December 12, 2021
3rd Sunday of Advent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer, December 12, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
I had been a pastor for about 3 years when a woman came to talk with me. I knew she had a deep, active faith, someone who took the call to discipleship seriously, so I was curious about what she wanted to discuss.
She started with general updates and polite check-ins on me and my family. But her tone quickly turned critical when she steered the conversation to the real reason for her visit. “Every Sunday,” she started, “I listen to you and the other pastors describe all the good news of the gospel, the love and peace of Christ, and the presence of God’s reign among us, and I just want to stand up and scream, ‘HOW?’ How is this all supposed to happen to us? Does God just bless me with all this goodness and mercy all the days of my life, and I’m fixed?
“Because I tell you what, I don’t feel it. I try to be faithful; I care for my family; I teach my kids how to pray and bring them to Sunday School; I serve when you ask; I bring my offerings, and you know what? Life is still hard! I struggle with depression. I still argue with my spouse and my mother. I look around my life and wonder, is this it?”
I think of her when I hear John’s followers out in the wilderness ask over and over again, “Then what should we do?[i]” Where’s the recipe for living a life worthy of repentance, John? What’s the secret? Where’s the How to Be a Christian for Dummies Manual? We’ll hear the question echoed later in the gospel, asked of Jesus: “Good Teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?[ii]”
What if those crowds who went out to meet John really were trying to flee from the wrath to come? Maybe that brood of vipers slithered out into the wilderness, because they wanted to shed their skin, but weren’t sure how to break free.
It always takes me a few weeks to settle into the rhythm of Advent. I’m not one to get all the decorations out the weekend before Thanksgiving, so it’s usually halfway through December that I start getting into the mood. I dig out my special Christmas mug for my coffee and tune into holiday music.
But it seems like just when I’m ready to decorate the mantle and hang up the stockings, John the Baptist drops a piece of coal in my slippers. He raises the ax to the root of the tree, and I sense that something’s off. The first Christmas cards come chronicling losses or pain: a loved one moved into memory care, a young adult struggling with anxiety or OCD, canceled trips, postponed dreams, another year lost to social isolation and loneliness.
We worry about rafts of migrants capsizing in Europe, and friends struggling with troubling symptoms at home. We can hardly imagine the devastation from that swath of tornados that hit Kentucky and neighboring states this week, but the news doesn’t stop overwhelming us when we turn the page: soaring inflation, overcrowded hospitals, spiking infection rates, opioid overdoses, school violence, and alarming descriptions regarding the health of the planet.
I want to feel the gentleness of the season’s nightfall. I want to bake cookies and light candles while watching the deck fill up with snowdrifts. Instead, I catch myself sinking into despair. My hopes for Christmas get shrouded by the atrocities of another harsh year. Suddenly I’m standing up with that woman in my church in Illinois railing against the songs of peace on earth and shouting, HOW? How is any of this supposed to make a difference?
Maybe the Advent journey always has to take us out into the wilderness at some point. Maybe nothing will really make us long for the birth of divine love until we come to acknowledge our need for deliverance. Maybe like John’s early followers, our snakeskins need to get so itchy, so tight and confining, that we are finally ready to hear the Baptist’s cry.
But be careful. John is not going to hold any punches. Remember, making claims about our heritage will get us nowhere. Being Children of Abraham? John doesn’t care. Knowing all the verses of the good Christmas carols? Having all the right decorations? Having your cards in the mail already? That doesn’t make one ready. You’ve memorized the catechism and can quote scripture? You’ve studied the true teachings of the Founding Fathers? You marched for civil rights, or stood up for racial justice? Good for you. But that’s not going to help you today. God can raise up from these stones people who have baskets of good credentials.
Advent is about readying the world for salvation today. It requires us to bear fruit worthy of repentance, and if you have to ask what that means, John is ready to get very practical: Share your excess wealth. Feed those who are hungry. Stop finding ways to cheat your employer or your employees. Pay your fair share. Don’t lie or mislead people, even if there’s a way to get away with it. Live like the reign of God has been born in you.
Did you catch how concrete and down-to-earth John’s prescriptions are? John is addressing real people, people with jobs and responsibilities, who own at least two coats, who have access to food and wages and resources. John tells them directly, “It’s not about your background or experience, your beliefs or your thoughts. It’s about your actions today. Go make a difference in the world today.”
