December 12, 2021
"What Then Should We Do?"
Rev. Scott Landis
The third Sunday of Advent has historically been a time when we take a break from the regular routine of the seriousness of the season. In liturgical churches the “Third Sunday” is a “Feast Day” sometimes called Gaudete (Rejoicing) Sunday. On this Sunday the monks, who were observing a strict regimen of prayer and fasting during this season of preparation, would break from their austerity and enjoy a grand party before, once again, returning to fasting in preparation of the arrival of the Christ Child.
That is why on many advent wreaths you may see a pink or rose-colored candle lit on this Sunday indicating a time of celebration. In many churches on this is the day of Joy – Hau`oli to us – carols are sung and children’s pageants are performed as a kind of prelude to the culmination of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve.
Given all that, one would expect to hear a kinder, gentler, or joyful message complementing the theme of the day. Did you listen to the gospel? Did you hear John’s words? Not exactly what you’d expect on this day of JOY. Evidently John didn’t get the liturgical memo. He seems determined to take a different approach in preparing the way AND the people for the Coming One. Not into sentiment or nostalgia, John begins by referring to his audience as “snakes – slivering down to the river.” Somehow, I don’t think I’d keep my job very long if I began my greeting on Sunday morning with something like,
“What are doing here you brood of snakes? Yeah, it’s you I’m talking to. Your outsides may look pretty but you’re not fooling anyone, and certainly not God. God knows your rotten on the inside Oh, and welcome to Keawala’i Cong. You are always welcome here.”
Suffice it to say, John’s preaching and demeanor and mine are just a little different. But he sure doesn’t put anybody to sleep with his stern words which serve as a wake-up call. Of those who gathered to listen – the regular folks, the tax collectors, and the soldiers – they all responded with an element of confusion as they listened to his scathing remarks and asked an understandable question. It’s one that is still relevant today. What then should we do?
It’s a good question, and it’s an important question, and it’s one to which, I think, they honestly did not know the answer. What do we do? What do you want from us? How do we measure up? How do we get it right? How SHOULD we prepare for the arrival of our Lord?
The response demonstrated John’s proclivity for change and demanding social justice for all that was wrong at the time.
To the crowd he said, “You see those around you in need. If you have two coats – give away one – and the same thing goes for your extra food.
To the tax collectors he said, “You know how you are cheating those in your charge through extortion – collect only what the law requires – and no more.
To the soldiers he said, “You know how you are harassing those in your district unnecessarily – knock it off. No more blackmail. Be content with what you have – which is plenty.
Notice he’s really not demanding all that much. In fact, he is only asking folks to be aware of their excesses and how they might share from that. This is not sacrificial giving he is demanding. No, John, instead, is calling attention to a much deeper problem – the systemic injustice that was evident at that time – and the easy steps one could take to level the playing field to ensure that no one lived in want. What John was calling for were simple actions to break the well-entrenched system of injustice that served the wealthy at the expense of those in need.
What John was advocating was not extravagance or abundance for anyone but just enough for everyone – enough to go around so that ALL might experience – JOY. The bottom line being – no one would know joy until all would know joy.
For John this required a change in the hearts of those he addressed. It was a change in action and way of living that had to be preceded with a change in attitude. [Pause]
You may remember, in the words that preceded this passage – words we focused our attention on last week – John was calling for “Repentance.” Repentance means to turn around – to change course or direction from the path one was previously on. To move from a path of self-centered living to one of self-less giving. While he never came right out and said it, I believe, this is how John understood righteous living which results in real and lasting Joy.
For John this Joy was much less about fervent prayer or frequency of worship and much more about how one handles riches, executes public service, and exercises stewardship – in other words, how we live our lives.
His critique of greed, self-indulgence, egoism, and hypocrisy was given to challenge everyone to look after the well-being of those in need. Not to do so WOULD result in the judgment that is yet to come.
In John’s mind, this is how we bear the fruit of repentance or as Eugene Peterson translates how our lives are transformed into that which is green and flourishing – because, if it’s deadwood, it’s going into the fire. [Pause]
In less than two weeks we are planning to gather out on the lawn of our church to celebrate Christmas Eve. We hope for a lovely evening as scriptures are read, carols are sung, and hundreds light candles in witness to our faith in the little child born long ago in Bethlehem. A child who would eventually teach us the way of hope, peace, joy, and love. It’s an experience that I hope to include in my life story beginning this year – one that will open my heart even more deeply to this beloved place called Keawala`i and the collective story that we share.
But John reminds us that there is no getting to Bethlehem to witness the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus without a time of self-reflection, of personal examination, and of re-commitment to do everything we can that all might experience – Joy.
What then should we do?” We might ask that same question today? It’s a question that has profound implications for our lives and how we live as people of faith. And the question has some specificity in our day. For example, what should we do when asylum seekers still get turned away from the border? What should we do when income inequality continues as the gap between rich and poor gets wider and wider? What should we do when gun violence terrorizes more and more communities? What should we do when people of color continue to be demonized? What do we do with a virus that seems more resilient than we are? What do we do when faced with the enormity of the problems of the world and our own communities?
The answer: We do what we can. And we do so one step at a time for there is no action too small. We share our resources and act on behalf of the God who invites us to advocate for all of humanity and all of creation to be well and whole. We do so raising our voice ps advocating for a just, peaceful, and compassionate world for ALL. As the writings of the Talmud exhort us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are NOT obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
As we celebrate joy on this day let us do so with eyes wide open to see the lack of joy in the eyes of so many around us. What then should we do? We must do what we can to bring joy to the lives of others. A coat, a cup of soup, a kind word, a voice crying out in the wilderness demanding justice for all. How you do it is up to you. [Pause]
Now, I have to warn you. I cannot promise you that your action will be well received. Recall the last couple of verses in today’s gospel lesson. John’s words gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them – but it ended up getting him thrown into jail. Folks in power don’t like when we try to change the system – even when the system is corrupt or unjust.
But, take heart. Doing what is right WILL bring you joy. [Pause]
That’s the reason we read one of my favorite passages from Philippians today – a passage which concludes with these words which we did NOT read. I offer them to you as the best answer I know to the question, What Then Should We Do?
Paul answers it this way, “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing these things that you have learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me – and the God of Peace – the God of Joy will be with you and will guide you forever. Amen