The last time I preached on this Gospel passage was three years ago, in December of 2012. A young man had just days earlier opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School, and we were all devastated by the utterly senseless, perhaps preventable, loss of life. I remember how I struggled with John the Baptist that weekend. I couldn’t make peace with his fiery language. “You brood of vipers!” He yells. “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come!” What I kept hearing in his words, and it still rings in my ears, is the same kind of annihilating wrath that I imagine that terribly disturbed young man with a gun must have been feeling. “Judgment day is here! Your time is about up! Already the axe is laid to the root of the tree!” John the Baptist’s words made me shudder that weekend.
Let me hasten to say that the problem is not with John the Baptist or with Luke’s Gospel, and the problem is definitely not with Jesus. It’s just hard to hear John the Baptist because of the way we are living. The problem is that we are surrounded by cheap, pointless, fraudulent, bad ideas about judgment day. We are surrounded by individuals and groups and whole swathes of our population who don’t see the point of continuing. People who imagine that they are prophets of some terrible judgment. People with axes who are looking for trees to cut down.
And there are so many of us too, who just seem quietly to have given up on the day to come. We don’t carry a gun, maybe, but in our complacency we make choices that are disastrous for all of us. There are leaders who care so little about the future of our environment that they actually lie rather than admit that global warming is a reality. Sometimes we are content to be lied to.
It seems at times that we might be more or less content to let our political life become a circus. Why bother to guard against foolish policies or foolish people? Why protect Muslims or Mexicans? Vent your rage! That’s what voting is for, it turns out. Not for building up the kingdom or working toward the future, but for whatever we feel in the moment.
We are surrounded by people who distort religion and turn it into another vehicle for violent rage. There are terrorists in Paris and in San Bernardino, people who look around at the world and see only cause for wrath and destruction. People who would drop off their baby with a relative so they can go shoot up a Christmas party in the name of God. People who hold hostages at Planned Parenthood in the name of saving babies. Like little gods, they are, each one of them, little wrong-headed gods, rendering terrible judgment when they come. They are responsible to no one.
In this era we are living with an “end of the world” mentality whether we admit it or not. Are people even trying to flee from the wrath to come anymore? It seems as though the focus has shifted since the time of John the Baptist. It seems as though increasingly the world around us has decided to remain in a permanent judgment day. And it seems as though our world is bringing about this wrath, this judgment, all by ourselves, just by failing to see the point of sustaining life and working earnestly for the future good. We are making our own apocalypse and it doesn’t bother us enough collectively to stop.
How does a world that is drunk on misguided fantasies about the wrath to come hear the words of John the Baptist? Wrath to come? Who is worried about that? We are choking on the wrath of the present moment. The axe is laid to the root of the tree and we are holding it there ourselves, we are sharpening that axe, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
I can tell you think I’ve forgotten that this is Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” It’s the first word of the Latin translation of this morning’s epistle, part of which used to be the opening prayer, or introit, for today’s Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. 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.” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Gaudete. Though we have been in a season of prayerful repentance, the Church bids us to lighten up a little on this third Sunday of Advent. The colors of our vestments turn from violet to rose. Rejoicing, thanksgiving, gentleness, prayer, an absence of anxiety: these are signs for Paul that the Lord is near, and so the Church teaches us to make room in our repentance for the joy of the Lord.
This is how you and I are meant to proclaim the day of his coming: by rejoicing in the love of God. By loving Jesus who is the alpha and the omega, the end and the beginning. When you look around you and see so much purposeless destruction, remember that you are bound in a relationship of love with the alpha and the omega, with Jesus who embodies the beginning and the end. Jesus who is where we come from and where we are heading, and his salvation is for the world.
Remember that you are invited, that the world is invited, to a banquet of rejoicing. Every time you receive the Eucharist you are at the table of the Lord on the last day, celebrating the great feast of the beginning and the end. This is God’s idea of judgment day. God’s judgment, the judgment brought by the Prince of Peace, is God’s unfathomable love and healing, and forgiveness. What burns away like chaff is hysteria, and fear, and anxiety, and they do it to themselves. Remember that God’s love in Christ pours out for us, measure upon measure, infinite in mercy and in power to save. And that Spirit of God is within us.
It is not for us to lay the axe to the root of the tree. Our job is to tend to the tree. Our job is to be so well loved by our God that we are able to trust. “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.”
And what about John the Baptist? Listen carefully to his words. He has a great deal to say to us for our good. He too is asking us to tend the tree, not to chop it down. For all his fiery speech, when it comes time to get to specifics, he is remarkably reasonable:
The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
You know, any self-respecting prophet of doom would be deeply disappointed to deliver a message like that. Be satisfied with your wages. Don’t extort money. Don’t cheat. Share what you have.
It turns out that rejoicing is repentance. That was true in the day of John the Baptist and it’s truer than ever now, as we meet this morning. Rejoicing in God’s abundance, letting go of our anxiety because we rejoice in God, is the very repentance that the world cries out for. It brings with it justice and healing and mercy and forgiveness and peace. It is the prophecy that we gather to see fulfilled.
It turns out that for John in this passage the proper response to the coming of Jesus is to labor on in your profession, to keep doing what you have to do, and to do it honestly and with integrity and with grace. People who don’t cheat and don’t steal and share what they have and don’t grasp for more are bearing fruit worthy of repentance. They are showing, through simple, gracious daily life, that they know the love of God well enough to let go of anxiety and hoarding and competition and morose speculation.
We may have the grace to live this way, simple though it sounds, if we know that we are fed at the banquet of the Lord. If we know that we are waiting for the Prince of Peace, and if we know that just as the church does in the midst of this Advent season, when we long for the coming of our deliverer, that we may pause and rest and be grateful, for we are exactly where God has us be. We are exactly the people whom God calls to live in this day and at this time.
It is not for us to lay the axe to the root of the tree. Tend the tree with rejoicing and thanksgiving.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
13 December 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia