Saturday, December 12, 2015

If the Advent Candle Scorches Your Soul

Luke 3:7-18
Advent 3
December 13, 2015
William G. Carter

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance . .  . And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do? He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The Bible has no interest in tidying up John the Baptist. He is God’s Voice in the wilderness, standing beyond the boundary of civilized society and calling all people to prepare for the coming of God. From the sounds of it, he was blunt and rather direct.

When John appeared, a lot of people went out to hear him preach. They heard him say the Messiah is coming, and this inspired home. They wanted to get ready, to get baptized into his home and change their lives. John sees them come, and he yells out with sarcasm: “You are a pack of snakes, trying to wiggle away from the fire.” He doesn’t care about hurting anybody’s feelings. He is the voice in the wilderness.

Not only does John sound like a prophet, he dresses like one of the old-time prophets. His cloak comes from the hide of a camel, which means he also smells like one of the prophets. He is a force of nature, calling all people to prepare for the coming of God. They come, and they listen, and they want to know, “What must we do?”

Apparently it is not enough to be baptized. You have to do something with your life after the water has dried. You can’t sit around and say, “I’m saved from the fire.” No, your life has to “bear fruit,” he says. If you trust that God is coming, there has to be evidence in the way that you live. So the people ask, “What must we do?”

What is striking to me is what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Get yourself to church,” which is something I might say. I remember fourteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9-11, this church was full. There were folding chairs in the aisles. People were shaken up. They wanted comfort and security. They wanted to know the world was going to be OK.

A week later, attendance was back to normal. Apparently they got enough comfort and security to go back to the way they were. Either that, or they realized that going to church is not a lucky rabbit’s foot to keep trouble away. John doesn’t say, “Go to church,” sing some hymns, pray some prayers, and get inoculated from the danger. He doesn’t say that.

No, he understands that real change in our lives is not lived out in the worship sanctuary for an hour a week. Real change is how we live our lives in a world like this. So John goes for the heart – actually he goes for the pocketbook. Three times his earnest listeners ask, “What must we do?” Three times, he responds by speaking of money and possessions.

The general crowds ask, “If the Messiah is coming, what must we do?” John says, “If you have two coats, share with the person who has none, and do the same with your food.” So I looked in my hall closet and counted seven coats. I have seven coats. I asked the rest of my family, and they said I wasn’t allowed to tell you how many coats they have. John says, “Share with the needy.”

Then the tax collectors came up. They wanted to be baptized and get ready for the Messiah, so they said, “What should we do?” John looked at these people who were recruited and employed by the Roman Empire. It was a terrible system of domination. The job of the tax collector was to take money from their fellow peasants to pay for the Empire’s soldiers who occupied their towns. In turn, they could charge whatever additional fees they could get. John says, “Don’t collect any more than the amount prescribed for you.” That is, live modestly and don’t exploit your neighbors for financial gain.

Then some soldiers came – I think that means the soldiers of the foreign Empire, with all their weaponry and all their protective armor. Some of them wanted to be baptized too, so they asked, “What must we do?” John stared them down and said, “Don’t shake down any money from these people by threat or accusation, and be satisfied with the money you have.”

The Messiah is coming. Share your abundance, don’t plunder your neighbors for your own profit, and don’t extort or intimidate by violence. This is what you do. I suppose there is more we could do, but this is John’s list, as reported by the Gospel of Luke.

It’s so typical of Luke to talk about money. The Gospel of Luke must have been written for people who knew about the dark side of poverty, and who struggled with the darker side of affluence. And Luke knows what you and I know: that money divides family members against one another, that money ties up the judicial courts and the political system, and that money and possessions can be shared to build community or hoarded in ways that destroy community.

And when you have a huge imbalance between those who have everything and those who have nothing, you don’t have the kingdom of God. This is the Bible. This is what it says. Share, don’t plunder, don’t extort, for God is coming and we must be ready.

Maybe it’s hard for some of us to wrap our brains around John’s preaching. He intrudes upon the Grand American Christmas and splashes some cold water on the proceedings. His words are sharp and bracing – because they are the Gospel.

