SJF • Advent 3c 2006 • Tobias Haller BSGWe come to the third Sunday of Advent, the one that takes its name — Rejoice Sunday — from the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians, that wonderful phrase that composers like Handel, Purcell and Mozart have set to such bouncy tunes over the years. It is also the day on which I get to put on this rose-colored vestment — and I do have to admit that due to fading over the years it is more pink than rose. But it is special for me, because it is the vestment I wore at the very first Holy Eucharist at which I was the celebrant, having been ordained to the priesthood on the previous Saturday; today is the ninth anniversary of my first celebration of the Eucharist. At the end of that first celebration, I was able to follow another old custom for priests on such an occasion, and present my mother with a single rose— God rest her now as she awaits the resurrection to which we all look with eager hearts.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
So you can see that this day is quite a special one for me, and I rejoice with you as I rejoice with Saint Paul, and Handel and Purcell and Mozart, and with Jerusalem itself, picking up that theme of celebration on this rose-colored day in the midst of a purple Advent. It is wonderful to feel so “in the pink” and filled with a spirit of exultation and joy.
But then... then comes John the Baptist. Oh my, if ever there was a party pooper, if ever there was a dark cloud on the horizon, if ever there was someone to rain on our parade — it has to be John the Baptist. For just as we are settled into a rosy-cozy pink rejoicing, here comes John the Baptist with his black-and-blue bruise of condemnation: “You brood of vipers!” he thunders at the crowds who have come to be baptized by him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist certainly does come on like gangbusters — he threatens all the trees that don’t bear good fruit with being cut down and thrown into the fire. But then... then he does a turnaround himself. Perhaps John is feeling a bit in the pink himself. For after this stunning and shocking introduction, what does he go on to ask? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect only the tax owed to them, and tells the soldiers not to extort anyone by threats or false accusation, but to accept and be content with their wages. It’s almost as if John the Baptist were trying to be, in himself, both the bad cop and the good cop — on the one hand threatening disaster, but on the other applying a modest and reasonable approach to good behavior. After all the wild apocalyptic shouting and cursing, there comes a quite reasonable and rational request.
I’m reminded of something that happened once in the days of live television. This was long before “Saturday Night Live” was considered revolutionary for going before the camera and actually performing live for ninety minutes. In the early days of television, before the advent of videotape, everything was live. And one broadcaster got the idea of presenting the horror classic “Frankenstein” live on TV with some famous Hollywood actor probably a little past his prime — I don’t recall now if it was Lon Chaney jr, or perhaps even Boris Karloff. In any case, in one of the scenes, the Frankenstein monster was supposed to burst into the room and make a wreck of it, picking up tables and chairs over his head and smashing them to the floor. Of course the tables and chairs were made of lightweight balsa wood and were designed to break apart when the monster dashed them down on the ground. However, since props were expensive, the actor understood that in rehearsal he wasn’t actually to break the furniture.
Unfortunately for the broadcaster there was a glitch in the programming schedule and word did not get through to the actor playing the monster — he apparently thought they were doing a dress rehearsal when in fact the broadcastwas going out live to millions of homes. And so those millions of people saw the Frankenstein monster break through the door, growl inarticulately, hoist a chair over his head, growl some more, and then carefully replace it on the floor; and then do the same thing with table — lifting it above his head with grunts and groans and angry growls and then putting it back in place with a delicate touch. Eventually, at the scene-break word got through to the mortified actor, and for the rest of the evening the Frankenstein monster behaved in a more monsterly manner. It wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the real thing.
But it was a dress rehersal for John the Baptist; and so it is for us — he knew it, and so do we. In spite of all of John the Baptist’s shouting and cursing, he knew that the end was yet to come — this was the dress rehearsal. He wasn’t actually going to be chopping down any trees, separating wheat from chaff himself. These were tasks reserved for someone else. John knew for certainty that he was the stand-in, the stuntman for the real star who was yet to shine in his brief time upon the stage of this world. And we too know that the end is not just yet — and that it isn’t our task to wreck the furniture and declare that the end has come. We aren’t the members of a doomsday cult keen on hastening the coming of the end: after all, as the prophet Amos said, Woe to those who call for the day of the Lord!
Rather we know that we, like John, are called upon to build up, to challenge and be challenged to do the right thing: not to wreck the furniture but to share a coat with one who has none, to share food with those who hunger, to take no more than we need or are owed, and above all not to bully or berate others.
For we too are stand-ins for the star who is coming. We too are not worthy even to untie his shoes. We may baptize with water — we do it on a regular basis right over there in the font! But the one who came and is to come — Jesus our Lord, the star of the show, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Only he is qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff. As eager as some in the church are to declare who is wheat and who is chaff, who is bearing worthwhile fruit and who isn’t, they are presuming mightily and getting well beyond the role they are meant to play. All of us in the church are extras, stand-ins, and understudies — and none of us should dare presume to step into the spotlight and take the leading role.
And you know what? That is good news! That is something to rejoice about. We don’t have to play God’s part — and that’s good news because none of us are that good actors! We don’t have to save the world — if we simply do the ordinary things that justice and love demand it will be enough. If we have two coats, to share with those who have none; if we have plenty of food, to share it with the hungry. To take no more than our share, and to share what we have when we have it. And that is good news, isn’t it? It is the good news that John the Baptist preached and proclaimed to the people, with many exhortations. It was good news then and it is good news now — as we continue to rehearse for the great performance that is to come.
We don’t have to save the world! Someone else did, and will do so again. We only have to do what he said in the meantime: love one another as he loved us. So let us rejoice, brothers and sisters, in the knowledge that what God asks of us is within our capacity to do. Let us continue in prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, doing what God asks of us, and has empowered us to do. All things come of God, and of God’s own we return to God and share with our brothers and sisters. And in doing this God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds, in knowing that we are doing as God wills, and in accordance with the will of Jesus Christ our Lord.