Here we are, less than 2 weeks away from the celebrations of Christmas and worshiping on the Sunday of Joy. The sun is shining, birds are singing and flowers are blooming – well, somewhere these things are happening. Actually, Joy Sunday was put into the Advent season as a bit of a break from all the misery that we were supposed to feel on this time of year. It used to be that Advent was supposed to be more like lent – a time to take a hard look at our lives and repent for all our failings so that we can look at the birth of Jesus as a fresh start. We’ve made amends, we’ve redeemed ourselves and others and so lets try this again. Of course, December can be gloomy enough without all this repenting and self flagellation so eventually they thought a joy Sunday would be a nice break. And here we are. Feeling joyous?
If you paid too close attention to the reading about John The Baptist, you may not be feeling all that cheery. This guy is brutal. He’s out at his lake and throngs of people are going out to him. Many are being baptized, some are just there to see this new prophet, some maybe to gauge how much trouble he’s going to cause. Still though, he’s sure not nice to all those who go to the trouble to see him. He calls them a brood of vipers and implies that they are fruit trees that are barren and need to be cut down. As I’ve talked about many times, when reading scripture, context is very important because what we read may be quite different that what was intended. In this case, it’s pretty much the same. He’s telling them off and calling them names.
This John guy must have been one heck of a good preacher. If you showed up here on a Sunday morning and I spent the service insulting you, I bet most of you would be sleeping in next Sunday. I couldn’t pull off what John did and certainly not on the Sunday of Joy. The difficulty I run into though is that if John were here today, I’m not sure his tone would be any different and I get the distinct feeling he’d be calling me names as well.
Ironically, in all this raving, at the centre of what John is preaching is a message of compassion and when these scared people ask him what they should do, he tells them to act compassionately. First he tells them that if they have 2 coats, they should give one to someone who has none. Then he tells the tax collectors to only take the prescribed amount. Everyone knew that tax collectors were given a quota to collect and then they could collect whatever else they wanted to make up their own wages. John tells then to stop cheating people and take only what’s fair. He has soldiers ask him the same question. Soldiers often moonlighted for the tax collectors as a bit of not so gentle persuasion – a great way to earn some extra money. He tells them to be satisfied with the wages they receive and stop extorting money from others. In short, he’s telling them that in their personal and professional lives, they should be acting with compassion.
Years ago, I had a short lived career as a security guard. It wasn’t a job I enjoyed very much or was very good at. One of the places I worked quite often was in one of the big hotels in downtown Vancouver. Often my duties consisted of kicking homeless people out of the lobby. This was a terrible way to make a living and I can’t help wondering that if John the Baptist was there, what would he have told me when asked what I should do?
There is one thing though that John did not say. He didn’t tell them to quit their jobs. Everyone knew tax collectors were in a crooked business but John didn’t tell them to stop collecting taxes. Everyone knew the soldiers were mercenaries that would brutalize people for some gold but they weren’t told to stop being soldiers. They were simply told to show compassion within the realities they faced.
If his advice to me resembled anything like that given in today’s reading, I suppose he would have told me to keep my job but try to do it with as much compassion as I could. Maybe he’d tell me to have granola bars on hand so that those who I kicked out would have a bite to eat and know that someone cared at least a bit. Maybe he’d have told me to try to make some arrangements with the hotel so that those who were looking for some warmth could get some left over food or have a back room where they could sit and warm up a bit.
I guess most of us would have times in our lives when we’ve been a part of something that we’re not too proud of. Maybe a job or a situation that isn’t in keeping with what we believe to be good and just. We could quit the job and face unemployment or stay and compromise. Maybe you’ve had or have an ethical dilemma that you’ve been involved in. Maybe it’s as simple as wondering if saving money when shopping is worth the harm that our choices bring to others. Choices like this happen all the time. It seems the world was not conveniently pained with only black and white and reality and ideals sometimes clash. These are tough situations that we all find ourselves in but as often happens, we can find wisdom from scripture.
Our reading today ended with the words, “ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news! He’s calling them snakes and this is good news? I don’t think though that this isn’t good news as in, “hey I found a toonie in my pocket,” but instead the good news that the world is about to embrace the compassion of God. This is Good News that is messy and disorienting. This is Good News that is seen as a comfort to some and a threat to many others And through it all, rejoice. Find the joy.
Christianity was never meant to be the easy way and Jesus tells us that we must carry our own crosses as we follow but we are still meant to be joyous, to realize the message that Jesus gave was called the Good News.
Maybe you sometimes feel like you’re in a snake pit, and maybe sometimes you feel like the snake, but through it all, God is with us. The tax collectors and mercenaries that came to John found redemption and so too can we. In this, there is Joy. In a week and a half, we celebrate the one who John tells of. Jesus was a sign of how much God loves us and taught of that love. In this there is joy. Jesus told us that we can never be separated from God and even when we fail, which we all do sometimes, even then, there is joy because we have another chance to succeed. We are called to act with compassion and here too is joy for when we care for another we will be closer to feeling the compassion God feels for us. This is grace. The completely illogical, undeserving, always available love from God. Here is joy!