7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Grace and peace to you through the coming child, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This Advent, we’ve been doing an awful lot of waiting. Yes, I know that is our theme – Wait With St. James – so of course we’re talking about it more than normal. We, as a congregation, a family of faith, have been pretty intentional about incorporating it into our language during this season. We started off talking about how we wait with joy, excited at the news of the Savior, and how that joy overflows into the rest of our lives. Last week, we heard Pastor Jeni speak about waiting with love, experiencing love from God and expressing love to all people. And today we wait with peace. Now, these are all nice little words, aren’t they? Joy. Love. Peace. They’re the kinds of words that we see on Christmas cards, advertisements, and decorations. They’re short, easy to read, and fill us with warm fuzzies. These words feel like a warm sweater, a nice cup of hot cocoa, and a fire in the hearth on a cold winter’s night.
But these words have a flip side, too. I mean, the whole reason we need to talk about them is because we need to be reminded that they exist. If the world was full of joy, if people lived lives that spread love, and if peace was a common thing to see, we wouldn’t need to talk about them at all. It seems weird to think about, but what we’ve been talking about this Advent season is countercultural. Despite all the times that we hear these words this time of year, they sometimes seem like a completely foreign concept in our world. I mean, why would we wait for and celebrate the coming of a savior if we didn’t need saving?
With that in mind, we read our texts for this week. Zephaniah tells us about the coming king, who will gather all people to himself – the outcasts, the poor, the grieving will find their home in his embrace. Isaiah sings a song of praise because God has offered us comfort. And then, we get to John, this crazy, angry guy in the desert. As a side note, I love John the Baptist – he’s one of my favorite characters in the Bible. But he’s being kinda crazy at the beginning, isn’t he? I mean, these people came to see him and he calls them a den of snakes. A little harsh. But, once you get past his warning to take faith seriously, he goes on to talk to those who had gathered.
And the people who gathered seems to be very eclectic mix of people – devout Jews, tax collectors, and soldiers of the occupying Roman military all came to hear John and be baptized. And each group asks him what they should do to repent, which means to change one’s mindset, and begin living a new life. And John tells them what to do – share what you have with people who don’t, don’t take more than you’re owed, don’t use your position in life to take advantage of others. In essence, live in a way that promotes peace, not bitterness, abuse, or greed. Instead of giving people a reason to have to fight, give them reasons to live in peace. Instead of using your position in life to make life better for yourself, work for the peace of the whole world.
It’s worth realizing, here, that we have a special advantage of John’s audience. You see, they were told to wait with peace, but they really were waiting. We live with an understanding of who Jesus is, that he’s the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the Messiah whose death and resurrection has given us salvation as a free gift. We are in the waiting for Jesus’ return and we are waiting for the kingdom of God to take full effect. But they were just waiting. Waiting for something, for anything.
Now, this may seem like an odd reading for Advent. This sermon may not fit with what you were expecting as you came in today, seeing Christmas trees and feeling that familiar (although warmer than usual) December chill in the air. It seems like there could be a lot of other things we could be reading or talking about. But I didn’t change the reading for today, it was already in the lectionary, because John is touching on exactly on what is happening in this Advent season. This time is a countercultural experience, waiting when the world seems to speed up, talking about peace in the midst of violence, joy in times of sorrow and grief, love in the face of hatred. Even the animals in our books were doing something countercultural – sharing the resources they had with someone who had nothing, the child in the manger, Jesus Christ.
It’s through this sharing that peace comes – sharing our resources, sharing our stories, sharing our lives – but why? Because we find our peace in something other than what we can own. Through Christ, we find that God has already shared with us everything we ever really needed in order to give us peace that passes understanding. Christ comes sharing in our life together, living, breathing, feeling the sting of sorrow, the pain of death, and gives you life that is beyond your reach.
“So,” you may be thinking, “this is all fine, but what exactly does it mean to wait with peace?” Good rhetorical question! When we wait with peace, it means that while we wait, we do so knowing that our peace has already come. We wait with peace, trusting in God’s promises made flesh in Jesus Christ. We wait with peace, knowing that this child whom we wait for has already come and is coming again. In the meantime, we work to create more peace, taking part in the word of God. We don’t cling so tightly to things that they become the peace we crave, because the peace we need is here.
As we are on the downward slope of Advent, John is inviting us into something very big – the work of God. As you go, go in peace, sharing peace, and spreading the peace that God has given through a child in a manger. Amen.