Third Sunday of Advent 13 December 2015
(Zephaniah 3:14-20 Isaiah 12:2-6 Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18)
“Action! Action! We Need Action!”
I wonder if any of you ever attended a John the Baptist event. Such events are not all warm and fuzzy because that’s not who John was. I attended one this past Thursday evening. The only thing missing was the Jordon River. I mean, this was John the Baptist all the way! There was passion! There were symbols! There was a prayer of confession! There was a call for repentance! There was singing for mercy! There was a challenge for action!
I was at the seminary chapel, at an interfaith candle-light vigil held to honor the victims of gun violence. Mentioned by name were 17 locations where mass shootings have taken place in the United States since the tragedy at Columbine, in April, 1999; as well as the more than 90,000 people who have lost their lives to gun violence in the past 16 years. It was held, marking the third anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
John the Baptist may well have been there! I could almost hear him looking out over the crowd assembled and yelling: “You brood of vipers! What are you doing to your young people? What are you doing to change your lives?”
Three empty chairs were at the front of the chapel, each bearing articles of clothing representing some of the individuals killed —a wedding gown, a pastor’s robe, a hoodie, and a stuffed animal. We were reminded that behind the statistics are empty chairs!
There were prayers from the Muslim community, a Mourners’ Kaddish from the Jewish community, a teaching from the Buddhist community, words of peace from the African-American community, the hymn, Bring Peace to Earth Again, the text written by Herm Stuempfle, vigil statements from throughout the country, read by members of the Hindu community, County commissioner, by representatives from various Christian denominations.
One of the most gut-wrenching messages came from the Chief of Police here in Gettysburg who spoke of his work in the city of Reading, PA, when that city had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation and the countless number of times he had to knock on a door to tell a parent that their daughter or son wasn’t coming home that evening because someone did something stupid.
Maybe the most powerful prayer of the evening came with the closing Litany, written following the murders in Charleston this past June. It was as if John the Baptizer walked right into that chapel to lead us in that closing prayer.
The Prayer began: “Prayers can’t be answered unless they are prayed” so the poet reminds us and so we have vigils of remembrance, emotional prayers, heartfelt tributes, scripture-based homilies, fervent eulogies, thoughtful soliloquies and appropriate words spoken by public officials, but something must follow the prayer meeting—Action!
A Vigil is the starting place, not only for God’s grace, but to do God’s will—standing up against injustice. Something must follow the prayer meeting—Action!
At the end of the vigil when the Amen has been said and sung, to be daily examples of love, peace, faith, hope, maturity, responsibility and excellence, so the succeeding generations will be motivated to become what they see in us. Something must follow the prayer meeting—Action!
Prophetic ministry beckons us again to the Press, to the Polls, to the Precincts, to the Markets, to the School Boards, to the Statehouse, to the Capitol, to the White House—to express our pain, to have our voices heard, our ideas considered and our demands met. Something must always follow the prayer meeting—Action!
It was a powerful Litany!
This is a John the Baptist on this Third Sunday of Advent!
At the seminary, this wasn’t an anti-gun rally! It was a vigil to call us to action to address violence in our society as is John’s call to action! His is a call to repentance…..to metanoia…..for us to turn around, to turn away from injustice!
John the Baptist unsettled the crowd! He made them curious! And they kept asking, “so what should we do?” His reply: “Something must follow the prayer meeting—Action!
And then he laid it out for them. He told the crowd to share their food and coats with those who have none. He told the tax collectors not to calculate taxes according to the greed of the people who were in power. He told the soldiers to stop victimizing the poor people under their occupation by constant threats, intimidation, and blackmail. He said, “if the tree doesn’t ber fruit, cut it down!
John wasn’t talking about works righteousness. His message was one of social responsibility. A religious void of ethical and moral earnestness is exactly that—a void. “Do something!” John answers over and over and over again!
There seems to be a lot of judgment in this text, barely sounds like “Good News,” so maybe it doesn’t sound like a very good Lutheran sermon. But there also seemed to be a lot of judgment in the seminary chapel on Thursday evening.
But here’s the joy for this Third Sunday of Advent: When repentance, forgiveness and grace are available, judgment is Good News!
It is no wonder that in the very next verse from where we stopped reading in Luke 3 this morning, the very next verse tells us that King Herod arrested John, imprisoned him, and tried to silence him, because all that John was saying was dangerous and threatening to a world that did not want to change.
But what we know that Herod did not know is that John’s Advent invitation cannot be silenced or arrested or imprisoned. It continues to invite. It continues to haunt, I hope. And sometimes, sometimes when it sinks deep into our hearts, it begins to transform us. That’s Good News! That’s really Good News! Amen.