(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 12/13/2015)
Advent 3C, Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Who here is a routine-oriented person? Who likes routines? I’m all about them. The first two hours of my day are completely structured with my routine, and if something changes, the whole day’s ruined.
Who likes change? Who likes it when you have to change routine, change behavior, change anything like that? I don’t really like change-I don’t want to change how I act or how I talk, I don’t like to change my routines.
Now, like you heard earlier, Lauren and got engaged a little over a week ago. And with engagement, as I’m sure most of you married couples remember, a lot of changes start to happen? Especially in behavior.I have to talk to her about big decisions-if I want to go to a conference, if I want to go on a trip or anything like that, I have to talk to her about it.
I have to talk to her about big decisions-if I want to go to a conference, if I want to go on a trip or anything like that, if something changes with my seminary education, I have to talk to her about it.
I have to figure out how to communicate differently with her. She communicates on an emotional level, that’s what she understands. I prefer emotionless logic-but she communicates in feelings. I know, I see all the women nodding their heads and all the men thinking “I don’t see the problem here.”
Bottom line-I’m not independent anymore, and that requires a change of behavior. It’s certainly not a bad thing, it just needs to happen. But part of me is reluctant about it. I like to make decisions on my own, I don’t want to get in touch with my feelings.
Now, I’m sure a lot of us have felt a similar reluctance to changing behavior in any situation.
There’s that old joke: How many Methodists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Does anyone feel the truth of that? This really applies to everyone, I think. We don’t want to change our behavior, we like how things are right now, thank you very much. We probably have some idea that our faith requires us to leave some behaviors and some ways of thinking behind but, darn it, we don’t want to. I think our text and theme today can give us a new lens for this.
7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”
10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”
14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”
He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. (Luke 3:7-18, CEB)
So we’re in the midst of this season of Advent. It’s not Christmas yet, it’s Advent, and this is a season that comes up every year in church in which we anticipate God’s good future coming to us-the return of Christ, the year of the Lord’s favor, the fulfillment of all things, all of that stuff. We are called to actively anticipate this future.
So each Sunday in Advent tells us something else about this important work of anticipation. And this Sunday, we hear that this anticipation of God’s good future is filled with joy. It’s an ancient tradition of the church that this third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Can you say that word, Gaudete? The word means joy or rejoice in Latin. This is the Sunday of rejoicing, as we remember in our Advent wreaths with the pink candle. And we heard about that in our Scriptures for today, right? They were filled with joy, especially Philippians-Paul saying “Rejoice! Again, I say, rejoice!
So I think a central question for us today is—what is joy? What do you think? What is joy?It’s kind of a wide idea, with a lot of definitions and concepts included in it. One of the big ideas that I think we all understand is that joy and happiness are not the same thing. You can control happiness, right? That’s what the American dream is all about. But you can’t control
It’s kind of a wide idea, with a lot of definitions and concepts included in it. One of the big ideas that I think we all understand is that joy and happiness are not the same thing. You can control happiness, right? That’s what the American dream is all about. But you can’t control joy-you don’t get joy because of what you do. Joy is a gift.
What’s more, joy surprises. Joy doesn’t really come to us when we get what we want, right? Happiness probably does, but maybe not joy. There’s a writer named Barbara Brown-Taylor who said that joy is much more likely to happen when we do not get what we want, but we “find ourselves laughing instead of crying because God’s ideas are so much better than ours, only we have a hard time seeing that until our own wishes have crashed and burned.” Joy is so much deeper than happiness. Joy surprises, and comes when you least expect it.
Even beyond that, joy is not an emotional response at all. Happiness, excitement, glee-all of those are emotional responses that can feel like what we imagine joy to be. But joy isn’t an emotional response. It’s a choice-we put joy into action when we choose to accept the gift of joy God offers to us in each moment, no matter what’s happening in that moment.
Now joy can come as a hyper-emotional, ecstatic moment; picture it like the altar call stories you might hear. But more often than that, I believe joy comes in quiet moments of awakening to the beauty around us-seeing a sunset or sunrise, stopping dead in your tracks at night and looking up in amazement at the stars in the sky. On Thursdays when I’m driving home from seminary, I usually call Lauren because she gets off of work when I’m leaving, and I’ve been leaving just before the sunset. So multiple times, I’ve completely interrupted Lauren while she’s talking because I see the sunset and I say something like “Oh my gosh, Lauren, this sunset is AMAZING.” Usually, she’s more annoyed than amazed because of my interruption. Maybe I need to get better at expressing my joy.
But the weird thing about this week in the lectionary is that alongside those texts from Philippians and Zephaniah calling for this unrestrained joy, we get John the Baptist again, the second part of his message from what we heard last week. Now, John the Baptist doesn’t really sound very joyful at all here, right? I mean, he talks about how the cosmic ax is at the root of the tree, ready to cut down any tree not bearing fruit; the wheat is being separated from the husks and stalks, which are thrown away to be burned, all of this being analogies and metaphors for the people who are coming to John. He even calls them a brood of vipers, children of snakes!
Now, I know that I’m just starting out in pastoral ministry, but I’m pretty sure that if you want to have a successful church or movement and attract people, you probably shouldn’t call the people a brood of vipers, that’s probably not the best strategy for growth there. John should really learn some hospitality, am I right?
