Rev. J.T. Smiedemdorf
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
An Advent sermon related to Luke 3:7-18
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? 8 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our tradition puts us in a strange predicament this morning.
While the darkness grows deeper in our hemisphere as the season of Advent lengthens, and while the prophet join exclaims “You brood of vipers,” we are asked to light the Advent candle of joy. Now joy makes sense if I am excitedly and confidently drawing near to the light and the delights of Christmas Day. As a kid that was certainly the case, waiting for special once a year smells, songs, presents, and treats to eat.
But our story brings us not to such delights, but to John the Baptizer.
What do we do with John on this Advent Sunday of joy? John: the Wildman in the wilderness. Rough clothing, rough diet, rough speech: You brood of vipers! And….. the wrath that is to come! Maybe John is like that crazy uncle on Thanksgiving that you have to invite because he is family. Disruptive to domestic peace and pleasant conversation, but there he is right in the middle of the story.
What can John say to us today? What could John possibly say to us about joy as we journey toward the manger?
The history of Advent might help us get started on this riddle.
As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a 40-day fast. Advent was a season of penitence, self-examination, and repentance. Now in the earliest years of the church, the only church season was Lent, itself a season of fasting and prayer and the traditional color was a deep purple, signifying repentance and suffering. Lent was a solemn season due to the impending crucifixion of Jesus. Yet there was always a twinge of hope and joy in the Easter story. So, on the third Sunday of Lent, the Christians broke their fast and had a feast to signify this hope and joy amid the sadness. Pink became the symbol of this day; priests began to wear pink vestments as a reminder of the coming joy of the resurrection.
The third Advent candle, color pink, was selected to be a reminder of this ancient practice of Lent. Advent is a kind of mini-Lent.
If there is any war on Christmas, it is a subtle but significant initiative to limit and alter the ‘holy-day’ to focus on family nostalgia and domestic pleasantries, to cultural quirks and consumer crescendos. This focus drains the gravitas out of the story. Those cultural expressions are fine as far as they go, but they won’t go far enough to get us to a meaningful or vital or resilient faith. Indeed, the true meaning and power of Christmas is difficult to access with this limited focus and also from the place of guaranteed comfort and privilege.
And so is true joy. It also is difficult to access from comfort and privilege, from naïve notions of joy and desires for pleasantness.
Paula Cooey, Professor of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio says,
“… joy is more complex than most theories of feeling allow. For example, for ethically mature adults, if not for everyone, joy cannot be experienced innocently. It is experienced instead against the backdrop of the knowledge of the suffering and violence that characterize much of human life. Thus, while one can imagine, …. what it might mean to experience sustained pain in the absence of joy, it is almost impossible to imagine experiencing joy while ignorant of the coexistence of suffering. Tragedy and joy coexist.”
This is where the prophets come in. It is Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann who reminds us that the prophetic imagination is about an alternative consciousness, an alternative narrative to the one of the Empire whether that empire be Roman, British, Russian, or American. That story is about the freedom of God, the inbreaking innovation, the new birth and life lived anew.
The prophetic imagination is about a faith in the new life that is needed to overcome forces of death, the forces that are draining life. For John, the new life is about dying to the old ways that do not serve life and being born into a new one. Baptism is that passage and metanoia, turning around our lives, is its purpose. We see this in John’s response to those who said what must we do. He tells them to live differently, honestly, in good and just relationship to others.
Father Richard Rohr calls this baptismal way a spirituality of descent.
And that kind of descent cannot occur if our joy is facile or naïve, merely pleasantry and happiness in moments of good fortune or insulated comfort. Like labor pains of birth, and the descent and death of going under the water in baptism, the prophet knows that hard truth has to come. The forces of death, our unjust and life draining ways, must be seen and named. Even a prophet as eloquent as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the fierce urgency of now. There are moments of fierceness and urgency. There are times when it is time to face a difficult reality in ourselves, in our nation, and in our world. The prophet names and confronts the hard truths that need God’s transformation.
Such a moment came at the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016 where bands of the Lakota and Dakota peoples live. After quietly rejecting an oil pipeline proposal that would have sent the pipeline under the Missouri River upstream of the mostly white city of Bismarck, the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved to go further south, crossing the waters upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation. In 2016, youth of these nations began a nonviolent effort to stop the construction of the pipeline, even using their bodies as necessary. Not unlike John the Baptizer, they proclaimed the fierce urgency of now and, like John, organized a prayer meeting around the waters.
My wife and I went there at the end of October 2016 to help in any way we could. We prayed. We trained in nonviolent resistance. We bore witness to the courage of those standing up to the empire and supported them as best we could. I had never been to a war zone, but this time of being present in the camp and on the front lines showed me the incredible and heartbreaking truth of the funding, weaponry, equipment, and intimidation that the system of empire can bring to bear on those who attempt to interfere with its purpose.
A joy based on Christmas decorations and carols on the radio is not enough to meet with hard truths; the complex reality of life or the power of empire. Enter the prophets like John. Such hard truth prophets like John the Baptizer, Malcom X, Angela Davis, and Dolores Huerta are not always received well. But they are necessary in our Advent story and for the coming of the new birth.
And, yet, these hard truth prophets are not without joy. Their joy is of knowing, feeling, and acting for the alternative vision of God. Even in the face of empire, even in the growing darkness, they let that deep and complex joy, what theologian Cornel West would call subversive joy, fuel their service and their lives. The result is the sweet fruit of living differently. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John said.
Let me be clear. At my house, we will be decorating a Christmas tree and gathering family. We will listen to the soundtrack of Charlie Brown Christmas and watch some annual holiday Christmas movies. I will be baking a cherished family cookie recipe. I am not against these things. I enjoy these things and I hope you do too in your own way.
I am simply reminding all of us that these things are not the Christmas story of our faith. The journey to the manger includes the wild prophets of the wilderness, calling us out to the river, to be immersed in hard truths, and then rise anew into lives bearing the sweet fruit of God’s inbreaking Realm. Even amidst a growing darkness there is a pink candle of joy to light and a new birth of life to wait upon.
J.T. comes to Plymouth as an experienced interim pastor, most recently, as Bridge Minister at University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Denver, Laramie, and Forest Grove, Oregon. Read more