In the Midst of All, Hope

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent

Year C – December 16, 2012

David H. Knight, Priest Associate

In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among today’s readings we hear the exhortation of John the Baptist when he says to the crowds, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  And in The First Song of Isaiah, we recited the words of this profound expression of hope,” Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.”  This Third Sunday of Advent calls us to be a people of repentance, that is, a people willing to turn to God and change our ways when it becomes necessary to do so. It is a Sunday that once again calls us to the renewal of the vows made at our baptism. This Sunday in Advent calls us once again to be a people of hope, that is, to live in the expectation that God is with us and will sustain us in the midst of all that life brings.

Jeannie and I have many happy memories of our two years  in Dallas while I served as one of 8 priests on the staff of Saint Michael and All Angels Church and Jeannie taught at Good Shepherd Episcopal School. It was for us an adventure to say the very least. The people in Texas are wonderful. Now you have to understand, the Republic of Texas is like no other place on the planet. Just as our first Thanksgiving festivities were over, for example, we began to notice that on the streets near where we lived, there were these McMansions adorned with Christmas lights draped on everything on the property that didn’t move—house, trees, bushes, walls—whatever. We were told there could be as many as 20 to 30 thousand light bulbs adorning each property, installed by companies that would come through and decorate your yard for two dollars a bulb. Now multiply that by 20-30 K and you get the drift. But it was a bargain, actually, because the company would come through and remove them as soon as Christmas had passed at no charge. As a dear friend of mine quipped, “It was in with the new, out with the new.” In an effort to decorate our own rented house in the spirit of the season and in keeping with the Dallas tradition, I went to the local Home Depot and bought two of those white wire reindeer, you know, the ones with lights that blink and the heads that move up and down and the tails go back and forth. They could be ours for $18 a copy. It must be said that the people there are incredibly gracious and generous. They would, in Dallas fashion go all out to light their yards in a spectacular way yet they would turn around and give most generously to the mission and ministry of the parish. The outreach ministry of Saint Michael in the city of Dallas and in the world beyond simply boggled my mind. The parish’s footprint in the city and beyond was large and generous. It’s just that—well—it was Dallas. And so our first Advent there in Texas was like no other we had ever experienced.

 And then, on the Third Sunday of Advent, into all the season’s tinsel and brightness with all its holiday lights and all the cheer in the world outside, came this guy, John the Baptist. The solemnity of our Advent worship was pierced by his words of exhortation recorded Luke’s Gospel that we have heard once again this morning.  Now, perhaps our holiday decorations and festivities here are a bit more restrained than the ones we experienced in the “Big D”, yet the same message comes to us each year in Advent in the midst of our holiday festivities whatever they may be. John the Baptist said to the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear 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.”  Strong words. He then spoke to them of what they should do. God would place upon them uncompromising demands for fairness and justice. Generosity and unselfishness would be the fruits of such repentance. For John the Baptist, repentance would have less to do with how fervently one prays than with how one handles one’s wealth, how one exercises stewardship, and how one works for justice. What John the Baptist gave the crowd and what he gives to us is a guide to follow as we continue on our path in life. That guide comes to us as good news as we prepare for the arrival of the Humble Servant who would come to live among us. It is best for us, he says, to let the divine ax cut off our greed, our self indulgent ways, our hypocrisy and such, and throw it all into the unquenchable fire of God’s judgment. It is best for us repent and to turn to God who will lead us back in the right course when that needs to happen.

 The Gospel for this Sunday is about expectation, about what is to come, about something new and powerfully wonderful. It is also about hope. You and I cannot survive without hope. All the readings this morning point us in the direction of hope.  The prophet Zephaniah  speaks to a people in fear and says, “Do not fear, O Zion: do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD your God, is in your midst…”  In the First Song of Isaiah, we sing, “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.  And in that brief epistle reading from Philippians we hear the promise, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made before God.”  These weeks of Advent remind you and me to be watchful and to believe that God is near. These weeks of Advent call us to repentance, that is, to be aware of and responsive to those parts of our lives where a change of heart is necessary in order for us to prepare us more fully for the coming of our Lord, born as an infant in Bethlehem.  

 Today we have just celebrated the baptism of Katherine Marguerite Jacob. While we don’t always associate Baptism with Advent worship, our Gospel reading today makes a strong connection to Holy Baptism. As John the Baptist exhorts those who came to him about what it means to be baptized, we are reminded of our own vows we made or were made for us at our baptism.  In this light, I recall something that Bishop Ted Gulick, our assistant bishop,  said at a gathering recently when, in his remarks he said this about discipleship; “It’s not about who we are, it’s about whose we are.” Not about who we are, but about whose we are. You recall that John the Baptist said to the crowds, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor…’” It’s not our lineage, he said, that matters, it’s not who we think we are because of our lineage that matters, rather it’s whose we are, to whom we belong that matters. That is what discipleship is about. At our baptism, the priest makes the sign of the cross on our forehead and says using the name of the newly baptized, “(Katherine Marguerite), you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We belong to Christ who calls us into discipleship, a discipleship that becomes a life-long journey.

 This Advent season once again bids each of us to ask ourselves, “Do I bear the mark of Christ as one who belongs to him? Am I living as one of his faithful disciples? Do I strive for justice and peace among all people even when to do so involves risk, and do I respect the dignity of every human being as we have promised to do in the Baptismal Covenant? If so then, how does that shape what you and I say and do each day in our interactions with one another? If not, and when that is not the case, will we repent, that is, will you and I make a U-turn and return to the Lord? John the Baptist’s exhortations this Advent, as they break into the brightness of our holiday festivities, provide us with insight as to how to be faithful disciples, and to be faithful with a sense of urgency and expectation.

 And in this season of Advent, among the bright lights of this festive holiday time of anticipation, there is yet something else that clamors to be spoken. We hear in the letter to the Philippians today these words of comfort: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts, and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  For many, the holidays are bitter-sweet at best. For those of you who have lost loved ones whether recently or after some time has passed, the brightness of the holidays can stand in sharp contrast to the reality that you experience as you think about and miss your loved ones. May you discover that in the lap of God’s love, strength will come as you walk with your grief.

 And for all of us, as we have witnessed in these past days once again the unspeakable violence against children, there is the tendency to ask, “Is there any hope?”  “Will gun violence in this nation ever cease?” It is easy to lose hope, yet the prophet Isaiah speaks to us reminding us that God’s understanding is unsearchable. In the lap of God’s love, those dear souls in that community of Sandy Hookand all of us who grieve with them will ultimately find strength as we walk with grief, disbelief, and yes with outrage, as once again we have witnessed the unthinkable in our land.  Let us hope that some day—some day—we, as a nation, will muster the resolve to address this matter of gun violence so that one day your children and my children, and all children will be safe. It is this kind of justice about which John the Baptist speaks. Dare we ignore his warning any longer?  How long, O Lord, how long?

 This Advent season, wherever you or I may be in our journey, God’s peace is in our midst. It is in the lap of God’s love that we become able to bear fruits worthy of repentance, that we are able to reaffirm the vows we made at our baptism, and that we can have hope once again in the midst of all that life brings. And so,

 Our hope and expectation. O Jesus now appear;
arise, thy Sun so longed for, above this darkened sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead O Lord to see
the day of earth’s redemption and ever be with thee! Amen.