places, but the baptism of God’s Holy Spirit and fire is working on those. Might this “unquenchable fire” be the unquenchable fire of God’s love for us – a love which would purify us and make us more divine?
The Rev. Dr. Judith Jones, Professor of Religion at Wartburg College and Priest in Charge at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Waverly, Iowa, notes C. S. Lewis “meditated at length on the idea that God’s love is a consuming fire. He taught that God’s mercy and God’s justice are not opposites, but one and the same.” She further notes George McDonald’s view that the “wrath will consume what we call ourselves such that the selves God made shall appear” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2711).
Such love is good news, it is cause for rejoicing. In our readings, Zephaniah tells Jerusalem to “rejoice and exult with all its heart;” he further notes how God will rejoice over Jerusalem and renew it in God’s love (Zephaniah3.14, 17; NRSV).
In Canticle 9 we read, “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12.2-3a; NRSV).
And in Philippians 4, St. Paul exhorts, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
Indeed, we can rejoice, for as Christians, Christ has come, is coming, and will continue to come in our lives. May we welcome and experience the consuming fire of Christ’s love.