A Shell Ridge Sermon by Jennifer W. Davidson
Isaiah 12:2-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
I’m going to start off with a strange suggestion this morning. I want to invite your mind to wander in the next little while. Don’t stay with me here. If a word or phrase or a thought arises in you, I invite you to go with it. Tune me out. I invite you to hold two questions in mind as I’m speaking:
What is the Word that I am hearing?
And what is the Word that I most need to hear?
Hear again, some fragments of the Word around which we have gathered ourselves this morning:
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for God is my strength and my might;
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees;
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
“You brood of vipers!
the people were filled with expectation,
the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
His winnowing fork is in his hand
Soldiers 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.”
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
let this be known in all the earth
all were questioning in their hearts
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
“You brood of vipers!
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst
With joy, you brood, do not fear…
If there is anything these scriptures from the lectionary tell us right off the bat it is that Advent is a difficult season to cozy up to. It falls across our skin like the camel’s-hair clothing of John the Baptizer.
It takes us to places we’d really rather not go. I mean that literally, even. Last week we read from the book of Malachi. The week before that we shared our communion meal around the words of Jeremiah. And this week, we turned to Zephaniah. Zephaniah! When was the last time you thought of turning to that book, tucked nearly invisibly into the last pages of the Hebrew Scriptures? Advent takes us places we wouldn’t normally go.
When I read the texts for this morning, they made me swoon.
These are the words I hear: With joy, you brood, do not fear, draw water from the wells of salvation.
We started Advent with the words of hope that carried us into exile—The Days are Coming, we heard! Jeremiah gave us words of hope to sustain us for the long, hard journey. We ate our communion meal together, planting these seeds of hope and salvation within ourselves.
When the people of Israel were wrenched from their homes and their temple, they didn’t only have comforting words to carry with them. Their cup was bitter, indeed! The prophets had long warned the Israelites to shape up, to do justice, to walk humbly, right? to remember the widow and the orphan, to feed the poorest among them, to be fair in all business transactions, to remember the Lord their God who brought them out of the Land of Egypt. The prophets spoke the most dreadful, sharp-edged, wounding words—often to a people who had grown content, satisfied. The people didn’t only carry words of hopefulness in to the exile, but they must have also been haunted by words of judgment.
This Sunday is like an echo to our first Sunday of Advent. Here, again, we have the words of Promise that the Israelites will be gathered again. This is the Return from Exile, the homecoming, where they will draw from the deep wells of salvation. This is the Advent Sunday of Joy!
Oh, how tempting it was to dive into the refreshing waters of Isaiah and Zephaniah. Do not fear…I will trust and will not be afraid. God is in our midst.
But John the Baptizer, baby no more, had something else to say. I stood among the crowds and heard him shout, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And I was struck silent—as silent as John’s father Zechariah had been when he encountered God’s messenger. “When Zechariah came out of the sanctuary, the people realized he had seen a vision. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.” Struck silent at the good news.
The first time I read from the Bible with interest was when I was about twelve years old. I had recently committed my life to Christ, and I turned to this ancient book to see what it would tell me about the one I’d encountered on my own. I read the book of Genesis because, you know, you have to start somewhere. I read the books of Acts because it’s a great action book. And I read the books of Ruth and Esther because they were the ones written by women, I figured. And I read the gospels. Which really tripped me up.
Because every time I encountered a word of judgment, whether John’s “brood of vipers” or Jesus’ “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (Mk 9:19), I would internalize them. I would see Jesus turned to me, saying those words to me. I was faithless. I was the one Jesus couldn’t stand to be around anymore. I was the brood of vipers. I was the one who could not flee the wrath to come. I couldn’t hear the good news for the words of judgment intermingled there.
What is the Word that you hear? What is the Word that you most need to hear?
For whatever reason, sometimes the Word of judgment is the only one we can hear. And when this is the case, it makes it awfully difficult to open ourselves to knowing God’s presence in our midst.
