Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few years ago I led weekly chapel services at an Episcopal elementary school for an academic year. I quickly learned how challenging it is to stand in front of 100 children ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade and attempt to teach them something about God. The children asked the most pointed and difficult questions that cut to the very heart of a theological matter, and they always knew when I had oversimplified something. Thankfully, I learned as I went along, and one of the most valuable things I learned was the importance of signing. Children love to sing, but it was often difficult to find appropriate songs. The text needed to be both theologically sound and simple enough so that they could learn it without the words in front of them. It was no easy task. One of the children’s favorite songs is based on today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Perhaps you are familiar with it. The words are quite simple– ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice; rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice; rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ It was easy to sing, the words come directly from Scripture, and the kids loved it. Overall it was a solid choice, but I sort of hated it. I didn’t like the idea of repeatedly being told how I should feel. What if I don’t particularly want to rejoice? What if I’m not feeling very cheerful?
The same feelings emerged as I read today’s epistle from Philippians, which has historically been associated with this the Third Sunday of Advent, also called Gaudete Sunday. That name comes from the opening line of the Latin introit of the mass appointed for this day, which takes its text from this same passage from Philippians. Gaudete means rejoice. Our hymns have reflected this focus, and the shift in color from the typical purple of advent to rose is meant to further invoke this theme. It’s all very exciting, or is it? What exactly is the cause of this rejoicing?
This theme of rejoicing may seem to sit a little uneasily with the message of John the Baptist we hear in today’s gospel passage. John’s message from the wilderness sounds particularly harsh. He calls the crowd a brood of vipers, warns of the wrath to come, and tells how those trees that aren’t bearing fruit will be cut down and burned. John is inviting, exhorting the people to repentance. Now repentance is a word that can be a bit of a stumbling block, I think. In the Southern Baptist context of my childhood, repentance was what you did when you did something bad. Say you’re sorry and then don’t do it again. This narrow and rather unhelpful view of repentance is not what John is describing. There is no doubt that the call to repentance requires acknowledging and accounting for our own sins and shortcomings, but it is much more than that. Repentance is a complete and fundamental shift in orientation. It is a turning away from one thing and toward another.
The crowds were not offended by John’s message. They were deeply curious. ‘What then should we do?’ they ask. They want to know what they are to do in face of the coming reality. They want to know what repentance requires. John’s message is simple: share what you have. If you have an extra coat, share it with those who have none. If you have extra food, share it with those who are hungry. He gives the same advice to the tax collectors who come to him asking what they should do. Tax collectors often made money by charging folks more than they owed and then kept the extra for themselves. John tells them not to do so. ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also came to him, and John told them the same thing. ‘Be satisfied with your wages.’ Don’t extort others. The repentance John preaches requires a fundamental shift in the way in which relationships work. We cannot live for ourselves alone. Selfish ambition must give way to deep acknowledgment of our interconnectedness.
John’s message excited the crowds and filled them with expectation. They knew he was a unique figure. He had a powerful presence. He offered a vision of a new reality of how life could be. Quite naturally the people began to wonder and ask John if he might just be the Messiah, the chosen one for whom the people of Israel had long waited. Here John displays what might be his most remarkable feature of all, more amazing than his clothing or his strange diet or his biting exhortations. John knew exactly who he was, and he tried to be nothing more and nothing less. He had been called to speak in the wilderness and prepare the way for another. He came not for his sake but for the sake of one much greater than him, and he knew that. In response to the crowds he tells them, ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the throng of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3:16). John points beyond himself to the one who is to come, the one whose very presence causes us to fall down in reverence.
John tells the crowd that Jesus, the whom they are truly seeking and longing for, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. What might that mean? Fire is complex and associated with a variety of things. Perhaps you associate fire with warmth and comfort, with a cozy fire on a cold winter night or with the comfort of companions gathered around a campfire. Fire can be comforting, but it can also be incredibly destructive. Many of my family members are firefighters. My brother is a professional firefighter in a city near where I grew up, and my father and grandfather are loyal and dedicated volunteer firefighters in the sleepy town where I grew up and my family continues to live. It has been a part of my life since before I can even remember.
My brother, who is three and half years older than me, has wanted to be a firefighter since he was about three years old. My mother has childhood videos of my brother forcing me to play pretend firefighter when I was no older than two. He was very enthusiastic; I was at best a disinterested participant. The sounds of blaring radios throughout my home summoning my father, and later my brother, to respond to a fire were a fixture of my childhood. I learned to associate fire with danger. As the very name of the profession suggests, fire is often something to be fought. Those who are committed to that work put their lives at risk whenever they undertake their work. Fire destroys and kills. The recent devastating wildfires in California have reminded us of the destructive and often uncontrollable power of fire. And so it is that John’s words about the coming of Jesus can sound quite terrifying. To be baptized with fire sounds like it leads to death and destruction. It sounds like something to be greatly feared.
Fire, however, is not only something that can comfort and destroy. It also purifies. Many metals, for example, are purified and refined through extreme heating. Another example is the paradoxical idea that a wildfire actually produces some beneficial results for ecosystems. It rejuvenates soil, and some plants have adapted themselves to release seeds in the face of such heat. The world of mythology offers the example of the phoenix, which bursts into flames only to emerge with new life from its ashes.
The fire of Jesus’ baptism that John references is a purifying fire. John tells the crowds that Jesus’ ‘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’ (Luke 3:17). Jesus comes with his winnowing fork to clear away the chaff from our heart, to take away those sins, fears, and anxieties that enslave us and cling to us so closely. He comes with his purifying fire to cleanse our hearts, until those sins are turned to dust and ashes in its heat consuming. That’s what it means to be set free. That still might sound a little terrifying. The process of purification and preparation is rarely comfortable, but it does set us free to live as God created us to live. We repent, we reorient ourselves to live differently in this world, to live not only for ourselves but for Christ and for the world he came to redeem. And that it is the good news John proclaimed to the people. Our joy and expectation in Advent is inextricably tied to our need for repentance in the face of Christ’s coming.
Rejoicing is fundamentally about joy, which is not so much a temporary feeling as it is something that settles deep within us and gives us that peace that St. Paul speaks of, the type of peace that far exceeds human understanding. Today we rejoice as we expect and long for the coming of Jesus, who comes with a purifying fire to cleanse our hearts and free us from our sins. We rejoice at the call to repent, to reorient ourselves toward God and toward a restoration of the life God intends for us. We rejoice at John’s proclamation of this good news. The advent of our Savior sets us free. That is indeed reason to rejoice.
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.