The upcoming Sunday bears the name Gaudete (Rejoice)! Like small children peeking at their brightly wrapped presents, this Sunday is a mini-Christmas celebration in the midst of Advent preparation.
Are you searching for a suitably festive sermon greeting as you celebrate Gaudete with your people? May I suggest: “My dear fellow brood of vipers!”
OK, I wouldn’t actually use that as my pulpit greeting. And yet, in Sunday’s gospel (Luke 3), that is how John the Baptist greeted the crowds coming out to him. Yes, I know, in Matthew’s parallel account we’re told John aimed that address particularly at the Pharisees and Sadducees slithering out from Jerusalem. But Luke wants us to know John intended everyone to ponder this: by nature we approach God not as his spiritual offspring but as offspring of the ancient serpent. As Paul underlines in Romans 3:13, we all prove our natural snake-like spiritual DNA by the “poison of vipers” that “is on our lips.”
Even just a brief glance at this Sunday’s lessons reveals a very strange Gaudete paradox. In the psalm (Ps 130) we cry out from the depths for mercy from all that our viper ancestry bequeathed to us. But in the first lesson (Zephaniah 3) we find ourselves quieted in our Father’s arms who softly sings us a salvation lullaby. The alternate 1st lesson (Nehemiah 8) begins with the weeping of post-exilic Judah as the oft-ignored Word of the LORD is read to them. Yet it ends with great rejoicing as they learn that their strength is the joy – not weeping – the LORD gives them. And yes, there is the sobering call to repentance from John that reminds us of our true spiritual ancestry while warning us of empty boasting about our religious pedigree, but then in our second lesson from Philippians 4 the imprisoned apostle just cannot contain himself as rejoicing breaks out all over.
But this is no contradiction, is it? If we shield our people (or ourselves) from Psalm 130’s depths, or Israel’s weeping, or John’s sobering words, our misguided love unintentionally shields them from the hearty joy this Sunday holds. It is those raised up from the bitter depths of our sinful brokenness who grasp that God’s mercy is reason for full-throated rejoicing.
Who of us does not know that from our own lives? Isn’t it often after our snake-like nature has revealed his dark and poisonous continued existence – to the bitter sorrow of our conscience – that the sunlight of God’s stunning grace seems to dawn most brightly? Rejoicing comes in the mourning. Suddenly we taste again from fresh experience the joy of our salvation.
Only those who feel the sharp ax of God’s judgment rightly laid so close to our roots find the wonder that the cutting we experience in Jesus is not God’s ax but his sickle – gathering us into his barn forever.
Doesn’t that explain the end of Sunday’s gospel? Is it any wonder that the crowds, still wet from the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins, celebrated Gaudete by asking John what concrete fruits of repentant joy might look like in their callings? Those who know their status has been divinely altered from brood of vipers to brothers and sisters of Jesus find the priceless joy of this Sunday. They also long to learn how to live that joy on Monday.
So, no, don’t use “brood of vipers” as your sermonic greeting this Sunday. Despite our dual nature God’s grace has given us a new singular identity under the umbrella of Jesus’ grace. But don’t hide from me – or my brothers and sisters with me in the pew – that such was my natural state and that the remnant of that viper-nature still lives within me.
For joy comes not from ignoring that ongoing painful reality, but from acknowledging the new reality the water of our baptism has declared to be true for us all! The former cannot steal my joy in the latter. In fact, recognition of the stark difference makes my rejoicing all the more intense!
From that stunning vantage point, enjoy your peek at upcoming Christmas joy! Enjoy giving your people a peek. Gaudeamus pariter!