Sermon: Those Exhortations

December 12, 2021

Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

by Eric Anderson

There were three ‘apapane chicks in the nest, which is not uncommon when there are any chicks in an ‘apapane nest. I mean, there were plenty of times when there weren’t any ‘apapane chicks in the nest at all, as for example when they’re learning to fly.

These chicks were learning to fly, and they were pretty early in the process. So far, in fact, they’d done not much more than flap their wings vigorously under the eye of their parents, with two tutu – grandmother and grandfather – watching from a neighboring branch. They’d also done some hops and flaps and flaps and hops.

“I’ve got it down,” announced the oldest of the three. “No problem. I’m a great flyer.”

The youngest thought this sounded rather ridiculous considering what they’d done so far – which was flapping their wings and hopping – but she decided she wasn’t going to say anything.

“I’m just down,” said the middle chick. She had a sad tone to her voice. “I’m never going to fly well.”

The youngest thought this didn’t make any sense, either. How could her sister know how well she’d fly based on flapping and hopping?

“I’ll soar and race and roll through the air,” sighed oldest brother contentedly.

“I’ll watch you from the ground,” sighed middle sister sadly.

“What are you talking about?” asked youngest sister pointedly.

“Didn’t you see?” said oldest brother. “I’m already a great flyer.”

“Didn’t you see?” said middle sister. “I’m already a rotten flyer.”

“You’re both flappers and hoppers,” said youngest sister sensibly, “like me. We’ve all got a lot to learn yet.”

I wish I could say that oldest brother and middle sister listened to these wise words, but they didn’t. Older siblings often have the bad habit of ignoring a younger sibling, but really: they all emerged from their eggs within five minutes of one another, and what’s that got to do with anything?

It turned out that they didn’t listen much to their parents or their grandparents or aunties or uncles, either. Oldest brother was so sure that he was a great flyer that he hardly ever listened to their instructions. He turned out to be an indifferent flyer at best, frequently missing his landings and announcing loudly each time that the branch had moved in a sudden gust of wind. Middle sister didn’t listen, either, and each of her practice flights was marked with outbursts of sobbing as the advice she didn’t follow led her to not learn new things. She developed enough skill to get from tree to tree, but, well, it’s best to leave the rest unsaid.

Youngest sister never believed that she was perfect, and she never believed that she was unteachable. As a result, she believed that she could learn, and learn she did. Despite her oldest brother’s claims, she was one of the best flyers of her generation, delighting in all she’d learned so well.

The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, Latin for the Sunday of Joy. Kathryn Schifferdecker writes at Working Preacher, “And most of our texts seem suited to that theme.

“The prophet Isaiah writes, ‘Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!’ …

“Unfortunately, John the Baptist doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. John is out in the wilderness of Judea, baptizing many people and lambasting those who have come out to see the spectacle…”

For the last few years, I have been comparing John to Jesus and concluding that, when it comes to the content of demands, John wasn’t so bad. I mean, John asked his hearers to share, to stop cheating, and to stop extorting money from people with threats. When you think about it, that’s kind of a minimum expectation, sort of an ethical ground floor. Jesus, I can’t help recalling, asked a rich man to give up all his possessions.

Can you imagine that working with, oh, Jeff Zuckerberg? Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Donald Trump? Well, if it’s any comfort, it didn’t work when Jesus asked, either.

I also don’t know if it worked when John the Baptist asked his hearers that less burdensome thing, to share with those who needed clothing and food. I don’t know if it worked when he told his hearers not to overcharge people who had no choice of what to pay. I don’t know if it worked when he told his hearers not to use their authority for personal gain.

I do know that if it worked with any of that crowd, it hasn’t worked with crowds of people across the centuries since then. I mean, can we be honest for a moment? How many people go hungry, how many people go short of clothing, because other people don’t share what they can or share less than they can? We’re much better at explaining poverty in terms of the failures of the poor than we are at relieving the sources of poverty itself. Terry Pratchett covered that remarkably well in his novel, Men at Arms:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

“Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars…

“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

“This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

[Pratchett, Terry, Men at Arms (New York, HarperCollins), 1993.]

John’s instructions are such a solid ethical baseline, but they are not the ethical baseline we’ve set for our society. As much as we like to believe that we live moral and righteous lives, our standards are not as rigorous as John’s, let alone those of Jesus. We don’t like to admit it – who likes to admit they’re not as good as they want to be? – but if we don’t admit it, we’ll never improve. As Karoline Lewis asks at Working Preacher, “While we would like to imagine ourselves as altruistic and inherently generous, the truth is we might have a higher opinion of ourselves than what John the Baptist appears to see.”

Do we really want to be that ‘apapane cartwheeling through the sky insisting that he’s the best flyer ever?

Luke called John’s strident exhortations “good news,” and they were. The good news is that we can do better. The good news is that we can grow and change. The good news is that we can straighten up and fly right.

It must also be said that John’s harshness – you brood of vipers – isn’t helpful for everyone. Not all of us, despite the blasphemous doctrine of “American exceptionalism,” is so inflated with pride. Some hear those words as a crushing confirmation of their self-condemnation. But there is good news here. The baptism of repentance is for everyone. Everyone, anyone, you, me, him, her, them, anyone can grow and change. Everyone can grow and change.

Middle sister can grow and change.

“Maybe,” writes Cheryl Lindsay at ucc.org, “Maybe the tax collectors and soldiers relished the frank words and wanted to hear the truth. Maybe, they were looking for another way to live and to be. Maybe, they were looking for good news to deliver them from a less than desirable life.”

Maybe the good news is that you can do better, be better, be more righteous than you currently are. That is good news. You are redeemable. You are loved by God. In repentance and forgiveness, you are better able to love God in return.

Middle sister, you can fly.

German pastor, theologian, and thorn in the side of the Nazis Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us … [T]he God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”

[Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco), 1995.

By judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us. That, too, is love; that, too, is grace.

For Rachel G. Hackenberg, writing at rachelhackenberg.com, the Jordan River becomes something even more comforting:

“Lead us to the water where we can bathe,
splash, leap and laugh,
rinse and relax, soak for hours,
until violence is washed clean from our skin
and defensiveness is eased from our tense muscles.”

This is how we find renewal. This is how we grow. This is how we set down the burdens. This is what allows us to fly.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video includes the entire service of December 12, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Is it different from the prepared text? Yes. Is it better? Well, we hope so…

The image is a mosaic of John the Baptist at the Església de Sant Joan d’Horta (Church of Saint John the Baptist) in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by Jordiferrer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28159978.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on December 12, 2021

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