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Living Between Two Advents: The Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 12, 2021:
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

At the recent retirement home services I’ve led, I’ve made a joke about how “You Brood of Vipers” has yet to make it into our holiday season lexicon. It’s not on any Christmas cards… yet to be featured on the often-controversial Starbucks cup that people use as a litmus test for how much “Christ” is “in” or “out” of Christmas.

And by the way, no one in those retirement homes ever laughed at my joke, so I’m not going to try telling it again. But I do raise it generally, because of how the awkwardness of my failed joke points to the awkwardness, or at least tension, in today’s readings. In Church history today came to be known “Gaudete Sunday” — “gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the service at one point opened with the words “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.” It’s a bit of an oasis in what can be a sometimes serious season. We hear that in the first reading, from Zephaniah, a pretty serious book that comes to moments of hopefulness: “rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, and has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” We welcome that message in our own day. And we take some comfort in how the Biblical narrative features cycles of disaster, yes, but also restoration.

But then we come to the gospel, and we’re back in that serious, penitential Advent territory. (Unfunny brood of vipers joke goes here.) And we’re in that awkwardness, that tension. And it’s natural to gravitate to the rejoicing, and be a bit unnerved, maybe even embarrassed by the likes of John the Baptist, or uncertain of the helpfulness of these sombre passages. A couple weeks ago Fr. Gerry spoke about the unfortunate history of the apocalyptic being mishandled, I guess we could say, in the Church (focussing on dates, focussing on numbers).

But there seems to me something important about living in this tension, and honouring both the messages of consolation and of warning. We sometimes hear that expression “Christians are Easter people.” And that’s true. But it’s just as true to say that we’re “Advent people.” Because resurrection is something we believe — we hope and trust in — but, as our creeds attest, our direct participation in resurrection is to come. So Advent seems to describe our current predicament, our situation. And think of Advent words and values: watching, waiting, expecting, hoping.

The Christian life is lived in this time between the first Advent and Second Advent. The first coming we will celebrate at Christmas, and the second coming we’ll celebrate when we come around again to Reign of Christ, the last Sunday in the church calendar. And even our observance of Advent now isn’t just about counting down the days till we get to open presents, but it works to form us as people able to recognize the coming of God’s Kingdom, God’s Reign, in whatever way that will or does happen. It trains us to discern the signs of the times. And we’re talking here of nothing less than eternity entering into time. Something ultimately beyond our comprehension. Extreme, even scary visions can help expand our minds and awaken us to this reality. But an overly-confident literalism risks missing the whole point of this, by flattening this mystery… by flattening eternity into ordinary time.

John spoke of the coming Kingdom in his serious, apocalyptic way. And Jesus spoke of the Kingdom oftentimes in very different ways (the mustard seed, etc.). Our liturgy and sacraments point us to the coming Kingdom, and at their best, gives us a glimpse or experience of it. (We experience forgiveness; we share the peace; we eat together.) It takes wisdom to discern the signs in their versatility and diversity.

And we remember, too, the John the Baptist figure, and we add “repenting” to our waiting, expecting, and hoping. The crowds asked him “what should we do?”, which is really our question too, as we live in this time between the two Advents. And his message is to repent — to do things differently. To share, to be honest, and to live peaceably with others, John tells them. So we ask: what does sharing our coat mean for us right now? What is “collecting no more than what’s prescribed?” What are ways that extortion, threats, and false accusation have been woven into the fabric of our society? We see a commitment to sharing each week in the items (and time) donated to stocking and operating our Food Cupboard or knitted hats and mitts to be passed along to street outreach ministries. And as we get closer to Christmas, we sometimes see how our gift-giving reflects the values of sharing. Conversely, we also see how our rampant consumerism distorts this entirely. And even harder to get at is the fallenness of our systems that are more institutional or systemic than personal. I know, for instance, that we purchased our home honestly; we didn’t blackmail the previous owner or rob any banks. But I also have a sense that I’m entwined in a system that John the Baptist would disapprove of, to put it lightly. I have no easy answer for this, but as Christians we live in this tension, and we’re called to seek the ways of God’s Kingdom in the midst of all this.

And there’s tension, too, in this call to repentance and righteousness, and our belief in the abundant mercy and grace of God. We would have an impoverished sense of this Kingdom if we heard John’s call to repentance as God’s love having strings attached. Yes, he says, live differently. BUT the question is not “what should we do” to attain salvation, but something more like “what should we do” now that we have experienced, or even gotten a glimpse at our salvation. Our changed ways are not about getting points to pass a final exam, but, using John’s wording, they are “fruits” — they’re the results of our experience of God’s unconditional love.

This unconditional love is our safety net that encourages us to take risks, to step out in faith, to go out on a limb. Pursuing justice will sometimes (oftentimes) be a messy, experimental, tentative affair. I sense that our world struggles to understand this, and so we walk on eggshells. But as Christians, this Advent we hear this call to change and repentance, and we hear it in the context of God’s unconditional love. Our fruits of repentance will be imperfect, sometimes bruised or blemished. Loblaws sells them in those big No Name bags, labelled “Naturally Imperfect.” It is not perfect fruit, but still good fruit. Not destined for the fire or the trash heap, but our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving made acceptable in Christ. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter