The third Sunday of Advent is upon us. Historically, this is Gaudete Sunday. Literally meaning “rejoice,” Gaudete Sunday reminds us that there is joy, even in the midst of a penitential season. In the northern hemisphere, this reminder comes in the week that the nights are longest and daylight hours are shortest. While Advent seldom takes on a fully penitential feel these days, there is often an invitation to do some spiritual housecleaning in order to make room for Christ to come anew into our lives once again. We need the reminders of the light of joy amidst the literal darkness of night and the more figurative murkiness of the world around us. If this is the Sunday of Joy, then why on earth would the lectionary writers include John the Baptist and his “brood of vipers” this week?
Zephaniah reminds the people of Israel that God will liberate all God’s people from oppression and restore the nation. Because God will gather all the peoples from the ends of the earth, now is a good time for praise. There is joy here. Similarly, Isaiah reminds us that true salvation comes from God and one of the ways we enter into or experience that salvation is joy that moves us to praise. Continuing on Philippians invites us to always rejoice. Like the prophets before him, Paul points out that joy is possible when we live in the Spirit. Rejoicing is part of Christian life, even when that life is challenging, maybe especially then.
How do we go from these reminders of and invitations into Joy to John the Baptist and his brood of vipers? The answer is simple and clear. It’s also extraordinarily difficult to live into. People came to John to be baptized which sounds great. However, they wanted baptism without repentance, and without a change to their lives. Hence John’s referring to them as vipers. Not much has changed since John’s day. We want to call ourselves followers of Jesus without repentance and without making changes to how we live in the world.
Advent 3 is the perfect time to repent. I don’t necessarily mean repenting of our personal sins, though that is always a good idea. I mean repenting of our addiction to Empire. Just like those who went to John so long ago for baptism, we do not want to let go of the benefits of the Empire. In those days, Rome oppressed Israel right down to the temple authorities. Compliance with the Empire meant a safer existence. It meant keeping the poor and the outcasts from gaining social standing. It meant keeping quiet about the abuses of power that kept people from uniting against Rome. It meant keeping your religious practices from entering into public life. Sound familiar?
The baptism of Spirit and fire that John said Jesus would provide, is real. If we allow the fire of the Spirit to cleans us of our apathy and ambivalence toward social change, repentance can become more than words. It is easy for us all to fall into the ways of Empire, especially those of us who benefit from them. However, the joy of God’s ways comes when we truly love our neighbors as ourselves. This means that we repent of the many ways we have participated in and benefited from the divisive, oppressive ways of empire. We prepare for Christ to come into our lives in new ways. Then we act. We do everything we can to advocate for our neighbors and withdraw our support of things that serve the Empire.
Many will ask what they can do or simply continue to believe that what they do doesn’t make a difference. One clear thing to do is educate yourself on the ways in which you are influenced and/or benefit from White supremacy culture. What do you know about the struggles of QT (Queer and Transgender – formerly noted as LGBTQ+) folx, especially in Christian churches? Are you aware of the ways in which women are treated unequally in your environment? How about the plight of those who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity? How about people with disabilities or people who live with symptoms of mental illness? Who are the outcasts in your community? Jesus did everything in his power to re-member, reconnect, the outcasts of his day. Are we doing the same?
Jesus didn’t attempt to overthrow the Empire by head-on revolution. He went about inspiring revolution one person at a time, and challenging the teachings of those in power. Surely, all of us can do this. And what a way to enter into the joy of the Spirit – re-membering those whom the church historically has dismembered.
Let us repent and live fully into the Joy of Advent and put a lot more distance between ourselves and John’s vipers.