Year C — The Third Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 16, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The reading from Zephaniah gives us our first hint that today’s worship may not be entirely about the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” (with a tip of the hat to Charles Wesley, of course!)

Celebrating a warrior God for Advent is more than a bit jangling to our nerves, and perhaps to our sensibilities. Yet, it is God’s strength that we celebrate (see the “psalm text” from Isaiah that follows;) it is precisely this God who is mighty enough to conquer every enemy — even death.

We do well to remember that Advent is a season for upsetting the tidy apple cart of our worship — at least just a bit.

Isaiah 12:2-6
To gain further insight into the image of a strong protector for Israel, we can think of just how important it was to a desert-dwelling people to have someone on guard, someone that can be trusted and who is imbued with strength and might, while the daily task of drawing water from a well was completed.

No enemies are able to encroach on this most crucial task; thus, the ability to draw “water from the wells of salvation” not only with impunity — but with joy!

Philippians 4:4-7
Ultimately, the result of God’s strength and presence in our lives is peace. This peace passes our ability to understand it, both in its nature and its depth.

Peace through gentleness is the opposite of what we assume to be true. We are taught (and we live) as if peace through strength is the mandate of the day. 

Now, it is true that God is strong for us and in us; God is our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend, after all.  (I’m just in a hymnic mood today, okay?)

But it is God’s strength that we trust, and that allows us to maintain a gentle spirit, known to everyone. When it comes to most fights, we just don’t  have a dog in  that hunt!

Luke 3:7-18
John the Baptizer — who was not known for mincing words (“you bunch of snakes!”) — actually gives some pretty practical direction here when asked about the kind of repentance that would stave off being cut down by the root and thrown into the fire.

“Got two coats? Give one of them away to somebody who doesn’t have one. Got more food than you can (or should) eat? Why not dollop a bit out to those who would otherwise be hungry today!”

With similar aplomb, he spoke to the tax collectors and the soldiers about fairness, equity, and the like. But, actually, John is speaking to us all, is he not? Be honest; be open. Don’t be arrogant, don’t take undue advantage.

This is just good, plain, sensible living. This is doing what’s right. We ought to “get it” and be willing to “do it.”

But, if we don’t, there’s always the Lord’s winnowing fork and that unfortunate, unquenchable fire!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I found myself (much against my will) in a huge shopping mall in Nashville a few weeks before Christmas.  I was on the second floor, heading for the elevator.  In front of me was a young family; man pushing a stroller and baby with one hand, carrying gift boxes with the other, woman balancing presents on one arm and holding onto a four year old boy with the other.  The boy was almost out of control; whining, kicking, crying, pulling, etc.

The family got into the glass elevator and before the door closed I saw the mother take the young man’s chin and turn his gaze to the large open space on the first level.  She said, “Look down there.  Santa’s watching you.  Do you want him to see you like this?” The boy stared at Santa and said, “I’ll be good until I get past him.”

And he was.  I leaned on the rail and watched the family get out of the elevator.  He was a perfect little angel, until they got well away from Santa.  Then I saw him kicking and screaming again.

So it is with all of us.  Repentance and amendment of life based on fear and punishment are always insincere and short lived.  There is a spiritual disease that afflicts all our souls at one time or another and legalism is helpless to cure it.

This disease goes under many names: self-will, narcissism, hubris, pride, greed, selfishness, sin.  It is not so much a matter of the individual things we do.  Those are only the symptoms; the outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual lack of grace.

In spirituality as in medicine, any remedy that treats only the symptoms without attacking the cause will fail to cure us. When Mom made her appeal to Santa she placed within her son the fear of losing his Christmas presents.  So he responded in a manner calculated to protect his own self-interest.  He did not repent, he did not change his evil ways, he did not “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  He simply changed his behavior in an attempt to fool Santa.

Rules are good for making society operate more smoothly but they will not make us better people.  Law fails because it treats the symptoms without healing the disease. Law changes our behavior without changing our hearts.

This is why Luke dares to call John’s preaching against insincere and incomplete repentance Good News. When John says “bear fruit worthy of repentance” he is saying, “Just running around saying you’re sorry and promising to do better isn’t repentance.  If you have truly repented your life will show it.”

The word repent in Greek is metanoia.  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament has this to say about John’s use of the term: “This is a once-for-all conversion, an inner change, that is required even of the righteous and must find expression in acts of love. A baptism of conversion signifies that God is at work to change our nature for the new aeon.  God himself (sic) grants conversion as both gift and task . . .”   (p. 642)

So, language about “the ax lying at the root of the tree” and unproductive trees being “thrown into the fire,” is good news.  It is the “Gospel of the Lord. It is a message to be joyful about.

It is good news because John is proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is coming in Christ to stop the cycle of incomplete repentance and temporary solutions.

Christ is coming to cut through our feeble attempts to change our own behavior to meet some external and arbitrary standard of correctness.

Christ is coming to treat the disease and not the symptoms.

Christ is coming to break our hearts and change our lives for ever.

Christ is coming to show us God’s way of dealing with ourselves and each other.

All too often our way is the way of fear and intimidation, of attempting to adjust our lives to meet external demands because of our fear of judgment and reprisal.

God’s way is the way of love and intimacy, of having our hearts broken by the depth and totality of God’s love for us.

God’s way is the way of having our hearts broken so deeply and completely that God can move in and change us from within, from the very core of our being.

God’s way is the way of emptying us of our selfishness and pride; and then filling us up with the gifts of the spirit and the fire of God’s love.

When that brokenness and refilling have happened to us, our behavior changes without our having to think about it.  We begin to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” as naturally and thoughtlessly as we breathe.

Just as our sins and misdeeds grew out of the disease of self will rooted deep within our hearts, as new creatures in Christ acts of love and kindness will flow from us as naturally, as water flows from a spring or apples sprout on apple trees.

Christians whose hearts have been broken and filled with God’s love and spirit do not have to think about doing good, do not have to decide to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  It just happens.  It is nothing to worry about or brag about.  It just what flows out of a heart and life filled with God.

Advent is a time when we remember that Christ has come, and is always coming, to show us God’s way to live.  Christ is coming to show us the possibility of living our life in holy freedom, bound only by the constraints of selfless love.  

Amen and Amen.

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