Third Sunday of Advent- Joy
December 12 2021
NLUC Jason Byassee
Friends it’s such a gift to be with you. Jaylynn and I thought we would surprise each other’s congregation with, well, each other. This sort of switcheroo is one of the few superpowers that clergy couples have, and we gotta not overuse it or y’all will start to suspect it at some point. I miss being with y’all more often but sort of appreciate it being a special occasion when I get to come here. A special occasion ruined by this guy. [SLIDE] John the Baptist. I mean here we are having a nice Sunday at church together and this guy straight out of the Old Testament wearing camel hair and eating bugs shrieks among us “repent!” I mean if he were physically here we’d call the authorities to have him removed. But here in our bibles, in Advent season, we have a regular annual meeting with John, as if we need a prophetic checkup, a repentance repair session.
One benefit to being American is our Thanksgiving is in late November. That means Christmas music doesn’t start until then. Here in Canada I notice it turning up right after Canadian Thanksgiving, early October—a terrible month for Bing Crosby.
Well right in the middle of sacchariney music and gross displays of consumerism comes this furry frenzied prophet shouting repent. He’s not really welcome in our malls, barely in our churches, in our lives. But he is God’s prophet to listen to this morning. What’s he say? Hear this word.
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? 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 produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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 with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler who had been rebuked by him because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting John up in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
I can think of several reasons why people go to church. They love God, or their friends who are there, they love the singing or the social life, but one reason don’t go to church is to be talked to like this. “You brood of vipers.” “The axe is at the root of the tree” Those who produce no fruit will be thrown into unquenchable fire. John’s not very United Church of Canada, is he? I mean, vipers and axes and fire oh my. But all four gospels point to John’s importance. He comes first to prepare the way. John is Jesus’ wingman. In some of our traditions he’s Jesus’ cousin. Though he also seems a little confused by Jesus, a little impatient for him to start his ministry, a little disappointed in him at times. If you look at secular history books John comes up a lot. Roman authorities were worried about him, he had a following and might use it to move against Rome. That’s why Herod put him in prison. The historian Josephus talks about John for page after page, hardly mentions Jesus at all.
Why did people go to him? Follow him? Listen to him, when he called them snakes and firewood? And look who did—tax collectors, soldiers, sinners. The very people who followed Jesus later. Some historians think Jesus must’ve started out as a disciple of John’s before setting out on his own, it’s possible though we don’t know. I like to think of John as a harsh scrub brush to rub our skin clean. It’s abrasive, painful even. But it gets off the gunk and makes us presentable again. I spent a summer painting metal rooves with this heinous silver paint that got everywhere, and the only way to get it off was with diesel fuel. It hurt, you couldn’t leave it on your hands, but it got the paint off. John is like that. He’s a stiff drink. But he might be just what we need.
What does John teach us?
One, repent, turn around, go another way. When we use GPS to drive to where we want to go instead of Siri’s pleasant voice we should hear someone like John shrieking at us “repent!” It just means turn around. But it’s hard to turn around. Especially if you don’t like to ask directions . . . In the church we sometimes think of repent as too harsh a word, at least in nice mainline churches like ours. But I’ll tell you some folks who don’t dislike the word. Those who think we’re going the wrong way. Ecological advocates say we’re going the wrong way with our abuse of the planet. They want us to repent. Turn around. Consume less and share more. I’ve had friends into various other activist causes: vegetarianism, animal rights, the pro-life movement, calls for a more natural or less carby or some other kind of diet, all of them want us to repent. Live another way, that brings life and health. I wonder if the church isn’t too mousy about this word, repent? It’s our word, after all. Maybe we should ask for it back?
A friend of mine is a leading theologian with an international reputation. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, never touches the juice. Why? Well, he was drunk, passed out on a stranger’s floor, didn’t even know where he was, when he woke up and saw Jesus. That one vision changed his life. He hasn’t touched alcohol since. He’s been a Jesus follower since. And he indulges when the rest of us go out for a drink, but he knows better. That way was death for him. And Jesus’ way is sober but delicious life. That’s repentance. A turnaround from a way of destruction and into a way that lives. And I submit to you if that’s what we mean by repentance that’s beautiful and we need more of it in our world. Think of the last time you heard a politician stand up and say, unashamed, this thing happened, it’s not really my fault, but I’m sorry if anyone is offended, and please don’t refuse to vote for me because of this. Our culture is awash in non-repentance. How much more beautiful, and rare, to hear someone say I did this. It’s my fault. I’m sorry. And it won’t happen again. When Jaylynn’s and my youngest was first learning French, he asked his teacher what she thought the hardest word to say was. She said something unpronounceable. Then she had the wherewithal to ask him, a 6-year old at the time, what’d he think the hardest thing to say was? He answered, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” He was right. That is hard to say.
John the Baptist is calling all of Israel to repent. To be faithful to the stories and laws of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the prophets. Give to those who have need. Don’t complain or gossip. Don’t presume you’re good because you’re religious or baptized or a Christian or anything else—God can make such things out of rocks. Rather pursue goodness through repentance and new life.
I know this is a strange message. Repent. Do over. Start again. Outside we hear shop! Be happy no matter what! In our lives it can just feel like one dang thing after another, that nothing ever changes. But here’s the church’s message in Advent via John: repent. It’s not only possible. It’s beautiful.
Two, we learn from John this morning that it’s ok to be weird. No, more than ok. It’s biblical. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets even though he turns up in the New. He’s the last figure preparing the way, and the blessed finale—he actually gets to see the Lord, and baptize him. Prophet after prophet announced God’s coming in judgment, from Elijah and Elisha to Isaiah and Jeremiah to Amos and Malachi and many more, including some women prophets like Hulda. John is the culmination and the greatest. He rejects polite society, including the temple, the synagogue, normal Jewish life, for hyper Jewish life. He goes back into the desert where it all began after the Exodus and calls all Israel to join him, to repent, to prepare for judgment, for the Lord is coming. His food is locusts and wild honey because that’s what the Lord provides in the wild, like the manna ages ago. And his message is a little abrasive as I said.
