"Bless his heart!"

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Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

December 16, 2018–Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18


          Well, bless his heart!

          John the Baptist is not that good at the joy thing. Here we are, on Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday. And Zephaniah is all, “Sing aloud and exult with your heart … God is in your midst and he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” And Paul is all “Rejoice in the Lord always … the Lord is near and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Lord Jesus.” But John the Baptist? He’s all, “You brood of vipers!”

          Look, he’s doing his best. Seriously. He really does believe in the good news, and he’s trying to invite people into the good news. He’s just … not very good at it.

          Partly, that’s a personality thing, I’m guessing. A guy who goes out to live in the wilderness to live on locusts and wild honey has a touch of the zealot. Has a touch of excessively black and white thinking. Which, okay, you do you … but be cautious. Realize that your conviction might do damage to others if you let it run unchecked: people who are that convinced that their way is God’s way and everyone else is in danger, sometimes find themselves disowning their own child … people who believe so strongly that their way is God’s way and everyone else IS a danger, sometimes start thinking those others deserve death. That kind of conviction is a sword, and believing you are wielding it in God’s name is extremely dangerous.

          John falls into the first of those camps. He lets his concern for other people run rampant, and it causes him to be kind of jerk. “You brood of vipers!” is not a great rhetorical gambit, in my experience. Because it makes it hard not to hear his next line as a threat. As if he’s threatening them with wrath and telling them they should start running!

But what he’s actually asking is, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And what he really means is: Don’t run away. What he means is: if you understood God, then you’d know that you don’t need to run away. You just need to repent. To turn. To open your heart to God and let God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, God’s healing begin.

That’s good news. That’s a promise of joy equal to Zephaniah’s and Paul’s. But John’s fervor makes that hard for him. His frustration with those around him not listening to him, not understanding God’s Word … the intensity of his belief in how bad it would be for the people to continue in their ways, and his desire for them to stop … well, they overtake him. His fervor can’t stop him from continuing with the warning that if they DON’T do this—if they don’t repent and turn towards God, if they don’t believe God’s promise of mercy and healing—then they will be felled with the ax.

          John’s an anxious guy, is what I’m saying.

          And anxiety makes joy difficult. Anxiety makes us tense up around the pain, curl up in fear of the threat. Anxiety makes it hard for us to be open to the promise, to the forgiveness, to the redemption.

          So it actually makes it harder to repent. Harder to admit the ways in which we have wronged others, ourselves, and God. We’re terrified to admit something that might make us fall on the wrong side of a system in which you are either right or wrong, sinner or saint, redeemed or worthy of eternal punishment. So we clench around our sins, hiding them out of shame. Or perhaps we clutch them, afraid we have no right to be released from them. But here’s the thing: if we can’t let go, if we hold on too tightly to our wrongdoings, then we have no hands left to take hold of the healing God offers.

          Yes, you have done wrong. You are a sinner. Rejoice! Jesus has come to tell you that God will free you from that. To offer you the healing that comes from repentance. So it’s okay to admit it. We all have things to admit. Rejoice. Because none of it is unforgiveable. None of it means we must be cast out of relationship forever.

You are a sinner. But that is not the end of the story, no matter how dire a picture others have painted. No matter what you yourself have feared in your own heart. So rejoice. Rejoice because you can repent. Rejoice because you can be forgiven. Rejoice because you can begin, you can continue, you can move forward in your life with new humility. You can move forward with the wisdom and gratitude that comes from experience. You can move forward as one forgiven, who will likely have a greater capacity to forgive others. You can move forward without the terrible anxiety that any sin, any small mistake, will render you unloveable. Which means you will be better at determining what is actually a sin, what is truly destructive, and what is just something someone else wants you to feel bad about. 

That’s good news. That’s something to rejoice about, even though John the Baptist is terrrrrrrible at making it sound that way. 

Fortunately, John isn’t the Messiah. He’s just doing his very best (bless his heart) to prepare people. To get them ready for the chance to repent and turn towards a God who will change everything.

He’s doing his best to prepare us for Jesus, who will throw us for a loop with the good news that every last one of us is a sinner, and always will be, but that we can all be redeemed … once for all (because he is Jesus) and again and again and again (because we are human, and we need to be reminded, a LOT). And then he’ll throw us for another loop when he explains what the redeemed life looks like. It looks a lot like loving your enemies. It looks a lot like accepting that the person you’re convinced is super undesirable is actually just as much a part of God’s plan as you are. It looks a lot like believing that you are part of God’s plan.

No matter how John the Baptist might feel about that.

So, you brood of vipers, you company of saints: do not flee. Stand your ground, trusting that you can admit your failings, that you can ask forgiveness, that you can clean up your messes, and try to at least make different messes next time. And all the while, you are being an instrument of God’s grace in the world. Just like John the Baptist (bless his heart). May it be so, Amen.

Clare Hickman