His words might not sound all that controversial or radical to us, but remember that John gets arrested for this message[iii]. His telling people to share, to be honest and fair, and to resist a culture that tells you to get whatever you can for yourself, was too threatening. Calling on his listeners to follow the demands of justice, truth-telling, and care of neighbor jeopardized the status quo of those who were in power. John had to be shut up, and he was.
I don’t remember how I responded to that woman who came to critique my preaching. She actually remained a friend, and ended up becoming a pastor. I’ll bet she’s a great preacher. But I doubt it was because I responded too brilliantly that day.
Here’s what I wish I had said: There’s no guarantee of feeling especially blessed. There’s no promise that any Advent behavior we do will make us feel very warm and tingly. It won’t take the pain and the brokenness go away. All our acts of charity or actions for advocacy can still leave us feeling like they aren’t enough.
But every time we open ourselves to the brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, we get a clearer glimpse into the very heart of God. God’s blessings come to us when we sense the pain for which God’s love is born. Prayers for those who are hurting, sending gifts with those tags from our Giving Tree, reading seasonal devotions, even writing letters to those in power reminding them of John’s call to truth-telling and fair wages, may never heal the pain of the entire world. But they might address the pain we sense in ourselves for this one day. They may warm the winter chill for one person. They might, like the tiny flames we add to the prayer boxes at our Wednesday night Advent services, witness to fragile hope in the shadows.
And who knows what might be happening behind the scenes? Herod puts John in prison, but doesn’t quash the movement of his disciples. One who is greater is already on the horizon, and the kindling of our despair and longing is ready to ignite into the unquenchable fire of God’s ways burning through all the injustice and hatred we’ve ever known.
A few weeks ago, modern day prophet LaTosha Brown spoke at the Westminster Town Forum. You may have heard her on MPR last week. Brown is the Co-Founder of Black Voters Matter, who works with several other groups and initiatives focused on increasing power in marginalized, predominantly Black communities, and encouraging fair voting laws. She sounded like John the Baptist to me, preaching about justice and accountability and demanding change that would make a difference in the world.
At the end of her talk, the moderator asked her whether she still found hope, and Brown started talking about diamonds. “All a diamond is,” she said, “Is a piece of coal, under extreme pressure. It is transformed into a diamond, and we know a diamond by its clarity[iv].”
Brown described the pressure we are under right now as a society, the pressure we’ve experienced with COVID, with political uncertainty, with the awakening we’ve sensed regarding racial injustice, and the suppression of voting rights and fair opportunities we’re witnessing. But she reminded her listeners, “Pressure can do two things. It can either crush you or it can transform you.”
Perhaps the ache of Advent is meant to pressure us that we might be transformed into the jewels of God’s love. The crowds who came out to be baptized by John wanted to know how to be changed, how to be transformed, how to shed the skins of their gloom and isolation, and become people of good news. John was all too ready to share his secrets with them. The gospel is ready to change us, too.
Have you joined the masses during the COVID age in buying one of those instant pots? I know it’s sort of last week’s favorite gadget, and we’re all supposed to have moved on to something shinier. But I’m still loving mine. It’s perfect for one who like me, catches on to the hopes of the season, or the demands of the day, just a little later than I should have. Because when I plug into the pressure of that instant pot, I can take three pounds of frozen chicken late in the afternoon, and still prepare a meal by suppertime.
Dear Friends, What if this is the gift of Advent? Now is the time for the pressure to cook us into something marvelous. Now is the time for those of us reading the “How to be a Christian” manual, to find the chapter on transformation. Even now, filled with expectation and questions in our hearts, God is coming to renew us in love, and to sing us from lament and shame, into praise and homecoming[v]. Even now, we are rescued by one who baptizes us with power and Spirit, transforming us into the very Children of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Luke 3:7-18
[ii] Luke 10:25, Luke 18:18
[iii] Luke 3:19-20
[iv] Brown, LaTosha, “Ensuring Black Voters Matter,” October 26, 2021, Westminster Town Hall Forum, https://westminsterforum.org/forum/ensuring-black-voters-matter/
[v] Zephaniah 3:14-20