But John is telling the people who come to him to be baptized that they must bear fruit to show that they’ve changed their hearts and lives. He’s saying that your actions prove the state of your heart. If your actions are good and moral and ethical, your heart is probably in a healthy place. If your actions are immoral and unethical, your heart is probably not in healthy place.
John gets really specific here. He doesn’t just tell the people to generally behave well. The crowds ask him “what should we do?” And John tells them to share their food and share their clothing with those who don’t have any. There are enough resources in the world to feed and clothe and nourish everyone-share, don’t hoard, so that everyone has enough.
Tax collectors, some of the most hated people in 1st century Judea, partly because they were known to collect even more than what the Empire required and to make a profit off of the people-basically legalized stealing. They came to John and asked “What should we do?” And John is super straightforward-he said “Don’t collect more than what you’re supposed to, don’t profit off of the people. Don’t do that thing that they hate you for doing.” Soldiers, known for extorting and blackmailing, came to John and asked what they should do, and John is just as straightforward-“Don’t extort or blackmail.”
Seeing them listed in stark black-and-white like that may make John sound pretty severe, but realize that these are not impossibly high demands. We should be able to share our possessions with those who need them. We should be able to not cheat and steal. We should be able to treat people with respect and not harm them.
Now, remember, all of this relates to the joy we heard about in the other texts. It might not seem like it does, but I think it will if we look at one last part of the text.
John gets his message across by using these frightening examples of judgment, and they seem to take away the joy that we might have. He talks about cutting down trees that don’t bear fruit. There’s sifting the wheat, with the chaff thrown into the fire. John’s using these metaphors to apply it to humans, and that seems like it takes away the joy in this passage-if you’re not good, if you don’t behave the right way, if you don’t live or believe a certain way, you, as a whole person, will get thrown into the fire of everlasting judgment. That’s terrifying. But those frightening judgment images might not be about eliminating whole people who are evil.
We all have evil within us, and the judgment that John the Baptist preached, as well as Jesus, is that the evil within us will be burned away if we let God do God’s work.
John the Baptist talks about sifting the wheat from the husks. This is a really helpful image for us. In first century Judea, the farmers had a very specific method for sorting the wheat. First, the farmer would cut the stalks of grain and spread them out on a flat stone threshing floor. Then they would separate the kernels of wheat from the stalks by beating them or dragging something heavy over them. Then, with the kernels of wheat separated from the husks and stalks, they would use a shovel or a pitchfork to toss the kernels of wheat and the husks and stalks up into the air. The kernels would fall to the ground, but the husks and stalks would be caught by the wind and blow away from the kernels. The kernels of wheat would be gathered up to be used, but the husks and stalks would be gathered up and burned as fuel for ovens and fires.
Now, when John said this, I don’t think he meant that some of us are kernels of wheat, meant for good and life-giving use, while others of us are the husks and stalks, to be burned up in the fire. We are each a whole crop of wheat-there are kernels and husks in each of us. We all have parts of ourselves that need to be burned away, and parts of us that need to be separated and drawn out and used for good.
That’s the change that we are called to. Now it doesn’t sound very joyful, but know this- in the sifting of wheat kernels and the husks and stalks happens so that the wheat may be used. What’s happening here is as you allow God to sift the good kernels of wheat out from the useless husks in your life, and burn the husks away, but use the wheat, God’s good future is seeping into you a little bit more. True liberation and true freedom and true redemption are that much closer, and that is joyful news. So the question before us is: What evil in your life needs to be burned away, and what good in your life needs to be brought out?
So if you haven’t heard anything else from this, hear this: We are called to live in joy-filled anticipation of God’s good future, and we are called to do this by surrendering ourselves to God and changing our behavior.
Joy-filled anticipation of God’s good future involves an actual change in behavior. This is how we prepare the way for the Lord. This is how we prepare for Christmas, for our savior to be born. By changing our behaviors to conform to Christ’s life.Dream with me. What would it look like if we did actually change our behaviors to prepare for God’s good future? What would it look like if we actually put the needs of others over our own? What would it look like if we actually stopped hoarding our possessions and gave them away to the people who needed them? What would it look like if we stopped trying to gain and earn all we can, and instead tried to give ourselves away as much as possible? This is our calling as a church. At Christmas, we remember a distinct concrete point in the history of the world when God came to us in human form-in Jesus, on that night in Bethlehem. In Advent, we remember that we are still waiting for another distinct point in the future of the world when Jesus will come again and bring about God’s good future. Let us prepare the way.
Dream with me. What would it look like if we did actually change our behaviors to prepare for God’s good future? What would it look like if we actually put the needs of others over our own? What would it look like if we actually stopped hoarding our possessions and gave them away to the people who needed them? What would it look like if we stopped trying to gain and earn all we can, and instead tried to give ourselves away as much as possible? This is our calling as a church. At Christmas, we remember a distinct concrete point in the history of the world when God came to us in human form-in Jesus, on that night in Bethlehem. In Advent, we remember that we are still waiting for another distinct point in the future of the world when Jesus will come again and bring about God’s good future. Let us prepare the way.