Sermon: Axes, Unquenchable Fire, and Joy

Sunday, December 16, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Advent

Last Sunday, as you might remember, we spent some time talking about the season of Advent.  We talked about how Advent is intended to be a season of hopefulness and of joyful expectation.  In retrospect, I realized that the sermon I preached last week might actually have been even more fitting to preach today!  Today is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.”  It’s the Sunday of joy.  Today we lit the rose candle in our advent wreath.  Historically, Advent has been considered a kind of mini-Lent – a season of solemnity and fasting and penitence.  And even though the church has moved more toward seeing this as a season of expectation and preparation, it’s still good to be reminded that we are waiting for something joyful: the coming of the kingdom of God, Christ’s reign of justice, peace, and love on earth.

As you might expect, there is a lot of joy in our readings for today.  Our first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah gets to preach the kind of joyous sermon that preachers would love to preach all the time! – he declares to his people that their suffering will end, that God has seen their repentance and forgiven them.  He gives us this wonderful image of God rejoicing over the people; Zephaniah writes: “he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”  Just imagine God singing loudly, with joy, over you!  And God – through Zephaniah – goes on to say, “I will deal with all your oppressors”; “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  At that time, I will bring you home.”  Just imagine God gathering us home, changing our shame into praise!  It’s a beautiful image.

In our canticle for today, the prophet Isaiah urges his people to “sing praises to the Lord, for the Lord has done gloriously”; to “shout aloud and sing for joy”! He rejoices that God is his salvation, his strength and his might.  And he uses the image of a well full of water to speak of salvation.  This image might not have quite the same impact on us as it did on the original hearers.  We can turn on a tap and instantly have water – and as close as we are to the river, the water table around here is so high that even digging a well you don’t exactly have to struggle to find water.  But for people living in the deserts of ancient Israel, finding a functioning well was a literal, physical kind of salvation.  That’s the image Isaiah is painting of salvation.  Isaiah rejoices in God’s salvation, not just as a vague, distant, disembodied hope, but as something very much present and tangible, something happening right now, as refreshing and as life-giving as water in the desert.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most familiar passages in all of scripture.  He instructs the Philippians – and, by extension, us – to rejoice in the Lord. In fact, Paul sees this as such an important instruction that he says it twice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”  The Lord is near to us and hears our prayers.  Christ fills our hearts and minds with peace that passes all understanding. Rejoicing in the Lord brings us peace even in the midst of the world’s busy-ness and stress.

All this brings us to our reading from Luke.  Reading this particular passage, it kind of sounds like no one mentioned to John the Baptist that this is supposed to be the “Joy” Sunday.  While our other three writers rejoice in God’s saving works with images like loud singing and exultation and life-giving water, John has decided that nothing says “holiday spirit” like axes and unquenchable fire.  He starts out by calling the crowds a brood of vipers, and at least on first reading, things kind of seem to go downhill from there.


To be fair to John, this is actually just the second part of what he had to say to the people.  We actually read the first part of this longer passage last Sunday.  In the text we read last Sunday, John quotes some more hopeful-sounding words from the prophet Isaiah

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

There’s the joy!  And this message is still the heart of what John is saying in our gospel passage for today. Like the other prophets who came before him, John is announcing the coming of God’s kingdom with joy.  And at the same time, he is telling the people that they need to repent  and prepare themselves for Christ’s coming.

This isn’t necessarily the message we expect to hear in the lead up to Christmas. But even in the midst of all this harsh-sounding language, we can actually parse out some good news about the kingdom that is coming.

One of the first things John says to the crowds is, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  This sounds a little harsh, but it’s also a sign that it doesn’t matter to God whether we have the right pedigree or come from the right family or the right kind of people.  God will be faithful to the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah, but God’s faithfulness and salvation aren’t only limited to them.  God’s salvation is for everyone.

We can tell from John’s exhortations about God’s kingdom that the kingdom will be marked by justice.  On an individual level, John admonishes the people to share their resources more equally. If they see that a neighbor has ended up without food or without a coat – while they have extra – they must share what they have and rebalance the scales.  And on a systemic level, John speaks to tax collectors and soldiers.  These were folks who, to some extent, acted on behalf of the Roman Empire, and who often abused that power.  John urges them to behave ethically, which was certainly good news to all those living under their authority.

Above all, we can tell from John’s words – and from the words of the prophets in our other readings – that God cleanses us and prepares us to receive salvation.  This is really good news that can often feel like really bad news.

As I was reading this pasage this week, it weirdly kept making me think of an experience from my early teen years:  learning how to balance a checkbook.  This is something my dad tried many times to teach me.  And I hated it.  He was trying to prepare me for a life of financial responsibility.  And I don’t know exactly why, but just I always struggled to make the numbers I scribbled in my checkbook match the numbers at the bank. And it was sometimes painful to have to sit and give an account of every last little thing, every little transaction, to my father.

The preparation for Advent – the repentance that John calls for – can kind of feel like this sometimes.  We wait for God’s kingdom with joy, but John’s words invite us to reflect on how little our lives and our world embody that kingdom right now.  And that reflection can sometimes be very painful.

And for that reason, even on gaudete Sunday – even on the Sunday of joy – it’s still fitting for us to talk about axes and unquenchable fire, and even the occasional unbalanced checkbook.  These are all part of our path and preparation for the coming kingdom of God.

So rejoice in the Lord today and always – again, I will say, rejoice.

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