And from the conversation that about thirty of us had at last Wednesday night’s Advent study group, we know them to be true. There has to be more to Christmas, more to the birth of Christ in our world, than mere buying and selling of stuff. There has to be giving and sharing from deep within our hearts. It’s not enough to have an idea. The idea must be turned into action. It’s not enough to have a dream. The dream must be turned into a plan. It’s not enough to see a vision. The vision must have an open heart and generous hands.

So you and I: if Christ is coming and we wish to greet him, what must we do? Let me have you mull that over while I tell you a couple of stories.

Here is the first. Today we will sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It is a favorite of a lot of people, and it may surprise you that it almost didn’t make the cut to get into one of our hymnals. By definition, a hymn speaks to God or speaks about God – and God is never directly mentioned in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” There are angels, but they are singing above our heads. In fact, as Christmas carols go, this particular carol doesn’t even mention Christmas. But it was included because of the larger message.

The words were written by Edmund Sears, a pastor in Massachusetts. Sears was a Unitarian who believed very strongly in Jesus. When he wrote the carol in 1849, he was having a hard time of it. He had recently resigned a pastorate due to burn out. His voice was shot and his spirit was depressed, so he moved to a smaller parish and took a significant pay cut.[1] But he believed that above his own condition, the angels were singing.

Not only that, Sears was troubled by the state of the world around him. The Mexican-American War had just concluded, and he was no fan of war. So he wrote verse three:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long.
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong,
And we at war on earth hear not the tidings that they bring,
O, hush the noise and cease the strife to hear the angels sing.

Meanwhile, in his region of New England, the factories and mills are busting, but at the expense of factory workers. There were low wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, child laborers, and grinding poverty. So Sears composed verse four:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.[2]

There is a greater music around us and above us. Edmund Sears knew that, he trusted that, he bequeathed that message to us in his carol. But he also knew that the world can’t welcome the angelic song unless specific changes are made in how we treat one another, how we battle one another, and what we do with our economics. Because of our “sin and strife,” the world continues to be a mess, while above it, God declares justice and peace.

Here is the second story. In elegant Princeton, New Jersey, there are two Presbyterian churches. Nassau Church is the rich white church, surrounded by an Ivy League campus. At the other end of town is Witherspoon Church in an historically black neighborhood and not so rich. In one of the wealthiest zip codes in America, there are two churches divided by race and economic situation.

So it turns out that a white minister named David Prince was serving as the interim pastor at Witherspoon Church. He heard bitter stories of how one of the pastors of that African American congregation had been driven out of town by the white ministers, so he began to look into it and discovered it was true.

The Rev. William Robeson served the Witherspoon Church. He fought for the rights of black people and preached the Gospel of racial equality. In the year 1900, he was considered a trouble maker by the community. He just wouldn’t keep quiet about the injustice of the Jim Crow laws or the indignities that his people suffered. So he spoke up – and the community leaders appealed quietly to the white Presbyterian leaders, and he was removed from his pulpit. He hadn’t done anything legally wrong. He was merely considered uppity. After his dismissal, he and his former church both fell on hard times.

David Prince uncovered the story, which had been buried in a leather-bound book of Presbytery meeting minutes. As he shared the truth, everybody agreed that this couldn’t stand. So a month ago, at the 175th anniversary dinner of the Witherspoon church, there was a formal apology, a request for forgiveness in the name of Christ, and many tears of reconciliation.[3]

Then the Synod of the Northeast presented a grant of $173,000 to pay the remaining mortgage on Rev. Robeson’s home, where his son, the famous entertainer Paul Robeson had been born. The church had recently repurchased the home, and has struggled to keep up with the payments. Now the wider church has given it to them as a gift, to make things right. Harold Delhagen, the synod executive, said, “I can’t think of a better use of mission money. We have to do justice and not just talk about it.”[4]

“For lo, the days are hastening on…” God is coming among us – so what must we do? John says share what we have with those who need it most. Don’t take advantage of the people around us. Don’t use force or threat for personal gain. In short, treat your neighbors even better than you wish to be treated, for that is the shape of grace in our world.

This is the good news of God, and the One who embodies God’s grace is coming.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See, for instance, the biographical information at
[2] Brian Wren retells the story in Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) pp. 341-345.

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