Rejoicing in God’s Mercy

Sermon preached on December 16, 2018 – Advent 3
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The First Song of Isaiah: Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Rejoicing in God’s Mercy

Given today’s Gospel, I’m wondering if John’s image may need another rework. It’s complicated, isn’t it? This business of being an apocalyptic prophet of our coming salvation. A quick recap for those who missed last week – John and the Holy Spirit were pitching a complete recasting of John’s image from hairy-scary prophet of doom to “John the wilderness guide.” The one who announces with JOY the coming of our salvation.
And yet here we are once again with John, and this time he sounds like a prophet of doom, doesn’t he? I mean, it’s hard to imagine any preacher greeting you, “Good morning, you brood of vipers, you!” But John is saying that and worse to those who have come to listen to him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Not a preacher for the faint of heart, this John of ours. He certainly sounds every bit the prophet of the apocalypse – an end of times, doomsday preacher.

He is preaching with urgency about the coming of the end, trying to get people to understand his message: everything is about to change, everything we know is ending. John’s point – we no longer have time for business as usual. In these times, at the end of the old era and the dawn of all that is about to break forth – how we behave will make all the difference.

The people listening to John were a mixed group, both Jews and Gentiles. We know there were tax collectors in the group – those who took money on behalf of the Roman Empire and were considered by most Jews to be traitors. And there were the soldiers who enforced those collections at the point of the sword.¹ These are people living in a time of division and distrust; it’s fair to say that this was not a friendly tight-knit crowd, they are wary of one another, and some had behaved ruthlessly toward each other.

John calls them out – ‘You brood of vipers!’ And he goes on to say some pretty convicting things, yet they don’t object, make excuses, or storm off. They just ask, “What should we do?”

John replies, “Be kind. (Share your coats.) Be honest. (Collect only what is your due.) Avoid violence. (Do not extort money with threats.)” That’s what it looks like to be worthy of repentance – to bear good fruit.

I imagine the people of the crowd were as surprised as we are – Really… that’s what we need to do? Act with kindness and integrity? Refrain from violence? That’s all? That’s the response to all this apocalyptic, end of times talk?

We, too, live in a time of division and distrust: when political differences lead people to call one another traitors; when we don’t know, let alone like, our neighbors; when difference, of color, ethnicity or religion, is sufficient to “hate” someone;² and we aren’t all that shocked when some act on that hatred. Hate speech and xenophobia permeate our national life, and filter into every aspect of our experience. As intolerant behavior continues, day after day, from tweets to newscasts, it wears on us, making us feel helpless to change it, and over time, we begin to accept it as our new normal. Thankfully we have John: Baptizer, Wilderness Guide, and Prophet to Brooding Vipers like us.

As we learned last week, John is no crazy man, but a careful and intentional prophet. He is shrewd, and he knows his context well. He’s aware of the occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire, he’s aware of the corruption of the Herodian pretenders to the throne of Israel, and he’s aware of the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment of his time. He knows all these things are true, and they all need to be addressed. He even realizes that these are the realities that made John’s hearers into the brood of vipers they are. But he also knows that none of this really matters.³ Not really, not in these apocalyptic times.

What matters most NOW is that Jesus is coming. Just beyond the horizon is a new world order in which everything of the world will be turned upside down, or right side up in God’s eyes. John’s point when asked, “What do we do?” is that this we too need to change. The salvation of the world is just on the horizon, God’s great gift of mercy, for all of us. To be part of all that is next we need to receive God’s mercy, and extend that same mercy to others. Live according to the loving kindness of God; live kindly, honestly and peaceably.

