Advent speaks to us with two different voices.
One voice is jubilant and joyful. It’s reassuring in tone and content. It’s the voice of the prophet Zephaniah comforting his people. “The Lord your God will rejoice over you with gladness. He will renew you with his love. He will exalt over you with loud singing.” This voice speaks a promise of home coming to those who are in exile, a pledge of victory for those who have known defeat and humiliation. Above all, it’s a voice that speaks the word of hope to a desolate and downtrodden people.
But Advent’s second voice is loud and insistent. It’s inflammatory in tone and content. It’s the voice of John the Baptist reading those who came to him to be baptized. “You brood of vipers,” he snarled, “who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” This is the voice of imminent judgement, judgement rendered swiftly and cleanly. “Even now the axe is laid to the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That rough and rugged John the Baptist is in our face again this week as he is every Advent. He’s like some Bible Belt preacher who hasn’t learned that people get tired of that kind of talk. He won’t go away, but he plants himself squarely in front of us. He’s there in all four Gospels. Because the Scriptures agree that we can’t get to Christmas, that we won’t see the baby Jesus until we first grappled with his fierce and fiery cousin.
So, which of these two Advent voices is speaking to us? Are we all a bunch of hopeless and degenerate sinners who deserve to have our limbs lopped off by the cool sharp blade of the axe? Or are we God’s beloved people destined for praise and renown and endless rejoicing? Who’s got it right today? Is it John the Baptist or is it Zephaniah? Are we facing a rosy future or are we headed for sure and certain doom?
And by placing these two seemingly contradictory readings side by side, are we as a Church simply hedging our bets? Are we like those financial prognosticators who list a dozen reasons why the future looks so bright for investors, but then add a casual disclaimer, “of course it’s hard to known for sure; past performance is no guarantee of future profits, and by the way, don’t forget the Stock Market Crash of 1929.”
The two voices of Advent speak to our deepest hopes and our deepest fears. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” That’s the way our Savior’s birth was described in one of our favorite Christmas carols. It was written Phillips Brooks, that great Anglican preacher, Rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston, Bishop of Washington, and a graduate of the Seminary where I work. Phillips Brooks had it right, I think. The hopes and the fears of all the years converge in the one whose birth we now await. He is the bearer of all of our hopes—the hope of freedom for those who lived in bondage, the hope of abundance for all who live with depravation, the hope of justice for all who live under oppression. But in that same one, in that infant of Bethlehem, rest also our deepest fears—the fear that we will be judged and found lacking, the fear that we will be punished for our wrongdoings and our shortcomings. And maybe the worst fear of all, that he will look at us and see us and know us for who we are and find us to be unlovable.
In Advent we hang suspended between the fear of judgment and the hope of redemption.
Judgement is not a pleasant topic to contemplate, at least not if it is our own. It’s hard to know what the final judgement will be. But Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that one thing we can say for sure is that it will have far less to do with who we are than who God is.
And if we can face the prospect of it with our eyes wide open, it is not because we are confident in our own goodness, but because we are confident in God’s goodness.
But still, we shrink away from John’s thundering word of judgement. “Repent,” he cries, with the urgency of one who knows in his very bones that something is terribly wrong with the way we are living our lives. John looked around him and he saw that things were not the way God meant them to be. People were dying of starvation. The rich were exploiting the poor. God’s calls for justice were going unanswered, and even ignored. Like all good prophets, John could not be silent. He couldn’t turn away. He was on a mission to speak for God, to tell the truth, to unmask hypocrisy wherever he found it.
On the walls of our Seminary’s library are inscribed these words: “Speak the truth, come whence it will, cost what it may.” John took that seriously, and he refused to mince words or sugarcoat his message. Speaking the truth would ultimately cost him his life, but for now it seemed to have its desired effect.
The people who came to John were stunned and shaken by the harshness of his words. “When then shall we do?” they asked. His answer was simple and straightforward: You need to change the way you live. If you have more food or more clothes than you need, share them with someone who has none. If you are a tax collector, collect no more than your proper share. If you are a soldier, robe no one by violence or false accusations. And be content with your wages. Note that John doesn’t call people to a life of radical poverty, but he offers them simple, almost common sense instructions. If you have more than you need, share your good fortune. Refuse to take unfair advantage of others. Pay what you owe, and be content with what you have.
