A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:7-18
I want to start today’s sermon by re-reading the collect for the day:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
What a powerful prayer as we look forward just over a week to the arrival of Christ.
Stir up your power!
With great might come among us!
We are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily held and deliver us!
This prayer is honest, and acknowledges that it is only through God’s grace and mercy are we truly saved. This prayer also alludes to a primary theme we see in today’s gospel lesson.
“You brood of vipers!” Is one of the best insults in the New Testament. Because, it’s not really an insult per se, but rather a warning to those who come to John. Do not come here to be baptized because it’s the cool thing to do, because everyone is doing it. Come here instead to be forgiven, to be washed and made clean, to prepare yourself for the one who is to come who I am unworthy to even untie the throng of his sandal. Prepare yourself for the one who is bringing his winnowing fork, ready to throw the chaff into the unquenchable fire. Prepare yourself, because we are sorely hindered by our sins.
And how do we prepare ourselves?
By ignoring our impulses for greed. By turning down the opportunity to exploit. By turning away from corruption. By doing what is necessary and nothing more.
It’s interesting that the brood of vipers before John are not told to give up everything and humble themselves before John, before the one who is to come. Rather, John is practical in his exacting manner.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
It’s not like you can wear two coats at once, so why have a closet full of them when your neighbor is standing next to you without any.
You can only eat so much food. And, disturbingly, we do a really good job in America of not sharing the extra with our neighbor. Estimates show that on average, every American throws away a pound of food every day, an estimated $165 billion worth of meals, 160 billion pounds of discarded food in our landfills, each year collectively. That’s too much. Why aren’t we feeding our neighbors with food that is perfectly fine to eat? Why won’t we eat the ugly fruit at the grocery store?
It’s not like we’re being told by John to give from the 60% we do consume, but rather make that 40% we just throw away available to our neighbor.
Even the tax collectors and soldiers come to John, fearful of the conditions he may place on them, and John is fair in his response. Don’t take more than you’re owed. Don’t shake people down. Don’t intimidate and extort. Don’t coerce and use force to get your way. Simply do the job that is prescribed to you and nothing more. For when you live into that, you enable your neighbor to do the same, without fear that the powers around them are scheming to take what little they may have away.
And yet, we are sinful people. We do give into those opportunities to exploit, to take advantage, to better ourselves at the expense of others. Our societal systems are built upon exploitative and systemic policies that have directly benefited a very small portion of our population at the expense of marginalized peoples in our society. Often times we don’t even know we are taking advantage of systems that long pre-date us. We aren’t aware that our access to food, to secure banking, to home loans at low interest rates in whatever neighborhood we desire, access to social services including police and the fire department without fear, are all built upon unfair systems that have allowed us to prosper while others have been kept down, taught to distrust, taught to fear.
We become that brood of vipers when we come to this place seeking to be washed by John, without acknowledging that we have helped create, or if not create at least sustain, these policies and practices that keep our neighbor from even having a coat when we enjoy the luxury of two.
And again, this is where our collect for today speaks with great power and humility: we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us. When we acknowledge our sins, when we acknowledge that we are part of systemic issues, that we benefit even if we don’t want to from the way our society has built up a way that does not follow our call in Christ, we can ask God to fill us with bountiful grace and mercy and from there we can begin to change those systems so that everyone has one coat and enough food, rather than the imbalance we see every day in our society.
It is in this season of Advent then that this understanding of what we are called to do comes in clearer and more defined, because we are tasked with preparing the way of our Lord to be among us.
Do we really want Christ to walk among us with the systems, policies, and practices that we exploit in our society today?
Do we really want the Christ child to come into a world that looks at a poor family, away from their hometown, who will soon have to flee their homeland as political refugees escaping the murderous intent of the local authority, and says “No, thanks. You’re not welcome here”? And, even when he comes anyways, deny him medical attention and watch him die under our (lack of) care.
The fact that this last question actually seems to be how the authorities of our time are currently acting, we cry out even louder with the first line of our collect today: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us!
We know that when Christ comes it will be of a level and authority the likes of which have never been seen. If the prophet who has been foretold as the voice crying out from the wilderness isn’t even worthy to stoop down low to the ground, to untie the dirty, dust, mud, and who knows what else caked throng of a sandal of our Messiah, then we know that his power is unmatched and his call to us will challenge us in all ways, will leave us wondering, questioning, hoping, praying, and rethinking all that we know, all that we have, and all that we are set to do.
In this season of Advent then, we echo the words of Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Don’t worry, simply give thanks and know that through God, through Christ, we can live into the call that has been laid before. We know that we will falter and fall. We know that we are continually hindered by our sins. But, and this is the important part, we also know that God’s grace and mercy are with us, always. That God’s grace and mercy allows us to humble ourselves before the Lord. That God’s grace and mercy take us out of that brood of vipers and inspires us to prepare ourselves by ignoring our impulses for greed, by turning down the opportunity to exploit, by turning away from corruption, by doing what is necessary and nothing more, by acknowledging all that we have and all that we can do for our neighbor so that the imbalance in this world is brought closer to center.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever.