Reopening our doors

Gaudete Sunday

Gaudete Sunday
December 16, 2018
Passage: Luke 3:7-18, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7
Service Type:

Today is Gaudete Sunday. It takes its name from today’s epistle --

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice,” says St. Paul.

And the prophet Zephaniah says, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”


And John the Baptist says, “You brood of vipers!”

“...the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down” and “the chaff {will be burned] with unquenchable fire.”

And we think… wait, what? Where did the rejoicing go?

It seems like we can always depend on John the Baptist to show up and throw cold water on any fun we may be having, just in time for Christmas.

And yet… Luke ends this passage referring to John’s proclamation as “good news.”

So it occurred to me -  what if we just read it that way?

Rejoice, you brood of vipers!

Rejoice - and bear fruits worthy of repentance.

Rejoice - God can make children for Abraham out of stones… so it doesn’t matter whether you are or not.

Rejoice - one who is more powerful IS coming… who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Rejoice - unfruitful trees will be cut down… chaff will be burned away…

whatever is unfruitful in you… whatever the chaff is in your heart - gone;

the rough places and crooked paths of your own life, smoothed over...



Maybe I’m reading into the text a bit there… But we do know that the people listening to him were a mixed crowd, among whom were tax collectors and soldiers - so not all Jewish, and certainly not the most powerful, nor the most wealthy…


So there was good news here for the people listening to John that day -

you don’t need to be a child of Abraham (certainly good news to Roman soldiers, and to Luke’s Gentile readership);

someone more powerful is coming;

and when unfruitful trees are cut down, the remaining trees may have a better chance to thrive.


And then - in between rants -

John offers some practical suggestions, which in themselves are good news -if for no other reason than for their radical simplicity - they are not beyond anyone’s reach.


So after John’s first outburst - interestingly, the crowd doesn’t leave.

They don’t take offence and walk away. They stay and ask questions.

He said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

They say, how? “What should we do?” the crowd asks, the tax collectors ask, the soldiers ask…

“What should we do?


And John obliges - offering some radically simple guidance.

If you have more than you need - clothing, food - share it with people who need it.

Don’t overcharge people, don’t take more from them than is due to you.

And don’t blackmail people to line your pockets - be satisfied with your pay… with your “daily bread.”

All ways of saying something we hear Jesus say in a variety of ways later in his own teaching - “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...” (Matt. 6:19) And “ not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ ...your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Matt 6:31-32)


We heard this also from Paul today - “do not worry...and let your requests be made known to God.”

And from Isaiah - “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid.”


But here’s the challenge from St. John in putting the pieces together - he doesn’t say “bear fruit” period. That’s fairly easy.

But “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” - that’s more challenging.

While he’s not asking anything as extreme as Jesus, who tells a young man “go and sell everything you have” - he is asking people to trust God enough that they will decide to do without that extra coat, that extra food, or that extra lump of cash.

He’s suggesting relatively small actions - but ones that are the reflection (the fruit) of serious and profound spiritual change - repentance, conversion, turning around.

And while I offered earlier a reading of John’s harsh words that brings in a note of rejoicing… since it’s in the nature of scripture to be many-layered, that note of insistence, of urgency, doesn’t go away.


Don’t rest on your laurels, John says - on calling yourselves children of Abraham, as if that’s all there is. The axe is lying at the root of the trees - ready to go.

So get to work!


There’s a Buddhist saying that a student should “practice like her hair is on fire.”

And a few weeks ago in her sermon Mother Sarah referenced the book “Teach like your hair is on fire.”

A recent song by composer Jake Heggie is called “I catch on fire.” The text by Sister Helen Prejean recalls a moment as a young teacher when her habit caught fire on a lit candle. It concludes, “Now, years later, when I pray I catch on fire.”

And this week I read this wise advice, “Find a spiritual practice and do it as if your life depends on it.”

The ax is laid at the root of the trees.


I’m guessing many of us feel like there’s something more we “should” be doing  (there’s always more, and more and more…) - and that we need to get busy bearing fruit.

But what John the Baptist says…  it’s just give away a coat. Take less of that. Just don’t take what’s not yours - so that there’s more for those who need it. Be satisfied - just with your “daily bread.”

In her comments on this week’s gospel, Mother Suzanne Guthrie wrote, “To tax collectors he says, ‘Don’t cheat.’ To soldiers he says, “Don’t bully.’ To me he says, ‘Just try.’ … Repent. Begin again. Do what you can. Now.”


Of course, our contexts change from person to person, across time and place… We don’t live in first century Palestine. And even among us here today… most of us aren’t tax collectors or soldiers - but we are many, many different things, in vastly different lives.

So what might be the fruit of repentance that John is inviting each of us to in our own context? What is that radically simple guidance for today? for each of us? What is our own “just try”?


Whatever that is, John invites us to commit to that like your hair is on fire; like the ax is laid at the root of the tree; like your life depends on it.

And Rejoice - it’s really very simple. But do it as if your life depends on it - it may be that someone’s does.