Rejoice in the Lord Always! You brood of vipers! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not worry about anything. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Our Epistle and Gospel readings are having a strange conversation today, aren’t they?
On one hand, we have the Apostle Paul telling the Philippians to relax, rejoice, not to worry! On the other hand, we have John the Baptist screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the crowds of ordinary people following him around. Nothing says Christmas Spirit like a bearded man in a hair shirt screaming insults at you!
At first glance, these readings may appear to have nothing to say to one another. But, when we dig a little deeper, we can see that they are really dealing with the tensions and the hopes of living in a world in which the Kingdom of God is not fully manifested.
Our culture tells us the season leading up to Christmas is a fun, happy, kitchy time of the year to decorate wildly, eat foods we wouldn’t otherwise allow ourselves, and shop for gifts to demonstrate our love for others. But we all know that Christmas is more complicated than that. Christmas can also be filled with longing, regret, and grief. Even the first Christmas story, THE Christmas story, had its own ambiguities.
The birth of Christ came out of great pain, pain that goes well beyond any discomfort Mary might have experienced, or the humiliation of being born in a stable. Christ came into the world in God’s radical attempt to save humanity from the pain of its own brokenness. People had longed to be saved from the war and heartbreak and frailty of the human condition as long as they had a concept for God. Without that pain and alienation, there would have been no need for the birth of Christ in the first place.
The crowds that followed John around hungered for connection to God. They longed to be liberated from cycles of brokenness in their lives. Why else would they follow this strange locust-eating man around the wilderness? But that kind of liberation, that kind of connection to God, has a cost.
Prophets throughout the Scriptures have had the job of shaking humanity by the scruff of the neck and John the Baptist is no different. Inertia is a powerful force in the lives of human beings, and John’s job is to disrupt the lives of his followers so they can break free of that inertia and prepare themselves to receive the incredibly good news of God’s incarnation.
John the Baptist’s first words are harsh. He calls the crowd vipers and tells them they cannot rely on their identity as descendents of Abraham to be saved. He’s alerting the crowd that they will not be able to encounter God without experiencing some kind of change. His words are so strong that his crowd is left very worried about what advice might follow.
Will John the Baptist ask them to sacrifice everything in their lives to encounter God? Will they have to live extremely ascetic existences? Will they have to join John as he wanders through the wilderness eating honey-dipped locusts?
John’s audience is alert, holding their collective breath, ready to hear John’s advice.
John’s advice is comically simple. John tells a tax collector not to steal money. He tells a soldier not to extort money. He tells others in the crowd to share their cloaks if they meet someone who is cold.
John the Baptist doesn’t tell the soldier that he needs to leave the military. He doesn’t tell the tax collector he needs to resign from his post. He does not demand that these employees of the Roman state abandon their professional lives and their ties to the Roman government. John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is coming for all people, wherever they are. The members of the crowd surrounding John the Baptist are challenged to get their ethical houses in order, but they aren’t asked to abandon their lives.
So, although John the Baptist probably smelled funny and was definitely rude, he brought good news about the Kingdom of God to his followers. Jesus’ coming into the world was not just for priests and rabbis and scribes. Jesus’ coming was for all humanity-tax collectors and soldiers and every day people. This news is joyful. And this is where our Gospel and Epistle readings intersect.
When the Apostle Paul tells the community of Philippi to rejoice, he’s not chirping empty-headed platitudes. Paul has been through hell. He has been traveling for years, been ship wrecked, and now is arrested and in prison. The people of Philippi are on edge because Christians at the time were a persecuted people. They are afraid because their faith puts them in danger. Paul is speaking of a joy, and gratitude, and a sense of peace that is not bound by circumstances. Paul is speaking of joy, and gratitude, and peace that come hand in hand with the kind of challenges and pain life brings us.
The joy of Advent is not an empty-headed happiness because we get to eat more sugar cookies than usual. The joy of Advent is a joy that acknowledges the pain of our broken world while still rejoicing in the wonder of Christ coming into the world for even the most humble person.
The joy of Advent invites us to believe God will show up in our lives even when we are at our worst or experiencing our deepest pain.
In my last parish, the adult son of a parishioner died unexpectedly and suddenly. The funeral was very sad and very beautiful. The family chose a Celtic service and hundreds of white candles illuminated the sanctuary. After the funeral, several people came up to me and mentioned how moved they were by the hope in the mother’s eyes as she went to communion. She was not happy, she was hopeful. She grieved the death of her son, but she had confidence that somehow God was still with her and still with her son. Even though her world had shattered, she had the expectation that one day she and her son would be reunited in the Kingdom of God, one day she would feel Christ’s peace.
Life is full of pain and disappointment, even in the happiest lives. Christ reaches out to us, even in the midst of that pain. Even when we’ve been betrayed or lost our jobs or have a child we cannot reach, Christ extends himself to us, just as he did 2000 years ago.
You do not have to leave your job or your marriage or this town to experience the joy of the incarnation. You don’t have to go on pilgrimage or pray for a week straight or fast for a month for Jesus to find you. Jesus calls each of us, wherever we are. He calls us to prepare ourselves, but always in ways that are accessible to us. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the God who created the entire Universe wants to be in relationship with us. God wants to be in relationship with the brood of vipers right here in this room.
And because God reached through time and space to bring Christ to us, and because Christ continually reaches out to us, inviting us into relationship with his Father and our Creator, we join the Apostle Paul and we rejoice in the Lord, we pray with thanksgiving, and we welcome the Peace of Christ into our hearts.