It just makes me wonder: what bandwidth for weird people do we have in church?
And I’ve had some weird ones. Not here, you’re far too polite for such weirdness, but in my years in pastoring I’ve had folks cry out during church and sort of take over. I’ve had folks pass plumb out and need emergency medical help. I’ve had people come up to me after sermons and said, wide eyed, you know the video game I played last night had the same message. Uh huh. Thanks for coming. People have come dressed in all sorts of inappropriate ways, in all different states of mind, asking for inappropriate things, the works.
And you know what this story says? The weirdest one just might be the one sent by God.
We can miss this point because the church can feel like a country club from 50 years ago, polite society at prayer. Especially if we’re from a denomination with Canada in the title we’re often leading citizens doing things little different from the Rotary Club or the Legion from decades ago. Notice all those civic organizations are struggling just like the church, folks aren’t as much joiners as the greatest generation was. All those organizations taught politeness, manners, how to do things in a certain way. And the less folks are part of them, the more weirdness we’re going to get. People just don’t know what a church is for, how to behave. And you know what? We’ve seen this before. I mean, not you and I, but the church has. We have as one of our beloved saints a camel hear wearing bug eater screamer with spittle in his beard and fire in his eyes. And we say he’s the greatest prophet, the most important one, the finale, the summation of the prophets. Friends find whatever resource for weird people we can muster, because with John in our midst we need it. Our God has this thing for the weirdo, the outsider, the stranger. An scripture says again and again, hey, that one you would reject, that’s me in disguise.
An example of this from church history, that treasure of weird aunts and uncles who populate our communion of the saints. Francesco di Bernardone was a wealthy cloth merchant’s son, quite fashionable, a hit with the ladies, a proud soldier. And he had an encounter with Jesus he couldn’t explain but it changed his life. And he started giving his father’s expensive cloth away to poor people without clothing. Scripture often says if you have extra clothes and someone has none you’re stealing from them. Francesco took it seriously. His father ordered him to stop, threatened to throw him out of the family. At one public confrontation in the city square Frances said “throw me out of the family? No. I’m leaving on my own,” and he took off his clothes and stood there naked and announced to his father and everyone you’re no longer my father, now God alone is my Father. The whole town was scandalized, his father outraged. But the church remembers St. Francis as, well, a saint, maybe the greatest saint since Jesus. I wonder what we’d have done with this father-defying poor loving naked young man today? Locked him up, medicated him, diagnosed him with something, maybe that’d all be appropriate. But God sends such blessedly weird people as John and Frances to say hey, my kingdom is different, and my kingdom is coming. Soon. Get ready.
Final thing on John the Baptist today. John is always pointing away from himself to someone else. Namely, Jesus. John’s whole life is as a sign. Someone is coming. Get ready. He says at one point that he must decrease so Jesus might increase. And John fades from the picture as Jesus ascends. Makes me wonder, how do we decrease as Jesus increases? [SLIDE] In the history of Christian art, John is often portrayed anachronistically, say, at Jesus’ cross. In real life John was long dead before the cross, but in the artist’s imagination John’s whole life is pointing to this moment when God saves despite human rebellion, the judicially and religiously approved murder of an innocent man. [SLIDE] In this image the artist has almost given John an extra knuckle, look at how long that finger is that points to Jesus. John shows us how to have our whole life point to Jesus, camel hair and bug eating and all. John says this amazing thing, one is coming after me, he says, I’m not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. I baptize with water, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In some stories of Jesus’ baptism, not the ones in our bible but other good stories, after Jesus leaves the River Jordan, baptized by John, there’s a fire on the water. Nature itself is different now that God has been baptized.
I love this thing about John being unworthy to undo Jesus’ sandal. I think he means he’s not worthy even to be a slave to Jesus. The irony of course is that Jesus, God in flesh, Mary’s boy, becomes the slave to humanity. Doesn’t just undo our sandals but washes our feet. Goes to the cross, a slave insurrectionist’s death, for us. One early church father I love says this about the sandal. Sandals are made of leather—dead animal skin. They didn’t have our synthetic materials then, only animals skins. So the sandal on Jesus’ feet is a sign of being an animal. A creature. Like you and me. A beating heart, with a mom, skin and a face, like every other animal. Jesus is God with sandals on. God in animal skin. God one with the creature. And John can’t undo that. Can’t break it down. Can’t unpack or understand it. Neither can we. That our God, master of the cosmos, maker of all things, would put on sandals, be flesh, and die. For us. John can’t understand that. Neither can you or I. All we can do is marvel, wonder, adore, give thanks.
Final thing today. You thought I was done didn’t you? I made three points, time to exit stage left and not pass up a good ending. Sorry. Last thing I promise this time, 4th point in a 3 point sermon. John’s message is this: something better is coming. Something better. And I think we need to hear that. We’re in year 3 of a pandemic. Something better is coming. We keep discovering new horrors in Canada’s history with indigenous peoples, in the west’s history with race. Something better is coming. Notice in popular culture, tv, media, interviews, everyone is convinced we’re hopeless. Ecocatastrophe, even worse pandemics, as a world we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Something better is coming. And here in BC we’ve just been hammered with weather, fire and water, it’s Genesis style punishment year round. Something better is coming. I wonder in a world is such anxiety, fear, anger, can we, church, be the people that says this: something better is coming. John said that something better’s name is Jesus. And you know what? That’s our name for something better too. Jesus is coming, and soon, to make all things new. Amen.