by Jason Micheli
Mark 1.1-8 (click to see Scripture text)
Everlasting and Merciful God, just as you have given yourself to us in the flesh and as we yet wait for you to give yourself in glory when Christ comes again, we pray that you would give yourself to us today in your Word. Amen.
Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like “You brood of vipers…flee from the wrath to come…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…” and thinks, “Meh, that’s a bit much?”
“‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
That’s how John the Baptist greets the people like you and me— the religious folks— in Matthew’s version of today’s text from the Gospel of Mark.
I mean, I don’t know much about you, but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?
Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?
I mean— am I even allowed to ask the question:
Is God’s ego really so fragile?
True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in the mail— like Charlie’s Golden Ticket— but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree better off tossed into the fire?
Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat, the lunchbox full of locusts, and the sandwich board sign with verses from Isaiah painted on it correct?
Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire?
And, I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51— seems awfully grim and narcissistic to me— but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.
Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.
I realize the COVID quarantine and the stolen election results have us all a little on edge, but what’s the Almighty’s excuse? Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?
With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus? And shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?
Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Advent begins in the dark.
With the season of Advent, the lectionary— the cycle of assigned scripture readings— forces us to hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity, because the world is filled with people like you and me.
It’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came.
And to such a world he shall come again.
And so, during Advent, we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town, but about how Judgment is coming.
Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.
We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who today starts with pastoral words of comfort before reminding us five verses later that none of us is getting out of here alive.
Even Isaiah’s first two verses today, “Comfort, comfort my People, says your God, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” begin to sound less comforting when we hear them in the Gospel on the lips of this man eating insects and hollering in the desert.
In fact, just a few chapters before Isaiah’s “comfort,” the prophet Isaiah sounds an awful lot like the last prophet, promising that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet— guess that’s where John gets his imagery— is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.
Even though the lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings, every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, looking like Leonardo DiCaprio in Revenant and acting like a Flannery O’Connor character, verbally assaulting the crowds who gather at the Jordan River to hear him.
John the Baptist is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah.
Elijah— don’t forget— never died, but was taken up into heaven. Elijah’s return was long-expected. And when Elijah comes again, the Bible promises, his arrival will auger the nearness of the Day of the Lord and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah,” the Lord promises the prophet Malachi, “the prophet before the great Day of the Lord comes…”
That’s the final verse of the Christian Old Testament.
This is why Jewish families set an extra place at the table for Elijah. Normally you avoid the street preachers with the bullhorns, but Elijah is why crowds have sought John the Baptizer out.
And this is why he is the only feature of the story of the incarnation upon which all four Gospels agree.
Only Matthew and Luke have nativity stories.
Only John speaks of Jesus as the eternal Logos.
Only Mark begins straightaway with a grown-up Jesus.
But they all begin with John the Baptist, which is 100% happy news only to those who don’t know their Bibles, for that final verse from the prophet Malachi is also filled with foreboding, “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”
Is it any mystery you don’t see any nativity scenes or Advent calendars featuring John the Baptist, shouting “Repent ye! Or be burnt up like chaff with unquenchable fire!”
No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
Denial that we are sinners.
But, since Advent is a season for honesty, what about just average sinners?
What about mediocre sinners?
Like you? Like me?
Just read through the Advent hymns the Church has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae, which means, The Day of Wrath.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for run-of-the-mill people like us who gripe at your kids’ virtual learning, throw away the sourdough starter your neighbor gave you, pretend you enjoy watching Queen’s Gambit type sinners.
Or, take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, we read it last Sunday, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that “…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.”
Its “menstrual clothes” in Hebrew.
It’s over the top.
It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew’s version of today’s text.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees are the good guys, don’t forget.
They represented alternative attempts to remain faithful to the Law under the circumstances of Roman occupation and oppression.
I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than three traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.
Yet, these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some twenty miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John the Baptist and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.
To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.
You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should, or how you feel guilty about blocking your neighbor on Facebook in the run-up to the election, or how you secretly don’t mind not being able to spend Thanksgiving with your in-laws?
