December 16, 2018
Third Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I can be an Advent purist. When I look to buy Christmas cards, I want ones that have more Advent themes. Rather than jump ahead to Christmas, they would take into account the colors and themes of these four weeks leading up to Christmas. By far, the best cards would come from this week, the third Sunday in Advent. The cover might be a Far Side kind of drawing: a desert scene with thousands of snakes slithering across the sand. Behind them would be the glow of roaring fire. In front of them just over the horizon: more fire. Their eyes would be wide, and they would be looking at you. When you opened the card, it would read, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” To be nice, I’d write a little note. “Hope you’re having a joyful Advent. Love, Bradley.”
The Sunday started out right. The Zephaniah line of cards is much nicer. “The Lord has taken away all judgments against you….I will change your shame into praise. I will bring you home. I will gather you.
But the Baptist cards read one tough line after another. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. The ax is lying at the root of the tree. The one who is coming is mightier than I. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. The winnowing fork is in his hand. The wheat will be gathered, and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.
Luke tells us, “So with these and other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news.”
Good news? How can unquenchable fire be good news? Who wants to hear about judgment when we about to celebrate the coming of heaven on earth? I’m a little relieved that we’re not reading this lesson for the children’s program at the later service. I can’t imagine our preschoolers singing a little song about winnowing forks and chaff.
But imagine the front of the card with the farmer and his winnowing fork tossing the grain into the air. The chaff blows away, and the wheat falls to the earth. Perhaps the inside of the card says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it cannot live again.” Not John’s words, but Jesus’ words. Here in these middle days of Advent, when we make our turn toward Bethlehem, we catch a glimpse of the great mystery of the Christian tradition: By dying to one thing, we are raised to another.
Perhaps John is already summarizing the mystery of this cruciform pattern of death and life that marks our faith. It’s impossible to celebrate unless something changes. The coming of the Messiah isn’t about covering over our sin a veneer of giggling children and pretty lights. It’s about radical change. “The world is about to turn,” Mary will soon sing.
Maybe we should send nice and sweet cards to our friends and co-workers, but to our siblings in the church, we should send reminders that the door is open for change. The season is ripe for starting over. Theses days are full. They brim over with our deepest hopes. They bring to the surface our dreams for how things could be. I think that’s what our well-wishes really symbolize during these days. We deeply want the world to be different. We want peace. We want a world in which the UNICEF cards are true: children of all nationalities holding hands around the globe singing a song of unity and peace. We want a world that provides adequate drinking water for those who will never afford to move near it or pay for it. We want a world in which children aren’t saturated daily with images of sex and violence.
The anger we feel at present political and global circumstances is actually the representation of a bigger, more positive vision of what we believe life should and can be. These are days for putting our deepest dreams and hopes into words. The crises in our world or in our lives become the context for rising from the dead. Each crisis becomes an opportunity for repentance and change.
The word repentance means turning around and going in a different direction.
Here, our good friend John is the pastor that we need, who says, “Quit talking about it and live it. Quit writing on cards or crafting it into carols. Bear fruit consistent with your ideals. Put your money where your mouth is. The coming of the savior is an opportunity for us to have integrity of faith, to connect faith to life.
That was the question of those who came to see John. “What should we do?” To the tax collector, he said, “Stop cheating people.” To the clothes horse, he says, “Give half your closet away. There are people who don’t have clean clothes to wear, and you’ve got stuff that you’re hoping you’ll fit into again some day? What kind of hell is that?” To the military captain, he says, “Be happy with your wages.” (Roman soldiers were famous for their sense of entitlement; their low wages an excuse to steal and terrorize the people.) For the modern listener, perhaps the word here is, “Let go of your sense of entitlement. Examine your privilege. Be content. What kind of hell we make when we always want more and more, thinking that its all rightfully ours.”
Maybe the question that John asks isn’t how to avoid the fires of hell, but how we create hell by the way we live?
Or maybe I should say it more hopefully: How do we take the dawning future with it’s coming light, what we have always hoped could be true, and make it concrete in all our different contexts? What would John ask of bankers, or custodians? Parents or children? What would John say to those retired and those planning a career? What would he say to those of us with resources, and those of us without? What would he say to Americans in 2018? Minnesotans? Members of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church?
We might not have John the Baptist to give us the specifics, but we have been baptized with Holy Spirit so we have the presence of Jesus to give us guidance on just how we make this dawning age a reality in our lives right now. I suspect you know what needs to change in your life. If you don’t, pray to know because even snakes shed their skin once a season. I suspect we know what needs to change so the world can survive.
Somehow in this mystery of exploration and change, in this mystery of God’s gathering and burning, a new reality is crowning its head. This morning we receive the Advent card, the invitation to be transformed. The card is attached to a gift, a gift that is mightier even than the worlds we imagine; mightier even than our attempts to change; mightier than our failures; mightier than anything that should rightfully be burned in unquenchable fire.
This savior who comes, this one we look for and wait on, is the one who, in the end, decides to judge by gathering, his winnowing fork throwing us into the future; our chaff blown away, the kernel falling to the earth to live again.
Thank God John sent that card with its warning to flee from the wrath to come, because, unlike my card, his doesn’t have the snakes slithering into more fire, but into the presence of Jesus, who stands just over the horizon, ready, ready to meet us, and ready to bring us to Bethlehem.