By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice! And we mark the semi-festive tone of the day by lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath, instead of a purple one. Some parishes go so far as to have the celebrant vest in pink vestments. (Thankfully this parish doesn’t own pink vestments!) Likewise, the appointed Bible readings for this Sunday are supposed to be markedly less gloomy than on the other Sundays of Advent. Too bad no one informed St. Luke!
Most of you are familiar with the old saying that if you want to get a donkey to move you need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is dangled in front of the donkey to entice it forward. The stick is used to threaten it from behind. I sometimes think that is how God deals with us sinners. The first two readings today are the carrot. The reading from Luke’s Gospel, containing the threats of John the Baptist, is the stick. Since I would like to end this sermon on a happy note. I’m going to start out with the stick.
Now the wielder of today’ stick, John the Baptist, is a strange man. He dresses like the ancient prophets from a 1000 years before. He lives in the wilderness. And he eats bugs. You might be tempted to ignore him, dismissing him as a crazy man. But Jesus makes it clear that John is the greatest of God’s prophets. So we really should pay attention!
The advice that John preaches is common-sense moral teaching. If you have more than you need, share with your neighbor who doesn’t have enough. You are to be scrupulously honest in your work and in all your dealings with others. If you are in a position of power, you are called to use your power with justice and mercy. Finally, you are asked to be content with your lot in life. And that may be the hardest thing of all for us Americans. Our culture teaches us to always want more. In fact, our whole economy depends on the desire to acquire more and more things, whether we really need them or not.
As great a prophet as John was, he was merely the forerunner who came before and pointed to one who is far greater, Jesus. John provides his followers the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled with God, but Jesus brings the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower his followers as they live in a world to which they do not belong.
John ends his sermon with a blatant threat. The world will be sorted out. And some won’t like it how it’s sorted! Those who respond to God’s love will be gathered to him like wheat into a granary. But those who reject God’s love will, in turn, be rejected. And that rejection will be as painful as an unquenchable fire.
Now, as a rule, Episcopal priests don’t spend a lot of time preaching about Hell. After all, the very concept of eternal damnation offends our modern-day sensibilities. And understandably so! Here’s my take on it. There’s a well-known Orthodox icon of Jesus rescuing Adam and Eve from Hell. The door to Hell is lying on the ground, with Jesus standing on top of it. He is reaching into a pit in the earth to take the hands of Adam and Eve and pull them out. It seems to me that there is a deep theological truth portrayed in that icon. And that truth is just this: the gates of Hell are trampled down and anyone in the Pit can at any time reach out to Christ and be released.
But enough about the proverbial stick! How about the carrot? Well, for those of us who respond to God’s love here in this life, there is the promise of eternal life in a new creation, where there is no suffering, no grief, no injustice, no oppression, no violence, no poverty. The prophet Zephaniah, in what is an unusually uplifting oracle, gives us just a hint of what the Kingdom of God will look like. In this oracle, the prophet promises the faithful that their sins will be forgiven, that the lame and the outcast will be saved, that the oppressors of the faithful will be dealt with, and that all God’s holy people will be gathered together and brought home. Clearly, that great Day of the Lord has not yet come to pass. But during this season of Advent, we re-read the old prophecies; we renew our faith; and we await the Day of the Lord with eager anticipation.
In the meantime, as we await that Great Day when the Messiah comes again to rule over his Kingdom, we would do well to follow the advice that St. Paul gave to the Philippians, even as he himself sat in a Roman prison awaiting sentence: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.