Carrot or Stick?

SJF • Advent 3c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.+

WE COME TO THE three-quarters mark of Advent, the Sunday known as “Rejoice Sunday,” when we switch vestments from purple to rose for the day. This Sunday takes its name from our reading from Philippians, beginning with those famous words, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

We start with Zephaniah’s joyful command to the daughter of Zion to start singing in exultation, rejoicing that the Lord has granted full acquittal, rescued her from disaster, and restored her fortunes. Thus the tone is set for rejoicing right from the first reading. Then Paul continues the tone with that wonderful call to rejoice in the Lord always — it’s hard to hear those words without thinking of the wonderful bouncy setting that Händel wrote to portray the leaping joy of happy hearts.

Things seem to be running along in a happy mood indeed, and then suddenly the foot comes down on the brakes and we come to a screeching halt, as the scary figure of John the Baptist looms before us, holding out his hand and crying, “You brood of vipers!”

Just when we thought we were heading for a happy ending, here comes somebody talking about axes and fires and vipers and wrath. It’s as if we’d just settled down in the movie theater with the kids, ready to see Disney’s latest G-rated romp, but before the family fare can begin, the previews of coming attractions shock us with an R-rated sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street!

Why did those who chose our readings for this third Sunday of Advent change course in mid-stream, returning from rejoicing to the more common theme of Advent, violence and the coming day of the Lord? Well, one of the reasons is that they knew who they were dealing with— us! People who deal with people — whether politicians or managers or pastors — know that there are two sides to human nature. The upside is the willingness to be generous, to be truthful and honorable and worthy of praise. But the downside is always there — we live in a world beset by sin, and even the best person is far from perfect. And that downside of human nature includes selfishness, envy, pride, dishonesty, and all those other nasty things that hide under the paving-stones of even our best intentions. Yes, people may mean well, they may even do well much of the time, but none of us is so virtuous that we don’t need an incentive to move forward, and a corrective for our failings from time to time.

So we have, as it were, the carrot and the stick. There are other analogies: good cop, bad cop, for example. And what child hasn’t learned that if Mom says No, Dad may well say Yes, or vice versa! And so, in today’s readings, while Zephaniah and Paul hold out the carrot, John the Baptist swings the stick.

And if we look closely at what all three are saying, I think we can see that, while the messages at first seem to clash, deep down there is a single theme to their effort. Just as the carrot and the stick are both meant to get the donkey moving, just as the good cop and the bad cop are both working together to get the suspect to cooperate, just as Mom and Dad really both have the best interest of their child at heart, so too Zephaniah and Paul and John are all trying to move us in the same direction — Godward.

+ + +

Look closely at what John the Baptist is demanding, after all of those fiery and violent opening words. Is he asking those who come to hear him to walk barefoot over hot coals or perform difficult feats? No, in spite of his intensity, what he asks is not all that extraordinary or hard after all: that whoever has two coats should share one with someone who has none, that whoever has food should share it with the hungry. Now, that’s hardly terrifying, is it? It only seems natural.

And he goes on, telling the tax collectors to collect the tax — and no more; he tells the soldiers to be happy with their salary, and not to abuse or blackmail the citizens with threats or lies.

In short, all he’s doing is asking for the same kinds of things Paul does in his joyful letter to the folks in Philippi: be true, be honorable, be just, be fair. John is telling people to do the same things as Paul, and to do them in the same way — honorably, faithfully, and with respect. Though he wields the stick instead of dangling the carrot, his goal is the same, to move the people to be as good as they can be, to bring them to the spiritual place of justice, fairness, and unselfishness that we goes by the wonderful name, Righteousness.

The problem, of course, is that movement is needed! The donkey of human nature won’t budge, sometimes in spite of the carrot or the stick. In spite of all the encouragement to be good, to be true and fair and honorable, to be righteous, people still lie and cheat and steal.

In spite of being urged to share their food and clothing, there are still plenty of full closets and empty stomachs in this world of ours. In spite of urging those in authority to do their jobs justly and fairly, there is greed and corruption in the seats of power. All human beings, all of us, however good or wanting to be good, are, as the Collect for today says, “sorely hindered by our sins” — we desperately need God to “stir up his strength and come among us.” Our donkey cart has its wheels stuck in the ruts of a well-worn road — and we need more than a carrot or a stick or even both together.

And so there is more to John’s message, as there is to Paul’s. Both of them know that however big and tempting the carrot, however strong and threatening the stick, neither is powerful enough to accomplish what is needed. For that, not something but someone else is needed, someone whose coming John foretells and whose presence Paul preaches. John warns the people that Messiah is coming, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire: the ultimate carrot and stick! And Paul counsels the people to rest assured in the peace of Christ, placing their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For it is Christ, the Messiah, who is the final cause of all rejoicing; it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the final goal of all our pilgrimage, with all of our ups and downs, all of our wrong turns and failures, all of our defeats and all of our victories — only he who can move us from our immobility.

He alone is the one who can push the donkey cart out of the ruts into which we have steered it, and he will do so with the same shoulder that bore the cross, and with his own wounded hands. He alone is the one who will bring us home, bring us home rejoicing, bring us home in peace. The good news of both Paul and John find their end and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and after Paul and John have done their work as carrot and stick, to try to keep us moving in the right direction, it is Jesus Christ our Lord, and only he, who will stir up his power, and with great might come among us, bearing his bountiful grace and mercy in his own wounded hands, he will speedily help and deliver us, and finally bring us home. And so, to him alone who has the power to save us and deliver us, to him be the glory henceforth and for evermore.+