Today the good news is not coming from excited pregnant women, full of hope about what the future will bring. No cute baby stories today! Today the good news comes to us from John the Baptist, promising that the fire of God’s wrath is coming for you! You brood of vipers! If you want to avoid God’s wrath, repent of your sin and your evil ways and prove it. Prove it by your actions that you care about what God cares about.
This is the Good News you wanted to hear today, right?! Sheesh. This is what brought crowds of people traveling away from their homes to hear what John the Baptist had to say? Why would people want to hear about how bad they are…unless, perhaps, they take God seriously?
Perhaps they know the Scriptures and the stories of the prophets and they can hear in John’s words the echoes of the ancient prophets. Perhaps they care about injustice and they want to be part of setting things right with the world. Perhaps that is the thing they have in common: a desire to make the world better.
So the crowds come to John the Baptist, they recognize the urgency of his message, maybe they even get baptized in the Jordan River, and they really do want to make a change, so they ask: “What then should we do?” And John has a direct answer for each of them: don’t take more than you need. Make sure your neighbor has enough. Just because the system allows you to extort money because of your profession, don’t do it.
Imagine what could happen if people started doing these things. Would the economy collapse? Would the empire be threatened? Would God’s reign be built up, brick by brick, strengthening the resolve of the faithful to grow in compassion and to love with integrity?
Yes to all these things, and that’s why this good news is so dangerous. That’s why John the Baptist eventually gets executed. That’s why Jesus is followed around, his teaching scrutinized, and he also gets executed. The stakes are high: your career, your livelihood, your life could very well be on the line.
But if you’re no longer satisfied with the world as it is, if you’re cognizant of injustice, if you’re seeing or even simply beginning to see the part you play in systems of injustice, then perhaps you too are asking: what then should I do? What would it mean for me to bear fruit worthy of repentance, to really prove that I care about what God cares about? This is a question worth sitting with for a while. Pray for the grace that God would show you just what you should do.
And consider what power you have to make things right. It’s never too late to learn about injustice and try to repair relationships, to bring healing. I lived for ten years in Dallas, Texas, and over the years, every so often, the story would resurface about the death of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a police officer trying to get him to confess to robbing a vending machine of $8.
Santos and his 13-year-old brother David were living with their grandfather while their mother served a prison sentence, and in the early morning hours of July 24, 1973, Dallas police officers Darrell Cain and Roy Arnold took the boys from their bed and put them in the back of their patrol car for questioning. Officer Cain threatened the boys by pointing his gun at them, believing the gun was not loaded. But the gun was loaded, and Cain shot Santos in the head, and the boy died.
The death brought outrage and deepened the divide between Dallas law enforcement officers and the Hispanic and Black communities they serve. Officer Cain ended up serving half of a five-year prison sentence for the murder.
And that might have been the end of the story, left as a long-festering wound for the Rodriguez family. But the mother of those boys, Bessie Rodriguez, did not remain silent. This past summer, on the 48th anniversary of the death of Santos Rodriguez, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia admitted that an apology was decades overdue. In a ceremony at the cemetery where Santos is buried, Police Chief Garcia told the Rodriguez family, “In order to heal, those who committed the wrong must be contrite…On behalf of the Dallas Police Department, as a father, I am sorry. We are sorry that someone trusted to protect you, someone who wore the same uniform I proudly wear today took your son and took David’s brother away by way of murder.”
He didn’t have to say that, of course. Eddie Garcia wasn’t there when Santos Rodriguez was killed. Darrell Cain, the officer who shot him, died two years ago. Isn’t it too late? 48 years had passed already—why bring up the painful past?
Or, why not do what you can do to make things right? Why not consider the significance of a police chief reaching out in reconciliation? Bessie Rodriguez, 77 years old, the mother of the murdered boy, thanked Garcia for honoring her late son. She told the Dallas Morning News, “I have to forgive to be forgiven.”
The Holy Spirit is burning away the chaff. Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Keep asking, what am I supposed to do about systems of injustice? There is a place for you in the reign of God, and God has a call for each one of us. You might be doing your work with integrity, you might be redistributing wealth so that everyone can have food to eat and clothes to wear, or you might be pushing for reconciliation, even if it takes decades to be heard.
Perhaps you are a person who knows clearly your call to serve God—you’ve graduated beyond the questioning phase. Guess what: there’s good news for you, too!
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, which is supposed to signify that “Christmas is almost here!” This Sunday is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday”—the word “Gaudete” is Latin and guess what it means! “Rejoice!” So we’ve got John the Baptist calling us a brood of vipers AND we’re supposed to rejoice. Ha! Rejoice!
But this is an important message for us and vital to the good news: do not let anyone steal your joy. Protect your joy as something precious to you. If your brain receives all this fearful news and goes into a state of fear, your brain stops working and you can’t think deeply or very critically—it’s physically no longer possible.
So breathe deep, make this a regular practice, expand your lungs and expand your mind, and nurture your thoughts about the reign of God. Protect your joy. The work of God’s reign is not easy, and it’ll wear you down if you’re not taking time to breathe and play and have Sabbath and nurture joy. God is with you in this work.
Years ago while I was working as a summer staff person at a Lutheran summer camp in south Texas, I was with a group of young people responsible for cleaning up the dining hall and the kitchen after a meal. We had to wipe tables, sweep the floors, and also clean all the dishes, even the pots and pans. One kid named Josh was standing at the sink, barely tall enough to reach all the way down to scrub the bottom of a huge pot. But he was smiling. And it was some messy lunch, too, probably tacos or something, and he’s up to his elbows in greasy soapy water, and he’s just grinning and calling out, “I’m doin’ it for the Lord!”
I’m doin’ it for the Lord! If you can cling to your joy while getting your hands dirty in the work of service, no one can take it away from you. St. Paul, writing from his prison cell, knew a similar joy, encouraging the followers of Christ in Philippi to rejoice. I’m doin’ it for the Lord!
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Due to low audio quality issues, the video portion of the sermon is not available this week. So sorry for the inconvenience!