Grace, peace and forgiveness to us all from Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen!
Now near the end of the year of our Lord 2018 during the reign of Donald Trump, in the 4th year of the Episcopate of Audrey Scanlan, when Amy Welin was acting dean of the Cathedral, the word of God came to Michael while he was in the country around the Susquehanna. He said to the multitude that had come forth to hear his first sermon preached in this Cathedral, “O brood of vipers, what makes you think that coming to this Cathedral will save you from the wrath to come?”
You know the truth – those words are not mine. They belong, in admittedly a slightly different form to Luke. Who is this man, this John the Baptist, and why are his first words to a crowd who came out in to the wilderness to see him “O brood of vipers”? It puzzles me why he starts his public ministry this way.
His father was Zechariah – of the priestly class in Israel. There is a very long and convincing prophecy back in the first chapter of Luke that placed some heavy expectations on young John. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins… [Because of you] the dawn will break upon us all.” Can you imagine being a young boy and having that burden placed on your shoulders? Luke notes that he “grew and became strong in spirit.” And then curiously observes “he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” Wait! He left his secure upper-middle class family and grew up in the wilderness. Could the pressure of those expectations have caused him to run off? I don’t know.
At any rate in today’s Gospel John is in the wilderness. One of the most intriguing things about this scene is that a great multitude has gathered out there – outside the city – not in some nearby park or some other beautiful pastoral landscape – but in the wilderness. Take the most remote area of Pennsylvania that you have ever visited – remove the trees and the vegetation – and you would have an approximation of where people traveled to be hear John’s message.
The thing that strikes me most about our Gospel today is that three different groups of people ask John essentially the same question. “What should we do?” If being an observant religious person is not enough for salvation, if the time is coming when trees that do not bear good fruit are going to be chopped down and thrown into the fire, “what then should we do?”
Let’s see if we can focus not so much on John’s diet of wild locusts and honey, his cloak of camel’s hair, and his colorful name-calling to get our attention. Instead, let’s listen today to John’s words – this man who is laden with expectations and who will bring us the dawn. His message to the crowd is incredibly simple – “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” It is not just the rich – not those with IRAs and 401Ks that are called to kindness – every one of us with two coats and some food – sounds like most of us here in this room – has an obligation to share. John says: Be kind. I can do that!
Second message – to tax collectors. And what exactly are these hated collaborators with the Roman occupation authorities doing out in the wilderness with John? He doesn’t say “quit being tax collectors” – rather John says “do your job and don’t cheat people!” I think I can do that too!
And just as we get our heads around tax collectors following John – soldiers come and ask what they should do. Are they mercenaries being paid to enforce Roman occupation on the Jewish people – or are they Roman soldiers – dreaded symbols of the occupation itself? This would be more startling to Luke’s readers that it probably seems to us. Nevertheless the soldiers ask – “What should we do?” John says: “Don’t use your authority to bully people.” I think I might be able avoid bullying… I think I can do that too.
I hope you hear my point – John is asking very doable things of his people. He asks them to bear “fruit of repentance” – not to believe a certain point of doctrine, not to be from a certain family or class – but to do something. At times in church, I think that we make righteousness far more complicated than it needs to be. Be kind. Do your job and don’t cheat. Don’t be a bully.
My call to be a deacon and to serve here among you comes from that same philosophical stance. Simply put – being in community, loving God and doing things for others are the very possible things that I must do. For me it starts in the promises we made at Baptism. Once we are baptized, discipleship is not optional. And in my understanding a deacon is not here to serve for you or in place of you, but to serve with you. Susan Epting in her book on the diaconate, Unexpected Consequences, says it clearly, “Deacons do not— cannot—“do” discipleship on behalf of the baptized, but they help to lead all people, including the ordained, into the servant ministry of all believers.”
God loves us all but God has expectations of every one of us. We must work together to find doable ways to meet those expectations. In the end of John’s story today – the people again raise up the expectations that he heard when he was a child. “As the people were filled with expectation, all were questioning in their hearts” whether John was the awaited Messiah.
John knew the answer for him. He had to do his job. His ministry must decrease and the ministry of Jesus increased. John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.” John is doing just what he can. What he has been expected to do. He proclaimed the good news to those people in the wilderness. Simple, doable, practical acts of goodness. Be kind. Do your job; don’t cheat. Don’t use your authority to bully. As we await the coming of Jesus – for him to be born in our hearts once again – it is easy in all our waiting to become complacent.
It is easy to keep our coats,
To store our food,
To maximize our wealth when it disadvantages others,
And to pretend that no one will notice while our neighbor shivers in the cold or wonders where the next meal will come from.
Maybe at times we are a brood of vipers. We could do worse than to follow the simple, doable wisdom of John.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Deacon Michael Nailor at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on December 16, 2018, for the Third Sunday of Advent. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Zephaniah 3:14-20
- Philippians 4:4-7
- Luke 3:7-18