Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, December 16, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Rejoicing even in darkness
We gather this morning with shocked and troubled hearts as we absorb news of the massacre in Connecticut. Here in this sacred space I invite you to join me in a moment of silence as we lift up before God those who perished in the gunfire and those who awoke in Newtown this morning deeply grieving, traumatized, angry, or afraid.
Ever-living God, Father and Mother of all mercies, we pray to you for those who died in Newtown: grant them your peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them. Deal graciously, we pray, with those who mourn, that, casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love and the peace which surpasses all understanding; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I am glad to say that some of Scripture’s most consoling passages are reserved for today, the Third Sunday of Advent. Words of comfort begin with the prophet Zephaniah, who urges us to sing aloud, to rejoice and exult with all our heart. Why? Because God is in our midst, renewing us in love, exulting over us with singing as on a day of festival. Then comes Canticle 9, the First Song of Isaiah, which begins with that wonderful cry of confidence: “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” Then we hear those unexpectedly jubilant words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written from within a Roman prison and yet filled with joy, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). The first word of this passage – Rejoice – gives the Third Sunday of Advent its traditional name, Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for “Rejoice.”
Rejoice Sunday? It may sound strange, even jarring, to speak today about rejoicing. Many of us are reeling, not rejoicing. This week we’ve been experiencing heartbreak and horror, not exultation and joy. We need to make room in our hearts, room in our prayers, to explore what has been stirred up in us as we feel our way through this tragedy. There is wisdom in bringing our anguish into this holy space and in opening it up to God, for the One whose coming we await during Advent is the very One who shares our suffering, the One who enters the darkest places of our lives and the darkest places of the human heart, the One who shines God’s light and brings God’s peace.
That is why, even in the midst of the world’s darkness, even in the midst of anguish and pain, deep within we do rejoice this morning. We rejoice even in the midst of death, because God is with us. We rejoice because we so clearly need God’s healing and need God’s light, and because the God we so love and long for is close to us, as close as our tears, as close as our breath.
I led a Quiet Day yesterday in the Parish Hall, and as we prayed and talked about the events in Connecticut, someone said, “What’s that passage in Habakkuk about trust and joy in the midst of trouble?” And I’m thinking to myself, “Whoa! Who knew that anyone here reads Habbakuk, much less can quote him?” I couldn’t even begin to identify the passage that they were talking about. So I hand over my Bible, and someone flips to the right page, and sure enough, there it is, the prophet Habbakuk proclaiming a divine reality that does not depend on things going well, a divine reality that endures and persists and abides no matter what, no matter what. The prophet writes, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength…” (Habbakuk 3:17-19a).
God, the Lord, is our strength, too. It is when we feel most lost and broken-hearted, most defeated and helpless, that we realize how much we depend on God, how much we need God’s help. And we rejoice, because as we head toward Christmas we’re preparing for a good deal more than Frosty the Snowman or “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.” We’re preparing for the One who binds up the brokenhearted and sets the prisoner free, for the One who brings good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind.
We rejoice as we prepare, but we do not only rejoice. God’s steadfast love not only comforts and consoles – it also purifies. So I must say a word about John the Baptist. His prickly, impatient presence practically roars through the Gospel passage that we’re given this morning. He starts with insults, accusing the crowds who follow him of being a “brood of vipers,” fleeing like snakes from the oncoming fire of the wrath of God. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he rails, for “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” (Luke 3:7-8, 9).
To tell the truth, I cringe when I hear these words. My mind goes back to a sermon on this text that I heard twenty-five-plus years ago, when I was working as a seminary student at an Episcopal parish north of Boston. The preacher practically had smoke coming from his nostrils as he leaned over the pulpit and yelled down that we’d better bear fruit or else be cut down by the ax of God. I remember leaning back and shaking my head: No way. I’m not interested in a bullying God; I want nothing to do with a Christianity that’s all about laying guilt-trips, about making other people feel wrong and worthless and small. We make ourselves small when we try to make others feel small. I dislike the game of “Gotcha,” when people take malicious delight in catching others in the wrong and pointing out their faults. It’s no wonder that folks flee the Church when Christianity is reduced to nothing more than a moralistic code of laws and rules, to an enterprise based on shame, blame, and fear, and the certainty that we’ll get it wrong. Given what we’ve been through this week, I’m also not drawn to imagery that makes God out to be brutal and violent.
So I look at this passage and I wonder: how is it that the voice of John the Baptist heralds the birth of Christ, the advent of love? How can we hear his words without getting trapped in that deadly paradigm of accuser and accused, of harsh, overbearing judge and cowering, shame-filled penitent? Somehow I want to purge his words of what sounds like violence and rage and simply to hear in them the energizing, bracing voice of truth that confronts everything in us and in the world around us that leads away from love. For John the Baptist has an important message: to prepare for God’s coming, we must come clean. To prepare for God’s coming, we must relinquish behaviors that are unloving and unjust. Christianity is obviously not just some feel-good religion; it makes ethical demands.
“What then should we do?” ask the crowds (Luke 3:10), and, as one commentator explains, the answers that John gives each group “address the inequities and injustice of that society: food and clothing are to be shared with those who have none; taxes are not to be based on the insatiable greed of the powerful; and the military must stop victimizing the public by threats, intimidation, and blackmail.”1 The holy love that wants to draw the world to itself will always contradict the forces of injustice, intolerance, and greed. If we as a society were to ask John the same question, “What should we do?,” I imagine that one of his answers would be to try to stop gun violence.
And you, as an individual – what should you do? If God’s love is like a deep, clear river that wants to flow through you without impediment, where are you blocking the flow? Where are you creating logjams and whirlpools? For the river wants to flow through you! The poet Rumi puts it like this: “Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” It takes patient and earnest exploring to discover the barriers we build within ourselves that hold us back from giving and receiving love. Maybe we hide out in self-doubt and harsh self-criticism, always putting ourselves down. Maybe we’re caught up in addictive behavior. Maybe we settle for a second-hand life, just go through the motions and refuse to throw ourselves into the risks and adventure of being fully alive. Maybe we’re locked up in envy or jealousy or regret. Maybe we’re so absorbed in worry that we never get curious about the people around us, never make real contact. Maybe we live inside a bubble of a world, never reaching out to connect with people who are poorer or younger or older or of a different race or ethnicity than we are. There are a million ways to hold love at bay, a million ways not to let our selves bear fruit. And there are a million things we can do to open up the logjam and to let the river flow.
So here comes John Baptist, that irascible, impatient soul, urging us to wake up and repent – and to get going and do it now, for the Lord is near. Jesus will come not just with the sweetness of a baby, but also with power to break things open and to set things right. In his baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, everything less than love will be revealed and burned away. As John the Baptist declares, the one who comes after him will take “his winnowing fork 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” (Luke 3:17-18). A winnowing fork is what a farmer uses to toss a mix of wheat and chaff into the air. The wind blows the chaff away, and the heavy grain falls to the ground so that it can be gathered into the granary. That’s what happens in God’s presence: when we stand in the Spirit, in the wind of God’s love, we are stripped clean. Everything less than love is scattered and blown away. In the fire of God’s love, everything less than love dissolves – all our lying, selfishness, and deceit – all of that disappears; it is gone; it is burned away. We come home to ourselves. We become at last the love that we were made for.
So we rejoice in the Lord this morning, even if our hearts are heavy. We rejoice, even if John the Baptist is pushing us to examine ourselves and come clean. We rejoice because the One who loved us into being is drawing near, to heal a broken world and to bring us peace.
1. Fred B. Craddock et al, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year C, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994, p. 18.