Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)
Do you have a friend in your life who is close enough to you that they can tell you the truth that you need to hear, even if it’s not the truth you want to hear? You all know what I mean: that person who is willing to pull us aside when we have toilet paper hanging off our shoe, or spinach from our lunch-time salad caught in our teeth. Perhaps we are even fortunate enough to have people who go beyond the superficial: who are willing to take the risk and let us know when our words or actions may have been hurtful, or when the impact of what we did doesn’t match our intentions. These kind of friends are the minor prophets of our lives: their truth-telling happens out of love and their honesty realigns us from being lost in our messy mistakes to becoming our best selves.
This morning, we are offered a glimpse into that unabashed and prophetic truth telling. In a move that no homiletics instructor has ever recommended nor endorsed repeating, John the Baptist prophetically begins his sermon to the faithful gathered around him by calling them out: “You brood of vipers!”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have thought the crowd would have dispersed following that vivid in-your-face truth-telling. The amazing part of today’s Gospel lesson in my view isn’t the John’s poignant exhortation: he was, after all, a prophet. What I am drawn to is that the crowd didn’t flee. They stayed.
Consider for a moment that there isn’t anything in the Gospel lesson that suggests anyone became angry, or tried to run John off of a cliff. There isn’t even a suggestion of shock or confusion. The followers weren’t looking around at each other wondering, “Vipers?? What vipers?” No one voiced the merits of holding onto the barren branches of apathy and the bitter fruits of injustice, either. I invite you to consider that they already knew what John had to say. And this prophet sent to prepare the way loved them enough to tell hard truths. What John spoke, this crowd knew.
We know, too. We know what the barren tree looks like when our best efforts yield little to no response. We know a snake pit when we see it. We know who loves us, and speaks hard truths for own growth and we know when we have paid attention that that wisdom, and when we have not. We usually only have regrets about the exhortations offered in love which we chose to ignore until it was too late. Standing with the crowd, we can hear them receive John’s tough honesty because it was rooted in a deep love. So, they didn’t recoil but instead asked a question that pointed the way to a better path. They model faithful integrity for us when they ask: “What, then, should we do?”
Because this was an exhortation rooted in love, John responds lovingly and concretely. His call, after all, was to prepare them. And so, he gave the crowd crystal clear advice on paving the way for the One who was and is to come. John’s prophetic exhortation to make way for the divine involved stepping away from the selfishness, greed, and pride…the arrogance that comes by thinking that anything we seem to have or anything we have the power to do is of our own merit and creation. He invited his followers to follow a pathway which would bear fruits worthy of repentance: when you find you have what you need in this world, give the rest away. If you have been given authority over others, don’t use that to your advantage. Just because you live or work in the snake-pit, don’t give in to the threats and lies in an effort to save yourself. Give what power and possession you are clinging to away so that your heart will be open, and in doing these things, you will make room for God.
It’s an act of faith to sit in hard truths like these which continue to resonate over time. But that is exactly what we are asked to do today on this Third Sunday of Advent, too.
God shakes us up, and God loves us. As the Epistle reminds us: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
You see, John wasn’t a random voice calling out in the wilderness because he happened to be wandering there. John was called to his wilderness. The reason he could call the people to repentance is that he had already stood in that place himself. He knew the peace which surpasses all understanding which is not human-sourced; it can only come from God. The call God had placed on him sent him to the wilderness, and took him away from the comforts of his life. His vocation, as he pointed out repeatedly, was to prepare people for the Messiah coming after him, when it would no longer matter who you were, or into what lineage you were born, or whether you were wealthy or poor, or what you did for a living. The Messiah was coming for everyone, to change everything. Then and now, in the best and worst of times in this world which we inhabit, the immensity of this divine love invites and desires and beckons our participation. But first, as John knew, we need to make room.
Our contemporary saints, our Great Cloud of Witnesses, also offer us prophetic wisdom for our Advent preparations to welcome Christ incarnate. Dorothy offered words from Howard Thurman last week, and I want to offer words from Óscar Romero today. Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvadore in the Roman Catholic Church and an outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized. He was murdered in 1980, a prophet speaking in his own wilderness, while celebrating mass the chapel of the hospital of the divine providence. Shortly before his death, he offered these Advent exhortations that invite us to deeper reflection:
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God- for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
Let me say that last line one more time: Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
God speaks to each of us when we stop giving into the vipers of greed and hatred and instead open our hearts to God. God answers as we earnestly ask the question “what then shall I do?” God loves us so much that sometimes we will be told exactly what we need to do, even when it isn’t what we want to hear. The prophets who tell us what to do may be in the wilderness, or the streets of our city, or in the neighborhoods or around the world. If you ask, God will answer, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. We don’t always hear what we want to hear. But God-with-us is always telling us, in love, exactly what we need to do.
This Advent, don’t worry about anything, but ask God for everything. Allow yourself to be loved so fully that you can be vulnerable, opening to see your own poverty of spirit where God desires to dwell. Go forth to be uncomfortable, to be convicted by the needs of this world, to evaluate your life not for how good it makes you feel to do kind things, but for what it speaks to the world about God-with-us when our acts of true, selfless charity are wrapped in deep, present and persistent love just as God loves us. Then, just as John invited people to the waters of Baptism, we can allow the love of God incarnate to fill us anew with the joyful and life-giving potential to liberate love in all the corners of this world, including this very place we find ourselves, right here and right now.