Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
1st Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
2nd Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Advent Season. When the whole world is telling us to be afraid, we come here to rejoice. The days are getting literally darker and shorter. The waters are rising. The winds are howling. The forces of nature are telling us to be afraid in these dark days. And the darkening days are mirrored by the news. Be afraid and stay inside, don't get together with your neighbor because you might get hurt, don't help someone in need because they won't appreciate it, don't do anything but sit safely and watch this fearful news cycle and watch these commercials that cause more fear.
We want to do something, so today we turn to John the Baptist. He's the latest new craze, someone telling the truth even if it sounds a little harsh. We want something to change. We don't want to be afraid anymore, but we're not sure where to turn.
He takes one look at us and says, “You brood of vipers!” Oh man, he's on to us. He tells us we're part of the problem. He challenges us to see if we're going to run away at his fiery speech or if we're desperate enough that we really do want change. He tells us that it isn't going to be enough to be in team Abraham or to join team John the Baptist or to get a little water thrown around and pay lip service to making change. “Change is coming!” he tell us. Get ready for the real change, God coming with fire and breath, Spirit, love.
We, along, with the crowd, ask him, “What should we do?”
Even, tax collectors, lawyers, and used car salesmen, pimps, and IRS workers, insurance salesmen and billionaires came to John and asked, “What should we do?”
Soldiers and FBI, traffic cops, and investigators, spies, and all in the weapons industry also asked him, “What should we do?”
We hear of ISIS and we ask, “What should we do? What can we do?”
We read about the Climate talks in France and we ask, “What should we do?”
We look at the Christmas ads and drive in frantic holiday traffic and ask, “What should we do?”
John replies, “God is coming. I'm no one compared to him. He will separate the wheat the from the chaff. He will help us to understand what is wheat, what is lasting and satisfying, what is life-giving and hopeful and essential. And he will help us to understand what is chaff, what is expendable, temporary, trash that will be blown away by the wind and the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Sara was talking this week about roasting your own coffee this week in Text Study. Coffee beans have chaff, part of the seed coat that needs to burn off or be blown off or get picked off. She roasts hers in an air popper so that most of the chaff is blown off. But then she sits and picks through all the beans for any remaining chaff, because if it gets in the coffee it will make it bitter and disgusting.
We tend to think that some of us are wheat and some are chaff and boy is it easy to pick out those chaff kind of folk that don't make the cut. John doesn't separate the people by who is good and who is bad. He doesn't say soldiers over here and merchants over here, or rich people over here and poor over here. He doesn't say team Abraham over here and everyone else get out. He didn't say Muslims over here and Christians over here. We all have chaff. We all have something that is expendable and bitter that needs to be burned off or blown away or hacked off with an axe. We have it as individuals and as a group. And we all have a kernel of wheat, something valuable and beautiful and nutritious and lasting. According to John, it is God who separates these from each other and does this work. So then we ask, “What should we do? What is our part in all this?”
He says to do something that matters, that is constructive, that is wheat-like.
Share. We learned in Bible Study about a man born in 1380, Bernadino of Sienna. He became a Franciscan Friar and one of the most popular preachers in Italy. He said that the poor give value to the life of the rich, because they give the rich someone to share with. Without the poor, there would be no reason to have rich people around, no way rich people could say their lives were valuable or meaningful. It thought that was an interesting perspective. Sharing gives our lives value, and don't we find that anyone can share, no matter what their bank account balance. We do share money and material possessions, but we also share love, and recipes, and the work load, and our problems and advice and love and so many things that you can't put a value on. We would call those priceless. Even if you only have one more than you need, share it—food, coats, dollars, pets, blankets, socks, shoes, whatever it is! It builds relationships between people. It simplifies our life. It can strengthen another that they have what they need. What should we do? Share.
But that's not all. What should we do? Be honest. Collect no more than than the amount prescribed for you. No matter what anyone else does, don't take more than you need. When we are honest, we build trust in our community. We are reliable and we set an example for others to follow. We are full of fear and we want our world to be different, “What should we do?” Be honest.
But that's not all. What should we do? Be thankful. When it is so tempting to complain, to focus on what we don't have, to be fearful, there is one thing we can do and that is to be thankful—start counting our blessings. When everyone else wants the new car, the latest phone, the vacation house, the perfect eyebrows, the hover board, be satisfied with the blessings and gifts that we have. We are anxious and afraid, “What should we do?” “Be thankful.”
If we don't like things the way they are, if we don't want to see so much suffering, if we don't want to argue in our families so much, if we don't want to be afraid anymore, if we want our world to change, we can't just ask others to change. We have to be willing to change. We have to let God change us. We have to be willing to change our from the chaff to the wheat. We have to let God change our habits to what is temporary to what is lasting and satisfying.
I heard a quote this week, “Feeling afraid is different from being afraid.” From time to time we will feel afraid, and for good reason. There are dangers in this world that we are trying to warn each other about, legitimate things to be concerned about that we can do something about. However, we can become afraid as a habit, as a constant state of anxiety when we hear bad news story after bad news story, when we see the red ticker going across the bottom of the screen on the news, when we get on Facebook and see downed trees and flooded homes and shootings and lit candles in remembrance and arguments about gun control or banning Muslims. It is too easy to become afraid, for that feeling to become a lasting state of mind that we are acting from and getting ulcers from.
“What can we do?” Don't feed it. Don't pay any more attention to it. Turn to something constructive, help someone else. Don't just feel generous, be generous. Don't just feel grateful, be grateful, don't just feel honest, be honest. Be the change you want to see, not because you are going to save the world or because you feel guilty, but out of thanksgiving for all God has done, trusting that God will separate the wheat from the chaff in your own life and in the life of your community. I enjoyed reading a sermon by Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber this week. It was for Christ the King Sunday, but she was pointing out what really lasts and matters, what is wheat, and what ends up being merely a footnote, the chaff that gets blown away.
This is what she wrote:“So my prayer this week when I just didn’t know what to pray was simple. I named every single thing and person that seems so powerful right now as to feel inescapable – rulers, tyrants, my own sins, societal forces etc. and I named them and then said “footnote”. Pontias Pilate – footnote, The Islamic state – footnote, My own participation in the things I say I don’t believe in – footnote, The gun lobby – footnote, Your depression – footnote, Your boss – footnote, Student Loans – footnote, Xenophobic violence – footnote
Don’t mistake me – all of these things are very real and the horrible effect they have on us and on the world is also very real. But in the big picture I defiantly believe that God can redeem it. All of it. Our God will be victorious turning swords into plough-shares and anxiety into hope. I will cling to the promise that ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.”