The Whispered Power of God

Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2015 || Advent 3C || Luke 3:7-18

whisperedpowerofgodI think the Gospel lesson I just read sounds harsher than it really is. Notice the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Either this means that the “good news” came in these other exhortations spoken off camera, or everything that John says is to be considered “good news.” I think it’s the latter. Of course, good news doesn’t usually begin by calling people a “brood of vipers.” John the Baptist is not exactly a people person; after all, he’s spent a lot of time by himself in the wilderness. He’s definitely a loner, unlike his cousin Jesus who comes on stage in a few verses and who surrounds himself pretty quickly with a group of friends. But even though John’s social skills may have suffered from his solitude, he’s astute enough to know the crowds expect a spectacle. And he gives them one right off the bat by calling them a “brood of vipers.”

In Matthew’s account of this story the name “brood of vipers” specifically targets the Jewish leadership, but here in Luke’s account, John broadens this designation to include everyone in the crowds (which includes us, by the way). My favorite modern translation of the Bible renders this verse with a little less fervor and a little more silliness: instead of “You brood of vipers” it’s “You children of snakes!” Not quite as punchy.

But I don’t think John is naming the crowds “children of snakes” simply to give them the spectacle they desire. Rather, he’s pre-empting an argument they might make after he instructs them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This pre-empting continues when he says, “Do not even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” In other words, your heritage does not make you bear good fruit nor give you a free pass. The crowds may be “children of Abraham,” but they are also children of snakes. And be assured that everyone in the crowd would hear a hissing of the memory of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden when John names them a snake’s descendants and talks about the fruit of the tree.

Thus, in just these opening lines of John’s exhortations, he sets up the duality inherent in all of us. We are none of us entirely good or entirely bad. We are children of Abraham (that is, children of God’s promise) and we are children of snakes (that is, children schooled by separation, temptation, and distrust). I bet each of you has had, at one time or another, these two natures war within you. In real life this war is much less comical than the angels and devils sitting on the shoulders of old Looney Toons characters.

Most often, the war plays out between what is right and what is easy. You can have a reasonable discussion in the wake of a disagreement or you can punch below the belt with slurs and hurtful epithets. You can stand up for those in need or you can ignore their plight. You can tell the truth or you can lie. Everyday, we face choices like these. And everyday, the whispered power of God contends with the hiss of the snake. Every time we listen to the snake, we end up just a bit more alone and isolated than we were before, which makes us so much easier to pick off. Every time we listen to God, we resonate with the song of love and faith and freedom – we sing and dance and exult and fall down weeping in gratitude for God’s gift of grace.

But if that’s the case, if the whispered power of God is so attractive, then why do we give into temptation as often as we do? The simple answer is this. Giving into temptation involves doing absolutely nothing because doing absolutely nothing leads to complacency, and complacency is the root of so much of the world’s despair. That’s why John warns the crowds not to get too comfortable in their heritage as Abraham’s descendants. And that’s why he gives them something to do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Food and clothing: if these were dispersed fairly throughout the world, a lot of problems would be solved. It was true in John’s day. It remains true in ours. The world has enough, but this “enough” is divided poorly. And we don’t work to change this reality because the one thing the world has too much of is complacency.

If you’ve ever wondered why we confess “things done and things left undone,” now you know. Things left undone make us slip into complacency and from complacency into despair. The whispered power of God invites us to get up like the paralyzed man at the pool, take our mats, and walk; to say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”; to leave our nets like the fishermen and follow Jesus. But too often the hiss of the snake lulls us back to sleep. Every time we hit the snooze button on life, the duality of nature skews further toward the snake, towards complacency.

So why does John call people a “brood of vipers?” Why does he dunk them under the cold water of the River Jordan? To shake them out of their complacency. To remind them that God is and always will be moving in their lives, urging them to serve and love with active passion and fervor. It’s no wonder then that we prayed what we did in today’s collect. Did you notice the power you invoked a few minutes ago? “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

Are you ready for this? I’m not sure I am. There’s still way too much child of snake in me to desire the wind of the Holy Spirit to stir me up and push me to God knows where. But it’s too late now. The prayer has been prayed. And now it’s up to us to partner with God to see how God’s power will be revealed. Perhaps, you will find this power in new courage to face a difficult circumstance or in new patience amidst uncertainty. Perhaps you will find this power in advocating sensible gun control on this third anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. Or in welcoming a stranger to our community, maybe a refugee family fleeing terror.

However the whispered power of God manifests in your life, know that it is and always will be stronger than the hiss of the snake. The inertial force of complacency is powerful too, but it is no match for the Creator-of-All-that-Is. Remember, it might seem like we’re just sitting still, but in reality we’re spinning at about 800 miles per hour around the earth’s axis. And if that’s not fast enough for you, we’re also moving at about 67,000 miles per hour around the sun. And that’s not even thinking about what our galaxy is doing in space. Talk about being stirred up.

The power we invoked during our collect this morning keeps this universe moving. And it keeps us moving, always ready to harness our birthright as children of the promise and to participate in God’s mission here on earth. During Advent, we don’t wait for the Lord in complacency. No. During Advent, we don’t wait. We prepare.

Art: Detail from “Baptism of the People” by Andrea Del Sarto (1515)

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