“You brood of vipers!” Just imagine if you arrived each Sunday to church with some thundering indictment like that. No one wants to be called out as a terrifying looking venomous snake, with deadly fangs, and according to dictionary.com – a word used to describe a malignant, spiteful and treacherous person. Even my dog Willow would look at me with worried eyes and back away as I spent the last couple of days loudly proclaiming John’s opening lines from today’s gospel.
Yet, Suzanne reminded us in her dear friends letter on Friday that today is Gaudete Sunday. “This is the Sunday when we lighten up a bit, rejoice, give thanks that Christ is near, remembering that though we await Christ’s coming again, we can celebrate that God joined us all those years ago and is present still.”
So how might we square up the indictment of being called out as a “brood of vipers” with a spirit of hopeful rejoicing?
Imagine being among the crowds along the river Jordan- ordinary folks, tax collectors, soldiers, religious leaders – all gathered to hear this street evangelist – Crowds were following this camel hair wearing, locust eating prophet. Something about his message of repentance and change and promise drew them in. Like the street corner preachers in our city with their microphones and platforms. John is utterly convinced of the urgency of his message. He’s going to do whatever it takes and he exhorts with conviction and certainty. He knows his mission and he wants people to be ready for the one who is to come. For John, it’s truly a matter of life or death not just for him, but for all those gathered to hear him.
And while we often move out of our way to avoid the street preacher, cross to the other side of the road, the folks gathered around John the Baptist today, stick around. John calls them out – repent and turn your lives around. If you don’t bear good fruit, the axe will fall. Your position, your status, your heritage, your privilege, your power won’t protect you. It’s time to change.
And despite the shaming, they embraced the new idea that even they, viper or not, could change, could be reborn, in the river of God’s grace, and by their own choices and actions!
So they ask John, if we need to change, if we need to turn our lives around, “What should we do?” And John provides some guidance. If you have two coats, give one away. If you have more food than you need, give it away.” The tax collectors ask, “What should we do?” Simple, don’t take more than what you are owed. And what about us, ask the soldiers, “What should we do.” Don’t extort, or make false threats. Be satisfied with your wages.”
John’s charge, though, is not one of only calling his followers and us to change our persona behavior. John’s exhortation is a disruption of the regular order of things – the order that says that corruption and cheating, hoarding and extorting, using power, privilege and position for one’s benefit are justifiable. John invites his followers in the desert and us to take the risk of disrupting the structures that allow the status quo to continue, that allow the systems of oppression to remain uncontested.
At the end of November, the All Saints United Power team came together to ask the question, what is it that keeps you up at night, and what should we do? Those gathered spoke compellingly and passionately about gun violence,our schools, racism, affordable housing – many of the issues we have worked on as a community. Yet it was more challenging to consider what we might do. What we might do that isn’t just a bandaid on a systemic problem. What we might do that doesn’t perpetuate white supremacy. What we might do that brings deep, lasting change
What should we do, the people ask John.
John points them to the very places in which they live and work, laugh and struggle, and suggests this is where they begin.
Begin where you are. If you’re a lawyer, a parent, a student, a carpenter, a professor, a retiree, a millennial or a gen x-er, religious or not so much, no matter what labels of identity or vocation are yours, begin where you are. And while this phrase may seem simple, may seem easy – – beginning where we are – in our jobs, in our families, in our communities, in our church – can sometimes be the hardest thing of all as the pull of familiar and comfortable ways of being can stop us from taking the risk of living out the good news of Jesus Christ. Are you, am I willing to take the risk of rejection for telling the truth about injustice? Are we willing to risk rejection for disrupting the status quo? Are we ready to take the risk of exposing the places of oppression and dehumanization that are all around us?
These are the questions of Advent as we prepare to again receive and welcome the Christ child. Advent is the time to take stock of our lives, to course correct, to ask ourselves hard questions. Advent invites us to openness, readiness, attention and courage to take risks. We don’t need to know all the answers or where it is all going. It does require, though, that we hold onto two realities at once: the reality of the world’s brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God’s love in the other. And this is where the joy and hope of this Gaudete Sunday reveal themselves. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes. The prophet Zephaniah understands this challenge as he writes in the context of great spiritual and political corruption of his day while at the same time calling Jerusalem to “rejoice and exult” with all her heart because God is in their midst, and rejoices over them with gladness. Isaiah, writing during the time of the Babylonian captivity and domination, still calls the people to ring out their joy, for God is in the midst of them. And Paul, writing to the Phillipians while imprisoned, encourages them to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Joy and rejoicing do not stand alone from the pain and brokenness of this world. And in fact, our experiences of joy and rejoicing can awaken our longing for God to break into this suffering world and make things new.
As Debi Thomas writes in Journey with Jesus, “We can rejoice because we trust in a God who sees rightly, honestly, and deeply. We can rejoice because God sees us as we truly are, in our beauty, brokenness, earnestness and evil. God loves us enough to deliver us from ourselves, and loves the world enough to redeem it so that all can thrive.” And this is cause for joy and rejoicing. We can rejoice in the promise of creation made new and whole.
We can be honest in our longings. We can know that we only need to begin where we are. We can know with confidence, even in the worst of times, that the Christ child will be born anew.