Extending God’s mercy will mean living each day loving our neighbor, putting our own needs and rights in the context of the whole community. In our time, that will mean engaging in difficult and uncomfortable conversations about gun control and enacting common sense measures to keep us all safe. On Friday vigils across the country marked the 6th anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and honored the 600,000 people killed or injured by gun violence since December 2012. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2017, nearly 40,000 people in the United States died by guns, marking the highest number of gun deaths in decades.⁴ Statistically, that means that 109 people died every single day of 2017 from gun violence. And 2018 has been the worst year on record for gun violence in U.S. schools, with 93 school shooting incidents, (according to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.)⁵ Extending God’s mercy means we can’t keep on this way, we have to find a better way to live together as beloved community.

At General Convention last summer, Carmen Schentrup’s family left postcards on our tables, thanking us for listening to them, caring for them and praying with them in their grief. The post cards look like family Christmas cards, or graduation announcements – covered in photos of Carmen, who was 16 when she was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. As our hearts break for this family and the thousands sharing this pain, we know there must be more we can do, together.

In our time, extending God’s mercy means welcoming the stranger, getting to know those who are different, and appreciating the gifts they bring our lives. As many of you know, I’ve been taking French I this semester at SMCC, and while I have learned some French (I knew none going into the class), the best part has been getting to know the people in the class. We are an eclectic group: the more traditional students are mostly white as you’d expect at a community college in Maine, and then there are young adults who have immigrated from a variety of African nations, and two students who are Japanese, one who is Latino, one who is Moroccan, and adding to the diversity factor – many of us fall into the non-traditional student category, age-wise (though I set that bar!).

During the first week – one student, in the back row, with his hat pulled down low and slumped down (as if to hide his 6 foot frame under the table), hesitated when it came time to introduce himself. When the professor asked for his name again, he said, “Call me Bisabou.” The professor, confused, glanced at the roll and said, “But that’s your last name, I can learn to pronounce your first name, if you will teach me.”

The young man answered gruffly, “Just call my Bisabou,” and he said very little after that except when called upon. Eventually he moved to the front row, I don’t remember why, perhaps to see the board – but his whole attitude changed.

He started joking around with the young guys up in the front section of the class; he seemed to lose the chip on his shoulder, he laughed more… and at some point, the professor asked again, “Wouldn’t you prefer us to call you by your first name?” To which he smiled and said, “No one calls me that, my friends call me Bisabou.” He’s right, we are friends, in our way. On Tuesday, before we took the exam, Joelle came by to say goodbye to us, even though she could have stayed home, given that she just had a baby by C-Section. But we were all really glad she came, we wanted to see pictures of her tiny little girl and ooh and ahh (in French, of course).

As I was leaving, Tuesday evening after the exam, a few of the young people stopped me to give me a message for you. They wanted me to tell you they think you all must be a pretty cool church, to let me take French. And it’s really good to know that there are people who welcome asylum seekers, particularly in times like these; that makes them feel hopeful.

My Friends, Advent is our reminder that we live in the “between times,” between what God has done, and all that is yet to be. How we live in this time matters. Our behavior matters, it shapes our experience and our becoming. And it shapes the experience of others around us.

Living according to the loving kindness of God, extending God’s mercy to others by living kindly, honestly and peaceably – enacts radical, world-shifting change. That’s how we prepare the way of the Lord, as our Prophet John is known to say.

Or as Paul puts it: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

My Friends, let us rejoice in God’s mercy to us, as we extend it to others.
Again I say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. Amen.

1 Portions of this sermon were drawn from a sermon written by Bishop Stephen T. Lane, and preached on Advent 3, 2015, which he shared with me so that I might offer it to the people of St. Bart’s in 2015. For this sermon, I’ve drawn on the background information of that sermon.
2 Some of this text is paraphrasing Bishop Lane’s sermon.
3 Again, paraphrasing Bishop Lane. 4 Jacqueline Howard, Gun deaths in US reach highest level in nearly 40 years, CDC data reveal, 2:13 PM ET, Fri December 14, 2018.
5 Ryan Bort, The Sandy Hook Massacre Was 6 Years Ago Today. This Year Had More School Shootings Than Ever. December 14, 2018 10:36am ET