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Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent 2021

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Canticle 9 Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18

A husband and wife had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except one: the woman had a shoe box in her closet that she didn’t let her husband open. But when she was on her deathbed – and with her blessing- he opened the box and found a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. “My mother told me that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue,” she explained. “Instead, I should keep quiet and crochet a doll.” Her husband was touched. Only one doll was in the box – that means she’d been angry with him only once in 60 years. “But what about all this money?” he asked. She said, “oh, that’s the money I made from selling the dolls.” The husband saw himself one way….

How was John the Baptist seen? There had not been a prophet in Israel for more than 400 years. It was widely believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear (Joel 2:28,29; Malachi 3:1,; 4:5). When John burst upon the scene, the people were excited. He was obviously a great prophet, and they were sure that the eagerly awaited age of the Messiah had come. Some, in fact, thought John was the Messiah. John spoke like the prophets of old, saying that the people must turn from their sin to avoid punishment and turn to God to experience his mercy. This is a message for all times and places, but John spoke with such urgency – he was preparing the people for the coming Messiah.

Advent is about waiting, and Christmas brings the newborn baby who announces a new order meant to turn the world upside down – and our lives with it. Christmas always renews our commitment to bring God’s revolutionary love into a world that so desperately needs it, and into our lives new again.

John the Baptist is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything, creating his own baptism and then saying that what really matters is baptism of “Spirit and fire.” He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him: “There is no man greater than John….but he is also the least.” It is a new reality that Jesus is bringing about. John both gets it and doesn’t get it all at the same time, which is why he has to exit right after this drama. He has played his single and important part, and he knows it. His is a brilliantly a spiritual descent. “Jesus must grow bigger, as I grow smaller.”

The only way such freedom can happen is if John had already learned to empty himself as a young man. His ego, his false self, was out of the way so much so that he could let go of his own ego, his message and his own life. Some have cleverly said that ego is an acronym for “Edging God Out.” There’s got to be such emptiness, or we can’t point beyond ourselves to Jesus, as John did. Such emptiness doesn’t just fall into our laps; such humility doesn’t just happen. It surely is the result of a thousand letting-goes and a thousand acts of devotion, which for John the Baptist gradually edged God in.

The reading from Zephaniah inspires thoughts of a word of hope in the midst of despair, a word of God’s sure and strong promise to lift those who are bowed down. Take some time before we begin the Confession and ask God to reveal those places that need God’s attention. That is why we have a little silence before we start the confession, so our individual confessions can be heard by God.

In saying and singing the First Song of Isaiah together, we join with the prophet in glorifying God. It is a song of praise, a song of hopefulness, a song of trusting our Creator. It is a call to us to praise God in all that he has done for us. We are to be thankful. We are to make known God’s deeds. The epistle continues with a firm command to rejoice. Paul is clear in his message that our inner attitudes don’t have to reflect our outer circumstances. Paul was full of joy, because he knew that whatever happened to him, Jesus Christ was with him.

Why is one candle not like all the others? On the Advent wreath, the three purple candles mark the preparation Christians undergo while awaiting the arrival of Christ on Earth. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday (Latin for “rejoice”) and by lighting a rose-colored candle on our wreaths we are rejoicing. Pope Francis talked about the difference between happiness and joy: “To be happy is good, yet joy is something more. It’s another thing, something which does not depend on external motivations, or on passing issues: it is more profound. It is a gift.

We are overwhelmed with praise for God. It is difficult during the trials of our lives to continually praise God in the circumstances we are experiencing. But that is what faith is. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude, certainty. Faith is bigger than our today and filled with the promise of tomorrow. For us on our faith journey, what motivates our faith – fear of the future, or a desire to be a better person in a better world?

John the Baptist called all of mankind to prepare to meet Jesus. That includes all people regardless of their standing in religious organizations and authorities. Some people wanted to be baptized by John so that they could escape eternal punishment, but they didn’t turn to God. John had harsh words for those folks – you brood of vipers. You brood of vipers – directed toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. You brood of vipers – sounds like a vestry meeting gone bad. John knew that God values reformation and transformation above ritual. In looking at our lives, is our faith motivated by a desire for a new, changed life, or is it only like a vaccination or insurance policy against possible disaster?

Many of John’s hearers were shocked when he preached that being Abraham’s descendants was not enough for God. The religious leaders relied more on their family trees than on their faith for their standing with God. For them, religion was inherited. But a personal relationship with God is not handed down from parents to children. Everyone has to commit to it on his or her own. We can’t rely on someone else’s faith, but must develop our own.

John knew that confession of sins and a changed life are inseparable. Faith without deeds is dead (James 2:14-26). When we accept Jesus, we become his hands, heart and feet. Jesus’ harshest words were to the respectable religious leaders who lacked the desire for real change. They wanted to be known as religious authorities, but they didn’t want to change their hearts and minds.

John’s baptism with water symbolized the washing away of sins. If he baptized for the forgiveness of sins, then his baptism was a challenge to the Temple system. Joan Chittister tells us that “a good spiritual life connects us to where we come from, even in the midst of where we are now. It gives us roots. It carries a tradition on its back. It ties us to the past in a way that enables us to know who we are in the present.” She says that it is the place we never really leave because being there together is what makes us who we are today. That is what Advent can do for us – slow us down and turn us inward to examine our hearts, to prepare our hearts for Jesus.

Once we understand the impact of the birth of Jesus on our own lives, we come to realize the efforts demanded of us in our ordinary lives. Then we are ready to begin those daily practices designed to strengthen us for the passions, deaths and resurrections of our own lives. Life is not meant to be escaped, we learn, as the liturgical year moves from season to season, from feast to feast. Life is meant to be penetrated, to be plunged to its depths, to be tasted, to be savored and to bring us to the realization that God who created us is always with us. Life is an exercise in transformation. Each year we are called to grow in our relationship with God, to open our hearts for the love of God to flow in and through us - so that God knows us, and we know God and we don’t become a brood of vipers. Amen.

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