What shall we do?
December 13, Third Sunday of Advent:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Rejoice always! Again I say rejoice! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!
I’m having a pretty hard time doing that this year, with all that is going on in the world.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’m aware of a lot of emotions in myself and in those around me; and if I started listing them all out, I’m not sure that “rejoice” would even make the top 10, certainly not the top 5.
In the past couple of weeks a plethora of darker emotions—anger, frustration, despair…fear—have been toping the list.
So I’m finding it harder to rejoice with Zephaniah, and Paul and the Philippians this Advent. This year feels more like the wilderness. And John is out there.
Never a warm and fuzzy figure, but I think—maybe—I understand John a little better this year….
Because this year, as the autumnal light fades and the winter darkness gathers…it seems somehow darker…
The light still glimmers…and the weather has been beautiful, but the world feels colder…the darkness is inkier, and more oppressive. The looming problems myriad and more intractable.
And the question, I think many of us have, is the same question that those who followed John out to the desert have: “what should we do?”
What can we do?
This is always a tricky passage…because anything that starts out with “you brood of vipers!” rarely ends well.
For much of the passage John sounds like the prototype for one of the crazy prophets in Life of Brian.
“The ax is lying at the root of the tree. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Just imagine Terry Gilliam saying those lines.
And yet, we’re told that it was with these, and many other exhortations, that John “proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Hard to find the good news in much of John’s lines, but then it’s hard to find good news today in general.
In truth, John really sounds more like Zephaniah than Monty Python.
We only heard the end of Zephaniah’s chapter 3. The opening of that chapter—the verses before this exhortation to “Sing aloud O daughter Zion,”—is an extended lament about the corruption and arrogance of many of the leaders. It begins: “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! (Meaning Jerusalem, but really whatever the center of power happens to be) “It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction.
“It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law. The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgement, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame.” (Zephaniah 3:1-5)
Hyperbole, to be sure, but it doesn’t really take much effort to hear echoes, see parallels, and draw disturbingly clear connections between the prophet’s lament, and all those things that too many are enduring today and that are transpiring every day in the halls of power, and getting shouted from campaign platforms, and blasted from every news outlet.
So this week—and for several weeks—I’ve been with those crowds out in the desert wondering “what do we do?”
What should we do?
John the baptizer doesn’t always seem like the go-to guy for practical advice—certainly not for fashion (unless you’re into camel hair cloaks and leather belts), nor diet (locusts and wild honey), but in this case he actually is very practical, and very helpful—challenging, but helpful.
Notice that his responses to each these questions are grounded not only in the real world, but in people’s actual occupations.
He doesn’t say, quit what you’re doing and come live like me.
He doesn’t tell soldiers to stop being soldiers…he says if you’re extorting money and abusing your power—stop it.
He doesn’t tell the tax collectors to sell everything and join a commune, he says take only what is your due and stop enriching yourselves at the expense of the poor.
He doesn’t say to any of us, build better shelters, and higher walls, and get armed up…No. He says “live your faith.” Do your work—whatever that is—being a parent, a professor, a lawyer, a CEO, a retiree, a priest, do the work you’ve been given, but do it faithfully. Do what your faith requires of you. Do those things the prophets like John and Zephaniah are always reminding us about…doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God.
John and the rest of the prophets are always challenging because they are constantly reminding us—that we are called not to some pious perfection outside of the world, rather we are called to do some very practical, sometimes difficult but faithful and faith-filled work in the real world (feeding the hungry, tending the sick, welcoming the stranger, loving our enemies).
All those things that we know are right but continue to be difficult and scary to do because, as John suggests, it often means going against the prevailing winds…moving contrary to the way the world demands we do things. It means standing up and speaking out.
This is also what John is saying. John is giving us a preview of what Jesus will also tell us to do…go against the expectations of the Imperial system, resist the worst impulses of our culture…
Roman soldiers were not well paid and were expected to simply extort whatever they needed from the local population. This had the added benefit of keeping people in line through fear.
Likewise, tax-collectors were expected to tax those under them a little more, and pay those above them a little less and keep the remainder for themselves…it’s just the way things worked.
John says, don’t play into those expectations…live according to your faith…bear good fruit…“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
What would John tell us today?
What I hear John saying to me today is a version of a line that Bishop Steven Charleston likes to use, and I like to repeat, pretty often.
I hear John saying, “Look we’re broken people and we do a lot of things individually and collectively that are selfish, short-sighted, and sinful, so the darkness that we feel around us, all the problems of the world are not accidental, but neither is it an accident that we have been put here to do something about it. To change it. Make it better.
And then I also hear Zephaniah reminding us that We are God’s people. So “Do not fear. And do not let your hands grow weak.”
We who come here to worship, to mourn, to rejoice, to be fed, to be forgiven and to practice reconciliation over and over and over, to be renewed, to offer and receive solace and strength, we come here for all that so that we can be those lights. So that we can be sent back out into the world to do the work we’ve been given to do, and at this point in history there’s some vital, important work we’re being called to…to speak up against hatred and bigotry, to share what we have, to proclaim in word and deed the good news that because we are Christians we work with and on behalf of God to welcome the stranger, to protect the oppressed, lift up the lowly, and stand with all who seek to do the same.
Lift up your hearts! Lift up your voice! God is in our midst. If we are faithful and bold then all of God’s people will rejoice.