Rejoice, You Brood of Vipers!

A Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; St. Luke 3:7-18


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Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who stands ready with the winnowing fork in his hand. Amen.

We’re over halfway through Advent — we’ve made it to the third Sunday, sometimes called Gaudete Sunday, or “Rejoice!” Sunday. In many parts of the Church, they’re lighting the odd candle out, a rose candle that stands out like a sore thumb among the purple and blue. Some parishes are even hanging up rose-colored paraments, and a few lucky priests are wearing rose vestments. I’ve even been told that somewhere, someone can somehow differentiate between rose and pink.

It’s a festive, jolly time of year! It’s time to rejoice, to deck the halls, to go out caroling, to feast on all sorts of sweets, and to raise a hearty glass of wassail or gluehwein. As many of you know, I’m fairly rigid about the liturgy, which means I’m hesitant to celebrate Christmas before we arrive at the 25th, but I do want to join in the seasonal festivities.

To that end, I’ve endeavored to write a few Advent carols rooted in this year’s lectionary readings; here’s a fun one based on the first Sunday’s Gospel:

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Fa-la-la-la-la La-la La La ”

Or this one, based on the mid-week reading from Isaiah:

“Until the cities lie waste without inhabitant…and the land is utterly desolate. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum Rum-pum-pum-pum Rum-pum-pum-pum.”

And while I’m at it, I’m also introducing a new line of Advent cards. Next year, you can all expect a Lewis family greeting depicting a beautiful Renaissance painting of John the Baptist; inside, in beautiful cursive script, it will read:

“Rejoice, you brood of vipers!”

We spend half of our time in Advent with John, the fiery apocalyptic preacher, who wandered the countryside in coarse camelhair, not exactly donning now his gay apparel. His calls to repentance are at times downright harsh: warnings about getting chopped down and thrown into the fire, questioning those who have only sought to honor the traditions of their father Abraham, and then there’s that little bit about the vipers.

“So,” Saint Luke tells us, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Advent is an odd season, full of tension and contradiction. Simply consider the back and forth of today’s readings:

“Rejoice!” says Zephaniah.

“Repent!” cries John.

“Do not worry about anything,” urges Saint Paul.

“The ax is lying at the root of the trees,” warns the Baptist.

We’re moving towards Christmas, a time of merry-making, bright greenery, gift giving, and feasting. But we’re also reading texts focused on the coming end of the age, full of mysterious signs and dire warnings. In the midst of this come John’s brash calls to repentance, which Saint Luke calls “good news.”

On Wednesday nights, we’ve been reading from Isaiah and reflecting on the helplessness of Advent, that this time points to a coming age that we can do nothing to bring about — a day as yet unknown when Christ shall return in glory.

But if we can do nothing to bring about this coming age, what joy is there in this season? Is this why Christmas carols are always so much better known and sound so much more mirthful than Advent hymns? How do we rejoice in our helplessness? We are called to repentance, but how is repentance worth celebrating? How is this good news?

Culturally, “repentance” has become one of those loaded church words that carries with it all of the emotional weight of angry men yelling at you from a soapbox. We shy away from it lest we sound like a “turn-or-burn” street preacher who offers no real hope – after all, when was the last time a street preacher actually accepted your answer that, yes, in fact, you did believe in Christ?

But is this really what John has in mind? That we should take to the streets in sandwich board signs warning people of hellfire and damnation?

The call to repentance is not just about sorrow and guilt; we’re not simply called to abstain from sinful action nor are we called to climb the soapbox and begin angrily admonishing those around us. Rather, the call to repent is a call to bear fruit – to actually produce something, to take up positive works rather than avoiding negative actions. Metanoia, the Greek word we see translated as “repent” is really about transformation. John is not calling us to be ashamed but to be made new. Repentance is a new and transformed life. It’s not limited to the head or the heart but takes root in the entirety of our lives – how we worship, how we act, how we eat, how we shop, how we live together. It is living into the identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, we are called to repent! That is, we are called to be the people that God created us to be, to live out our faith in Christ.

We can rejoice in this call to repentance not because we can achieve it on our own but because we know that God is gracious. God has already made us new in the waters of baptism. And in the Eucharist, we are fed by God’s grace that we may be the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. In these Sacraments, we are united with Christ to be his hands and feet in this world.

We know that we have failed in this endeavor, and will fail and fail again until kingdom come. But here is Christ, for you to forgive. Here is the grace to sustain you unto everlasting life. Here is food, spiritual and physical, which shall strengthen you to continue being made new. Here, in these sacraments, God is taking the pruning hook and ax to you, lovingly and tenderly removing the parts of your life that don’t bear fruit in order that what remains will bear good fruit.

True repentance is opening ourselves up to the identity that God bestows upon us. By grace, we are being transformed and have been made to bear the fruits of salvation.

And like the crowds gathered around John, we ask, “What then should we do?”

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Love one another. And go to the ends of the earth, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

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