But change is hard, we may say in response, and these are uncertain and difficult times. Who can know what the future will bring? Until a few days ago we didn’t even know who our national leaders will be next month and next year. Our recent prosperity seems to be slipping away. If Microsoft is worried about its future financial health, then surely my own is at risk as well. What if I don’t have enough money for retirement? Suppose I develop a serious illness? How will I pay for my children’s college, plan for my retirement, support elderly relatives who are growing more feeble each day and need so much help with the tasks of daily life? You can feel, indeed you can almost touch, the anxiety and the tension in the air. These are troubling times, and we are an anxious nation.
I suspect that John the Baptist would have little patience with our corporate anxiety. It’s not a question of how you feel, but how you behave, he might say, so turn around, go the other way, make those simple changes that put you back in right relationship with God and with your fellow human beings.
Thomas Trogger (?) recounts a medieval legend about a man who was decadent and irresponsible in many ways, but who had enough grace within him that he wanted to be good. He went to a costume maker who made him a costume, complete with a halo wired to his head. As the man walked down the street he was tempted to act and react in his normal shiftless way. But then he remembered that he had a halo on his head, and he decided to try and act differently. He gave some money to a beggar on the street. He treated his wife and his children well. He refused to cut corners at work, and treated both his workers and his customers fairly. Eventually the time came for him to return the costume, halo and all, but as he was leaving the shop, he caught a glance of himself in a store window, and he saw an image of a halo glowing over his head. It seems that he had become what he did. By behaving in a new way he had been transformed into a new person. In changing the many small acts of his daily life he found a new permanent direction for his life. He was bearing fruit, as John the Baptist might say, fruit that befits repentance.
If John the Baptist would be intolerant of our anxiety the Apostle Paul would likely give it a fairer hearing. He understood that anxiety is part of the human condition. He knew that finite men and women are bound to worry about how we live and how we work amidst all the chances and changes of this mortal life. Paul had more than an intellectual grasp of anxiety. He had experienced this existential reality within himself. And yet near the end of his life, imprisoned in Rome, he had the audacity to write to his Philippian friends, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul knew that anxiety and endless fretting are useless. Worry may be our constant companion, but it rarely if ever changes our condition. We tend to worry most about those things that stand beyond our control. We worry that ice or thunderstorms will cancel our flights. We worry that a loved one will die of an incurable disease. We grown anxious when wars abroad threaten our national security. We want so desperately to be in control of our destinies, to make life treat us fairly, to secure for ourselves and for our families all those things that will make us healthy, safe and happy. The only problem is that we are not really in control of very much at all.
Advent puts us in touch with that reality.
A friend of mine commented last week that we can’t program Advent on our palm pilots. The days continue to grow shorter and darker and colder. As the world around us spirals downward through depths of our pollution, violence and discord we need someone who can save us from ourselves, someone who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It’s no wonder that we are anxious. It’s no wonder that we watch and wait and pray for the light to come and shatter this abysmal darkness.
Today’s readings bring us full circle. The two voices of Advent both speak the truth to us. The crude and caustic accusations of John the Baptist catch our attention. They make us listen, don’t they? They draw us up short. And that is the beginning of real change and true transformation.
G. K. Chesterton observed that we are not really any good until we know how bad we are or might be. So John the Baptist keeps haranguing us. He keeps urging us to turn away from all that is ultimately destructive. He lifts our sights to catch a glimpse of the one who hovers even now on the horizon, the one who is about the shatter the complacency of our lives. He will come with a winnowing fork in his hand to gather the wheat into his granary, to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. And that. John tells us, is good news.
It may not sound like good news at first, this refining fire that burns away all impurities. But a great preacher named C. H. Spergen (?) speaks of it in this way. “God will not dissert us until he has delivered us from our faults, until he can survey every one of us without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, pure lumps of gold and silver brought home by himself without a speak of dross upon us.”
It is this deliverance and this homecoming that the prophet Zephaniah foretold. “The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst. You shall fear evil no more. So sing aloud. Shout. Rejoice and exalt with all your heart. The long-awaited one will come at last, and all of creation will know that the Lord your God is in your midst. He will renew you with his love. He will exalt over you with loud singing, and he will bring you home.