Another Sunday of Advent, another lesson from John the Baptist. John dominates the scene in Advent, and it’s not always with things we want to hear. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, or Joy Sunday. This is why we light the pink candle on this day, as it is the color for joy. (If I owned a pink stole, I could wear it, but since I’d only use it twice a year that isn’t something I bought.)
Our readings from Zephaniah and Philippians reflect this joy. But then John joins us on this joyful occasion. And…it might seem like the joy stops. But the reading ends by saying, “with many other exhortations, he shared the good news.” Although John might seem wild, demanding, and intimidating to us, Luke tells us his message is good news. How is this good news? And for whom?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you heard of the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? It was written by Robert Fulghum about thirty years ago. It contains a wide-ranging list of things that Fulghum learned in kindergarten that might just be great ideas for adults, too. An incomplete list:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Take a nap every afternoon. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Live a balanced life—learn some and snack some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
Of course, kindergarten doesn’t teach us all we need to know, but it sure does teach us a lot. And when I listened to John the Baptist in our reading this morning, I honestly heard more the stuff of kindergarten than the stuff of apocalypse. It’s easy to miss because it’s in the middle of John calling the people who’ve come to be baptized a brood of vipers and the threat that they might be thrown into the unquenchable fire if they’re not careful.
John is this wild man out in the desert and he’s scary and rough around the edges. But the people are listening. According to Luke, the crowds are streaming out into the wilderness to get yelled at by John. They’re not just willing, but eager to hear this fiery message. They want to live differently than they have been. They know that the way things are isn’t working so well for them. And so, they ask him: “What should we do?”
You might expect John to have a wild answer to match his personality. After all, this is a man dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts. What do you think such a person might say? Give everything away! Quit your jobs, leave your families, and go live in the desert! Start a revolution!
But John’s answer is even more radical than all of that. What should we do? Share. Be fair. Don’t cheat. Don’t be a bully. It’s so simple, it’s easy to skip by it to get to the dramatic winnowing fork.
The crowds, eager for answers are told, “if you have more than enough, share with someone who needs it.” The tax-collectors, people hated for collaborating with Rome are told to be honest in their dealings. Not to quit their jobs, not to stop collecting taxes, but to do so fairly. The soldiers, members of an occupying, oppressive force, are told not to misuse their power. Not to take advantage of their positions.
And here’s what’s so radical about John’s message: faithfulness doesn’t always have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be heroic. John’s message of repentance, of re-examining our lives, doesn’t ask us to abandon our lives. But it does ask us to find ways to be faithful wherever we are, and whatever we do.
We’re having a baptism this morning. Fiamma is going to be brought up front and we are going to welcome her, knowing that God has loved her her whole life and that now she will be marked with Christ’s cross and sealed in the Spirit. We are going to celebrate with her the gift of baptism that we too share—the gift of forgiveness and grace and identity rooted in being God’s beloved child.
But first, we’re going to have an opportunity to do what John called the people to do. To repent. All of us, not just Fiamma’s parents or sponsors, but we will all be asked to renounce sin and evil and called to turn towards God in Christ. In her baptism, Fiamma will be joining us in our mission to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.
In baptism, God sets us free from our self-centered ways to live in love and faithfulness. Our old selves are drowned in these waters, and God raises us up as a new creation. That is a promise that we need to return to again and again. Today we hear once again that we are the Lord’s. Our past mistakes, where we’ve done wrong, the things we regret do not need to hold us back, because in Christ we receive forgiveness. We receive new beginnings. And we receive the call to live as faithful disciples.
And so we join the crowds gathered around John asking, “What should I do?” What does faithfulness look like in my life, in light of this promise of God’s grace? Because this is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.
In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbors. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work or retired? Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school? Learn everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember). Driving a public transit bus? Do it safely and well. The list goes on and on.
Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. That mission we share at the end of the baptismal service, to share God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes the most faithful and life-giving actions happen right in the midst of our daily lives. Treating others with respect. Sharing what we have. Taking pride in what we are called to do, knowing that even the most ordinary tasks are an opportunity to serve God. We find God, and we find opportunities to be faithful in the ordinary stuff of life.
And, in all things rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul in Philippians, “and again I say rejoice.” I love that verse, but it so often gets removed from its context. Paul is writing this while he is in prison. And he’s writing to a community that is suffering persecution. And yet he says to rejoice always. He’s not talking about any kind of fake happiness or forced cheer.
He’s talking about the knowledge that in all things we do, there is the opportunity to love and serve God. We need not fear: God has claimed us as God’s own and nothing—including our own actions—will ever take that away. So what should we do? Rejoice. Give thanks to God and together bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world, in all you do. Amen.