And what does the Church at Advent do?
Bam. We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork.
And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.
No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with pumpkin spice lattes and the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas (My favorite is Love, Lights, Hannukkah starring Ben Savage and the villainess from Season One of 24).
I’ve been an every Sunday morning preacher for nearly twenty years.
And I can tell you— you listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent after Advent after Advent after Advent—and you can start to hear some crazy things.
For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
So, let’s be honest. When it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language, misses the mark.
As an English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language; that is, it’s to use the language badly, because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hidden.
So, let’s be honest.
Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners.
I mean, as a United Methodist pastor I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if parishioners sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for such interesting sinning.
We are not great sinners.
I mean— COVID 19 has given you the perfect excuse to skip church and here you are watching a sermon on a computer screen or listening to it through iTunes. Therefore, by definition, you are not a great or grave sinner.
We’re not rebelling day and night against God. Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of “brood of vipers.” We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. Unless you work in the health insurance industry, I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done this week.
No matter what the Baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity, he called it “very good” and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin, himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.
Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators. If you look like me, there’s a near 100% chance you’re at least a little racist, sure. And check the tags on your clothes or the fruit in the fridge, no doubt you’re participating in systems of oppression.
But Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment, and let’s be truthful.
Your sins do not offend God.
There, I said it.
Your sins do not offend God.
No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most.
And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you.
But your sins— they don’t anger God.
John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest.
Most of you are basic cable, This is Us, kinds of sinners.
You may hate your ex- or grumble about your prejudiced, pain-in-the-butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.
No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.
You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God— that’s insanity.
No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You spend more on streaming services than you give to the poor. And you’re only vaguely aware of the war in Ethiopia.
Those are the kinds of sinners you are— we are.
But, brood of vipers?
Don’t flatter yourself.
I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it.
You’re not that much of a sinner. No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not— your sins cannot— provoke God’s wrath.
I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how loving and forgiving God is.
That’s not how the grace equation works.
Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.
As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.
Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.
Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.
They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.
They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and accumulate and accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear—
Sin is about where your love lies.
Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a colluder with the Empire like Caiphas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite— God’s love doesn’t change.
Because, God doesn’t change.
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.
The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.
From before Creation, God elected not to be God without you; ergo, God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preachings or not.
So, before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.
Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love for you is unconditional— unchanging— because God is unchanging.
This is what the prophet Isaiah means today when he reminds us that only the Word of God— that is, Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father— abides forever.
God, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, is unchanging.
And so God’s love for you is unconditional.
Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.
Don’t think another purple season of penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.
Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.
When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us.
He is changing our minds about him.
God does not change.
God’s mind is never anything but loving, because God just is Love.
Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?
You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.
You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love, but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you, but your affection.
Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us, our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.
Most of our sins— they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.
And so, we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.
Advent is a season that forbids denial, because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.
And die to them we must, because Jesus said there’s no way to God, except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.
If you listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough, the honey sticks in your ears.
You can start to hear the wrong message.
Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.
Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die.
Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again.
And that isn’t easy, because there’s no way to avoid the cross.
Even boring, mediocre sinners like us— we have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.
Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us, but so that we can live well with the God who loves us.
Living well— That’s it.
That’s the reason we hear from John the Baptist year after year.
And it’s why all four Gospels agree with what Mark tells us today that John the Baptist is not just a character in the Gospel, he is “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
The reason for John the Baptist this season is not about our situation vis-a-vis God, as sinners before an angry God.
It’s not about our situation, but his location.
He is Elijah.
And, therefore, he stands at the edge, at the juncture, at the collision point between the Old Age and the New Age, the Kingdom.
A Kingdom that has broken in upon our world but is also still not yet.
Every year this Elijah reminds us not of our situation but of his location.
He is the link between the Old World and the Real World— the one that was disclosed to us in Jesus Christ and that will be delivered upon his return.
And so we grope in the dark during Advent, grabbing ahold of and killing our lovers, confronting our sins in order to die to them, so that we might be made ready to live in the world that is on its way.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way;
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight—”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
– Mark 1.1-8
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