Standing at the Gates
The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- December 13, 2015
Advent3, Year C: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
I’m going to open again this morning with a quote from the book that many of us have been reading this Advent called The Impossible Will Take a Little While. This is a series of essays about perseverance and maintaining hope in troubled times and it wasn’t a huge pastoral leap to think that this book might be a good fit for us all.
This particular paragraph is from an essay by Victoria Stafford called, “The Small Work in the Great Work”.
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the Gates of Hope – not the prudent gates of optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they can’t pass through). . .But [we plant] in a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only the struggle but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
And so who better to help us plant ourselves at the Gates of Hope than John the Baptist? That’s actually his role in this whole story. Granted he did it in a John-the-Baptisty way – dressed in camel’s hair and enjoying more than the occasional snack of locust dipped in honey. John has often been depicted as a wild figure, out there in the wilderness, sandy, dripping wet and generally shouting about the kingdom that was to come.
But what John was doing was inviting people out so that they could see something new, something worth hoping for, something worth visioning and helping make happen in themselves and in God’s world. John was also inviting people in, in to a community that was committed to discovering Christ’s way – even though it hadn’t even been fully revealed yet. John was clear that he stood at the gates, that he himself was not “The Hope;” he was not the Messiah for whom his people longed. John proclaimed openly that there was One who was coming after him. One whose “baptism” whose way of calling people out and gathering people in would surprise even John himself.
And strange as John might have been, the people began to gather with him out there at the gates. They were hungry for and seeking a new way to be in this world. And John told them that being that new way involved repentance and John being John didn’t mince words. He was, as Stafford put it, in “a truth-telling” place, a place that reminded people they needed to begin this transformation with their own souls.
And John told the folks in no uncertain terms that this work was urgent. They needed to start producing good fruit NOW! He called the religious leaders a “Brood of vipers!” and told them that the kinds of fruits they were producing were off the mark. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asked them. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” And then John laid it out for everyone. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And so the people then came back with a legitimate, incredibly honest question. “So, what can we do?” Now remember the context. They were out in the wilderness with the now immediate image of a looming axe hanging over them out there so that question of theirs probably wasn’t asked in a distant purely intellectual sort of way like, “Excuse me, John, I hate to interrupt but I’ve been sort of wondering about what I should do? . . . Can we maybe talk through some possibilities?” These were people who were staring down an extremely threatening situation; they were desperate, and longing, and so their question was more like a prayer of longing, ‘What should we do, John?” and behind that they had to be wondering, “If things are this bad, maybe we should just abandon our faith. . . we shout at least be very, very afraid” Maybe they were even wondering if it was too late to make any difference at all.
And if we’re honest, I think we need to name that this is where we sit in Advent and perhaps to some extent more often than that. Especially given all that is going on in this world, in our lives. We’re not always desperate but there is a genuine longing that stirs in our hearts and that stirs among us this season, “So, God, what can we do?”
And I think we often expect this HUGE answer from John the Baptist or those whom we look to for answers. We expect, “GO CHANGE THE ENTIRE WORLD THIS VERY MINUTE! “ Or perhaps something along the lines of, “YOU MUST COMPLETELY START OVER SINCE THIS IS ALL SUCH A MESS!” or perhaps “CUT OFF ALL TIES FROM THE REST OF HUMANITY, WE ARE GOING DOWN! FOR GOD SAKES, SAVE YOURSELF!”
But John the Baptist, who wasn’t known for relatively calm, rational suggestions offered a very simple response. “What can you do as the axes loom?” he was asked.
”Well, if you have two coats, give one away. If you have extra food, share.” I’m reminded of the Anne Lammott quote I shared last month where she said, “we are basically powerless, but we are never helpless.” That’s what John the Baptist was telling people. In fact he was telling them that repentance involved acknowledging that there is so much over which we are powerless and faking power, or over claiming power doesn’t help. It doesn’t help anyone. ”So, if you have two coats, give one away. If you have extra food, share.”
And then he went on “If you are a tax collector then collect the taxes you’ve been told to collect. Apparently making clear that those who collect taxes were still considered to be children of God. And then he touched on another group that felt particularly marginal to all of this good news, “If you are a soldier, be a good one.”
What John did was that he made it possible for everyone out there to experience something of the new that was about to break in. He said “here’s what you can do, here’s what you can all do. And you can do it from where you stand.” Essentially, John invited them out into the wilderness, but then he sent them back into their own lives to be the good fruit they had been called to be.
All of this brought to mind images of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sharing coats with newly arrived Syrian refugees. It brought to mind images of American and other soldiers serving in efforts toward peace. It brought to mind images of an amazing group of Grace folks working together to serve a warm meal, distribute literally tons of food, and open gates of hope for our friends and neighbors who are hungry — just last week.
Apparently even as the end looms, a new beginning is just around the corner, and it’s not terribly hard to glimpse it.
Victoria Stafford put it like this: For most of us “We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called to stand . . . in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons. . . in streets, in community groups.” [We stand where we will stand] and it is sacred ground if we would honor it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk. . .that speaks to what can often be a hate-filled world, and transforms that place with faith and love.”
We offer a coat. We share our food. We repent. We tell a story of grace and forgiveness and love. We embody a story of grace and forgiveness and love. We see the world “as it is and as it could be.”
And before you know it, we are the ones who have been transformed. Transformed into the fruit bearers, the hope bearers we have all been called to be.