A sermon preached by The Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
I know I’ve told this story here before, but it came back afresh this summer when I took my children to visit Alaska for the first time. As a young boy, I was, as is sometimes the case with young boys, fascinated with fire. Occasionally that fascination turned into real trouble. When we were home this summer, I showed my boys a beach that I had caught on fire. Or, rather I showed them where I had caught the grass and shrubs on the verge of the beach on fire. It was a minor miracle that anything was even there. Our visit was a teachable moment in what not to do. I was all of 12 when I had been playing with a magnifying glass and a small knot of dry grass. It had taken off and as I encouraged the flames, the fire jumped from the tinder I had given it into the surrounding bracken and straw. Before I knew what had happened, the whole verge was on fire spreading out in every direction. And, I ran.
I can remember still to this day that feeling of fear and shame, that sense of doom, that it might actually hurt something or someone. The gloom of knowing how angry my parents would be when they found out. As it happens, the fire only burned a small patch of ground no bigger than a dinner table, and fizzled out. I wasn’t there to behold this miracle. I was on the lam. Luckily my parents never found out. Had they? I might have received a rebuke like that given by John the Baptizer today – “Jered! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?!?”
Today we have John’s famous admonition to the crowds who have come to him in the wilderness seeking his baptism for the forgiveness of sins:
“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 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.”
John’s admonition falls here in this complicated season before Christmas, a time where some feel the intense pressure to hurry up and prepare, sending cards, attending parties, buying and wrapping gifts, while others feel the intense grief of loss and loneliness that attend us at this time of year when we become keenly aware of the absences in our lives. For many of us, this is a time to bury ourselves in the busyness, as though we might avoid coming face to face with the real pain of the world, the complicity we share in human suffering, the relationships in our lives that need tending and mending. Yet, our avoidance is a recipe for even greater calamity. How many small fires ignored have joined together into a destructive conflagration? John might rightly rebuke us – “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But, many of us who are here this morning, are not here for rebukes and admonitions. We did not sign up to repent. If we’re honest, especially this time of year, we come for the creche and the greens and for a small bit of comfort and familiarity. Perhaps we even come to find answers to what is wrong in us, hope in the face of despair, solace in the face of loneliness, grace in the face of the hurt we’ve caused. On Wednesday we did the hanging of the greens, and as in years past, some of us gathered after for a conversation about Christmas and Advent. This year we read an old Salon article by Anne Lamott. She described Advent as a season that falls appropriately during the darkest time of the year. It holds out the promise of hope, she says “in tiny little packets here and there, hidden in the dying grasslike winter wildflowers.” Advent is the promise of God coming to dwell among us, to live and die as one of us. Advent forecasts the coming of Jesus, and with him, the healing of our divisions, the healing of our internal struggles, the healing of the pain we have caused and the pain caused on our behalf. Advent is hope and peace and restoration. Lamott writes:
“I want that belief, and that patience; I checked the box on the form choosing that. But it has not been forthcoming. I have instead been feeling a little — what is the psychiatric term? — cuckoo. My mind has been doing a … worry chant, WORRYworryworryworryworryworryworryworryWORRYworryworry … It’s not that I don’t have a lot of faith,” she says, “It’s just that I also have a lot of mental problems. And I want to fix them all, and I want to do that now, or at least by tomorrow afternoon, right after lunch.”
So, Advent is here with hope for each of us, and hope for the world, and yet we struggle to make space for it. It requires repentance – that is to say, we need to turn our lives around, stop fleeing from whatever wrath or pain or struggle is coming, and face the world, face our enemies, face our victims, face ourselves. And, so, like Lamott, while we’d like to fix our own problems, preferably ‘by tomorrow afternoon’, it is the work of turning that is needed in this season.
Like the crowd with John the Baptizer, we might rightly inquire, “So, what are we to do?”
John’s response is rather simple. Let go. Let go of the things that are weighing you down, that are keeping you trapped in a life of worry or anxiety or fear of what is coming. Do not hoard or extort or coerce. Do not puff up or retreat. Be who and what you are. Repent, turn from, and let go of everything else.
If you have two coats, give one away. If you collect taxes – take only what is owed. If you have power over the weak, don’t abuse that power for your own gain.
The world is broken and vexed by our striving and scheming. We have much and we want more. We have power and we fear we will lose it. We have been hurt and we want to hurt others. We are afraid and we build up our defenses!
Do not retreat or run or flee from what is coming. For what is coming is the Lord your God, defender of the helpless, comforter of the lonely, lover of the loveless, repairer of the breach, and merciful to sinners. God is coming to us again as one who makes his home among us, who will become one of us.
Mary Oliver writes beautifully of the lessons of this season, of the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, in her poem In Blackwater Woods, which I shared this week over on our parish Facebook page. Oliver writes:
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Each year we turn over this new page, we arrive in the darkening end of the year and are greeted by the change of the season, by our ever present mortality, and by Advent, and John, reminding us to prepare the way for the Lord. To prepare, we must let go. And thus freed of our greed, ambition, fears and shame, we are liberated to grow, to serve, to bear fruit worthy of repentance. To manifest the life and light of God in our lives, to manifest the power of God’s life-giving and liberating love through our lives.
As the writer of the Epistle to the church in Philippi says this morning: “Rejoice…The Lord is near.”
Repent. Let go. Bear Fruit. Rejoice!