Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah
In the name of the one, holy and living God:
In whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
Today the voice of John the Baptist still echoes from the walls…
“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Get over yourselves and let go of your arrogance.
Even as we speak, the ax is lying at the root of the trees.
Time is short: bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
And after that tirade, someone actually had the nerve to ask, “What then should we do?”
The crowds of people stuck around because they were filled with expectation…
expectation that the Messiah would come and turn things around,
make life worth living again.
And perhaps this man, John…perhaps he was the Messiah.
So they ask:
What do we do?
How do we live?
The necessary beginning, John says, is to take a look at yourselves…
a deep look…
an honest look.
Move beyond assumptions about yourselves and your community,
thinking that just because you are the people of God that you’ve got it made.
God has the power to raise up holy ones out of folks you’d never imagine.
Taking a deep look at ourselves is perhaps the last thing we want to do!
It is a frightening prospect.
Dr. Steven Tomlinson, professor at Seminary of the Southwest, shares this reflection:
“Because blindness makes brokenness bearable,
we learn not to see.
We avoid that which challenges our self-image.
We hide what we judge unacceptable.
To survive, we redact.
We don’t reckon the cost.
“The cost is life….
“When we’re bent on blindness, anyone who speaks truth becomes for us a prophet. We will fight those possessed of the courage to dig up what we’ve buried and the power to speak with the voice of our conscience. We will silence the truth in self-defense.” (from 2015 Advent Meditations and Prayers, Seminary of the Southwest, Dec. 11, 2015)
And yet, John says, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. We are called to bear fruits worthy of repentance, however painful that may be.
Richard Rohr says:
“Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see, your unacceptable self by reason of nature, nurture, and choice. That bit of chosen blindness…called denial, is what allows us to do evil and cruel things – without recognizing them as evil or cruel…. We all have a well-denied shadow self. We all have that which we cannot see, will not see, dare not see….
“Jesus does not just praise good moral behavior or criticize immoral behavior, as you might expect from a lesser teacher…. He knows that if you see rightly, the actions and behavior will eventually take care of themselves. The game is over once we see clearly because evil succeeds only by disguising itself as good, necessary, or helpful. No one consciously does evil.” (Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, pp. 33-34).
The crowds ask John:
What then should we do?
How do we bear fruits worthy of repentance?
See the person standing in front of you as a person created in the image of God who is worthy of dignity, love and respect and act accordingly.
If you have two coats,
and the person standing in front of you has none,
give one of yours to her.
If you have enough to eat,
then share some of your food with folks who are hungry.
Be fair and honest in your business dealings…don’t cheat people…and don’t take more than what you are owed.
Don’t bully people to make them do what you want.
If you are paid fairly for your work,
He didn’t tell people to give up everything they had or to change their profession… just be honest, take a hard look at your life and treat one another with respect and dignity.
John continues his exhortation by saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork will be in his hand,
separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
The last line of today’s text is:
“So, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
And where, exactly, is the good news in all of this?!
Considering broods of vipers, axes, and unquenchable fire…good news seems unlikely.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.” (from “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst” in Watch for the Light, pp. 205-6)
It used to be that when I read this Gospel story, I would think of it as a sheep and goats kind of a story.
Sheep to the right…
goats to the left.
Was I in?
Or was I out?
Would I be gathered into the granary?
Or burned up with unquenchable fire?
Most of us readily place ourselves in the unquenchable fire.
But, what if it’s not so simple?
As Bonhoeffer says, God comes into the world to judge the evil in us and in the world, and through our judgment, we are cleansed and sanctified.
Those parts of us that may be arrogant or prideful, dishonest, cruel, resentful, judgmental, self-serving, greedy or even evil…those parts will be burned away.
That is good news!
But, John says, we can’t just wait around for someone else to come and relieve us of our sinful ways. We must ourselves repent and bear fruits worthy of repentance.
John calls upon us to take a hard look at our lives and ways of living and relating to one another…as individuals…as a society…as a church.
Are we honest in our work? In our business dealings?
Do we ask others to give us more than they are able?
Do we speak in cruel or biting ways… behind someone’s back?
Are we trustworthy?
In Advent we prepare to celebrate the coming of God in human flesh,
and we also prepare for the return of the Christ, who will see us as we truly are…burning away that which causes harm to ourselves and others, leaving behind the love and giftedness in which we were created.
Holy and gracious God,
deepen our sense of your presence
that in your grace we may find the courage to open our eyes and hearts and be healed by your purifying fire,
that your deep and abiding Love may flow through us into the world.