Rev. Sarah Buteux
December 12, 2021
Advent 3, C
Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
To watch this morning’s service click here
“To repent is to stop pushing love away.”
– Steve Garnaas Holmes
By all accounts, my 7th grade French teacher was going to be amazing. Madame Donahue’s reputation preceded her. Rumor had it that she was both daring and charismatic.
With her thick mane of long dark hair, her gold hoop earrings, and long colorful skirts, she looked more like Esmerelda from the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” than say Coco Chanel, and she had the free spirit to match.
She showed her class uncensored French films – Ooh la, la, organized overnight trips to Quebec for her students, brought in French foods for them to savor, and told her prudish middle schoolers scandalous stories of her adventures in Paris.
I learned a lot about how to be a human being from Madame Donahue when I finally met her, how to suck the marrow from the bone of life and experience the joie de vivre for which the French are famous.
But unfortunately, when all was said and done, I learned very little of how to parlez le Francais. Madame’s academic standards were as free spirited as she was, and I took full advantage of that fact.
All the French I learned was drilled into me for the first three month of junior high by a substitute teacher whose name I can’t even remember. She was small and mousy, with glasses that overwhelmed her face.
And to our great disappointment it was her thankless job to cover for the fabuleuse Madame Donahue who was out on medical leave.
I was not happy about this arrangement and in protest I didn’t do my homework the first night of school. As a consequence, Madame Mouse gave me a zero.
Whatever, I thought…because it was 1987 and I was 12.
But sensing this woman was serious, I did do my second homework assignment. Unfortunately, when I handed it in, she gave me a zero the next day too.
Why? Because I had still not completed the first.
“Will I get a zero everyday until you get that first assignment?” I asked, in shock at the injustice of her system.
“Mais Oui,” she said, with all the sympathy of a stone.
I didn’t know exactly what that meant, because I hadn’t done my homework, but I got the gist. I went home and not only did I complete assignment number one, I never missed another assignment again.
Turns out, Madame Mouse was no mouse at all. She was uncompromising and, because the only alternative was certain doom- for my grade point average at least – I rose to her standards.
There were no crepes or movies or trips abroad that September or October or November, but I learned more French in those first three months of seventh grade than I did over the next 5 years, and I’m still grateful. I didn’t much like her at the time, but in retrospect, I kind of wish Madame Mouse had been my French teacher for good.
I feel something similar about John the Baptist. I don’t think he won many friends out there in the wilderness with his blunt talk and rigorous methods, but something about his no excuses approach to the spiritual life really got through to people.
Sure he called them all “a brood of vipers,” which was, well, rude.
And his imagery full of axes and unquenchable fire was a bit over the top.
But believe it or not, Luke wan’t being facetious when he said that what John was preaching was good news.
Have any of you ever heard the phrase: “To be clear is to be kind”?
You probably have if you listen to Brene Brown.
Well clarity isn’t always fun or nice, but it’s good and it’s kind.
Brene says that often we fail to be clear; clear about our standards, our hopes, our expectations, because we don’t want to offend people or come across as too harsh or demanding. Instead, we soft pedal the truth in an effort to protect other people’s feelings, when in reality all we are really doing is protecting ourselves.
We opt for being nice rather than honest so people will like us. But then, when people inevitably fail to live up to the standards we never clearly laid out, we’re not nice to them at all. Instead, we blame them for not being who we never had the courage to ask them to be.
Madame Mouse and John the Baptist were not nice. And honestly, I’m not sure if anyone ever really liked them. But they were good. And they were clear. And their clarity was not only courageous, it was kind.
When John appears in the wilderness he very clearly tells everyone that they can do better, because guess what? Everyone can. It is always true. It was true for everyone back then and it’s true for all of us right now. We can all, always, do better.
But this was shocking to the people gathered around John, because the Baptizer drew a very diverse crowd down to the banks of the river Jordan.
This wasn’t some tent pole revival for the down and out on the wrong side of town. Nope, John was such an oddity that people from all walks of life came out to hear him.
I mean sure, there were tax collectors amongst the throng, the sort of people everyone assumed needed to repent, but there were also religious leaders whom everyone assumed to be holy. There were Judean peasants and Roman soldiers – the oppressed and the oppressors. There were God fearing Jews and fear mongering gentiles, well respected women and men of ill repute.
There were “good people” and “bad people” and I bet most of those people had come out not because they thought they needed to repent, so much as to watch other people get what was coming to them.
But then John opened his mouth and something extraordinary happened. His message broke through all the pretensions and assumptions everyone had brought along, and convicted them all.
When John called the whole crowd a brood of vipers, rather than just the usual suspects, he was making it clear that no one who stood there was innocent by virtue of their faith or rank or good reputation. And likewise, no one, no matter how lowly or compromised, stood outside the bounds of God’s grace.
John’s offer of repentance was for everyone because he believed the messiah was coming to save everyone.
And yes, I know it doesn’t sound like it at first, what with all John’s talk of fire and brimstone, axes and winnowing forks, but his sermon is actually a message of universal salvation. It is. Really!
I mean, I know it sounds to our ears like the wheaty people are all going to get winnowed into the snug granary that is heaven and the chaffy people are all going to be thrown into an unquenchable fire that sounds an awful lot like hell.
But friends, take a breath and remember this: if it isn’t good news for everyone it’s not good news for anyone.
And this really is good news, because as any wheat farmer can tell you, every individual stalk has both grain and chaff. The chaff is what covers the grain. There’s no such thing as good grain or bad grain. There’s just grain; grain you can only get to by sifting, blowing or burning the chaff away.
John uses the metaphor of wheat because deep down inside every person – every person standing in that crowd by the Jordan and every person sitting here today – inside every person there is a kernel of goodness that will always be worth saving.
There is something true, honorable, just and pure – to riff on that beautiful letter Paul wrote to the Philippians – something true, honorable, just and pure that lies at the center of every human soul.
And friends, God loves that part of you. God loves that part of you so much that God wants to set it free. God wants to uncover everything in you that is pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise and let it loose upon the world.
Only, there’s a lot of chaff that gets in the way, isn’t there? You know it as well as I do; even if we don’t always have the courage to point it out to each other or see it clearly in ourselves. Not so deep down we all have sins that we need to shed. We all have chaff and some to burn.
So John came and John comes. He came all those years ago to the people down by the river and he comes every year to us here in the church. He comes to tell us all the truth about ourselves with stunning clarity and he delivers it with all the sympathy of a stone.
“Repent, you brood of vipers!” he cries.
“You mean us?” we wonder.
“Mais, oui,” he replies.
John reminds us that we’re all sinners… but he also reminds us that, thanks be to God, we don’t need to stay that way. Sure, we’ve all fallen short of God’s standards, but our failure is never the end of the story. We can all repent. We can all do better. We all can change. We can all come clean.
Steve Garnaas Holmes says that, “to repent is to stop pushing love away.”
I’ve been meditating on that line all week.
“To repent is to stop pushing love away.”
“To repent is to stop pushing love away,” and instead let that love come do its refining work in us.
John’s clarity might seem harsh, as harsh as madame Mouse, but he reminds us that we can always come back to God; a God who never stopped loving us and never will. A God who will always be there to forgive us and out of love for us, take away our sins and throw them into the fire where they belong… not us.
Friends, John tells us to repent because he wants what’s best for us. John tells us to repent because God wants what is best for us. God calls us to such a high standard because when we’re at our best – sharing what we have, taking no more than we need, using our powers for good not evil – we become God’s best for each other.
When we repent we get clear. We get real. We get kind.
We become the people God knows we can still be. C’est bon?