The presence of God is a tricky thing this way. The presence of God cannot be tamed. At least not for long. The danger of taming God’s presence is no more apparent than when we celebrate Christmas every year—when we remember the infant Jesus, swaddled in cloth, with Wise Men offering their gifts to him, cattle lowing, and stars being birthed. Even Madison Avenue knows that babies and puppies sell products more than anything else. In some sense, the infant Jesus is the most unthreatening presence of God that we can imagine. Who wouldn’t approach that manger? Who wouldn’t want to hold that infant close?
In the movie Taladega Nights, the Nascar race driver Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, begins his nightly grace over their family meal by addressing “Dear Sweet, Tiny, Baby Jesus.” When his father-in-law complains and points out that Jesus isn’t a tiny baby anymore, Ricky Bobby clings fast to his tame, nonthreatening image: “That’s the Jesus I like best!” He exclaims.
But the presence of God cannot long be tamed. Because we know from the prophets’ cries in both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures, that God’s presence with the people is intimately intertwined with God’s justice. God’s desire for the well-being of the least, the lost, and the little ones among us burns as brightly as God’s Love. To put it another way: God’s Love is not an abstract concept, divorced from our daily lives. God’s Love is the same as God’s Justice.
And, God’s Justice is also not an abstract concept—precisely because God is in our midst, God is With Us. The prophet Amos, for instance, declares God’s judgment against Israel because “they sell the righteous for silver” (which means people were being sold into slavery), “and the needy for a pair of sandals,” (which means so many people were being sold into slavery that the price of a human being had been driven down to the cost of a pair of sandals). God’s anger was kindled because of “They who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” And finally, “they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge” (which was an inequitable practice of money-lending) “and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.” (which was an unjust worship practice.)
God’s presence with the people means that God notices the systemic negligence of the least, the lost, and the little ones among us.
This is precisely why, though they at first appear to be, our scripture texts this morning do not contradict themselves. John the Baptizer is, indeed, proclaiming the good news to the people!
John calls the people to repentance. And it’s very difficult for us to hear that word without loading onto it a bunch of our own associations. For too long, repentance has been understood to be about turning ourselves away from our “sins.” And for too long, our concept of “sin” has been strictly personal and moral—about how we conduct our individual lives and relationships. While personal misconduct can certainly be a part of our larger state of brokenness, John’s call for repentance has much broader and yet more particular implications. John’s call for repentance is a way of readying the Kingdom for the Presence of God—a God whose Love is intimately intertwined with God’s justice for the least, the lost, and the little ones.
“The Greek word repentance translates as “have a change of mind,” or “go beyond the mind you have.” Repentance depicts a change of life and heart evidenced in action as well as attitude.” [Seasons of the Spirit] John is concerned that the people’s actions must “bear fruit”—show evidence of a life lived in such a way that all people can thrive.
What should we do? asked the crowd.
What should we do? asked the soldiers.
What should we do? asked the tax collectors.
The repeated questions of the people listening to John’s call for repentance calls to mind the people’s questions to the prophet Micah in the verses leading up to the one we love to sing here at Shell Ridge from Micah 6:8. There the people begin asking in hyperbole: “What does God require of us? That we give a thousand rams? ten thousand rivers of oil? my firstborn? the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The people’s overblown image of a vengeful and capricious God who requires more than they could possible give, reveals a people who could hear nothing other than the word of judgment. They couldn’t open themselves to the good news that was already present to them. They couldn’t hear the Word they needed to hear. Their image of God was so unreasonable that Micah breaks it down for the people: “No.” Micah says. “God has already told you all that God requires: Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.”
In the same way, John the Baptizer answers the people’s questions with such simplicity that we are in danger of missing it every time we read it: If someone is cold, give them your extra coat. Do not charge someone more than what they owe in order to pad your own pockets. Do not bribe people with false accusations or threaten people for money.”
The Word of judgment is not more than we can bear. The wells of salvation are deep, full of refreshing waters that do not run dry. All people are invited to draw from these wells. God’s presence is in our midst—which means we need not live in fear, but are equipped to see the needs of the world and respond in hope and wholeness. The good news is that the One who judges us removes all judgment. The One who is coming is in our midst.
It is for this reason that we can sing and we dance. For the news is indeed good. God's presence in this world, now, matters. The One who is coming is here.