The Reverend Imogen Rhodenhiser
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-9; and Luke 3:7-18
It will come as no surprise to some of you to learn that I’m not really a creature of habit, per se. But one of the things that I have found myself doing over the last few months, and a gift that I’ve found myself receiving, is that come the end of the day, or usually for me the beginning of the new day, I have a period of time which depending on when the baby wakes up and how long he sleeps. It can go from 10 minutes to 30 minutes. But I have a time where with some regularity I am shocked to say, I reflect on the last 24 hours. And I begin by reminding myself that I’m in God’s presence and that I’m profoundly loved by God, and I give thanks for a few things that come to my mind immediately as things that I’m grateful for and that I want to give thanks to God for. And then I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to look at the last 24 hours and help me to see what the Holy Spirit wants me to see in them.
And that can be something of a laborious undertaking just because sometimes it’s difficult to remember what happened in the last 24 hours. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast let alone anything else. And depending on the kind of day it was – if it’s one of those days where particularly wonderful things happened or particularly awful things happened, I tend to sort of gravitate to those peaks and valleys as they occur. And what was striking, therefore, was that one day recently as I was doing this, the 24 hours that I had passed had been fairly neutral. It hadn’t been terribly tumultuous and yet what stood out to me was I’d had a conversation with somebody. Totally sort of innocuous. It wasn’t about anything particularly important. We had decided we’d take it up again later on and for some reason, I was bothered by this, and I had to stop and think well why?
And I confess to you all that the reason it turned out that I felt bothered, it wasn’t a situation of life or death. It still could work out exactly as I wished to and I realized that if I was honest with myself, the issue was no more or less than the fact that I simply hadn’t gotten what I wanted. And I thought, wait a second. That’s a bit telling because when I thought about it more, I realized how much in my life I can often operate as if my days and my interactions are no more than a series of instances wherein I either get my way, I get what I want, or I don’t. And I hadn’t realized that about myself. I hadn’t realized that it was so prevalent that I always come to or I often come to conversations thinking here is what I really hope to get out of this. And whether or not that lands in that way come the end of it. I can feel suitably put out or suitably happy that things have turned out as I wanted them to.
And I think often I’m not the only one. Because there is an excellent film from the late 80s in which two friends are sitting in a diner and one of them is saying to the other one and explaining how there are two kinds of people, high maintenance and low maintenance people. And the other friend says, well, what kind am I? And he says, you’re the worst kind. You’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance. And she says, no, I’m not and he goes on to give this example of how every time she orders something, she wants something different about it and she always wants whatever the dressing or the sausage, she wants it on the side. He says, on the side is a very big thing for you. And she says, well, I just want it the way I want it. And he says, I know, high maintenance.
And I really empathize. I just want it the way I want it sometimes. Oftentimes, really, and here is the thing. Mostly what I want, I find to be totally reasonable. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think it would be beneficial for other people including me and that really, we’d all get along better if we just did more of what I wish would happen. It’s very straightforward, I think. But as I thought more not just about how ridiculous it was that I’d had this conversation that left me feeling put out because it didn’t matter at all and yet I felt, it didn’t really, I didn’t get what I wanted. How ridiculous it was that should bother me. But as I thought more and more, I realized that way of living, that life or speaking with others or reading or whatever we’re engaged in, that it’s just a series of opportunities for us either to get what we want or to be disappointed is an exhausting way to live. It is absolutely tiring.
And every day or every interaction feels like a reset, that nothing counts up until that point. Whatever good has happened, now it’s all on to the next thing. The next thing, I want to get. The next thing I wish would have come to pass. And not only is it exhausting but it’s also I find in myself, it is a part of the picture of my life that masquerades as the whole. Because when I get what I want, I can think that everything is coming up roses and it is a good day. And when I don’t, it’s as if everything has gone to pot. Nothing at all is going right. And the gift that seems to come to us halfway through Advent, as we are, this morning from John the Baptist is that when all these people come to be baptized on the Jordan River, John doesn’t turn to them and say, what do you want? What do you want to get out of this baptized life? What do you hope to get out of following Jesus?
But John gives those people at the river’s edge and gives us a new way of entering into that conversation and into that wondering. And it’s not even a question he asks. He simply says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And in the Greek, it says, “Bear worthy fruits of repentance.” Which is to say bear fruits in your life that are befitting, that seem to suit the kind of repentance that’s taken place within you. And clearly everyone finds this very confusing. Because the crowd who is gathered there, the tax collectors, the soldiers, they all come up in groups and say to him, “What exactly are we supposed to do then? How does one bear fruits worthy of repentance?” And what’s so remarkable is that each time John answers that question, we notice that there is no way to answer it or even to start to think about it without considering and reflecting upon how we act with other people.
The first set of people is told, if you’ve got two coats, two tunics, you have to share with the person that doesn’t have any. And if you’ve got any food, the same applies. If you’re a tax collector, then in your business dealings, even if you’re not in the temple, even if you’re not in a holy space otherwise you are to treat the other person as the bearer of the image of God that they are. And if you’re a soldier, you’re not to extort or to take by lying or whatever strategy you can clutch at. You’re not to take money from people that isn’t yours and you’re to be satisfied with what you’ve got.
And whereas then we can think on our own about what it is we want and how to get it. We cannot think about and wonder about the fruit that God is bearing in our lives without thinking about other people and how we are with them. Because that’s where we’ll find what kind of fruit is being born. Are we more patient? Are we forbearing? Are we generous? Are we kind? And we can think of this not solely in terms of our children and our parents and our friends. How do we treat the person who’s in the checkout line with us, the person who is serving us a meal at a restaurant? How do we treat the people around us when the plane is delayed and it’s still sitting on the tarmac after an hour of waiting? How do we treat the people who work with us? Who work for us or who we work for. Where do we notice ourselves giving the benefit of the doubt, of holding our tongue when what we’ve got to say is neither productive nor loving?
John the Baptist offers as a mirror this morning to take a peek and see what kinds of fruit are being born forth in your life and mine this morning, this season. And I think what strikes me as being the good news this morning is that this is not an exercise in condemnation. It is surely an accounting but the god who accompanies in us, in this, so it’s not a solitary exercise, is a god that is exalting over us. You heard in that beautiful setting of the canticle that we heard this morning instead of a psalm. The joy, the delight that God has that this is a God not who sits back and says, you’re not measuring up. You’re not doing enough. I saw where you didn’t forgive that person. I saw where you weren’t loving to your child and I’m taking a firm note of all these things.
The god that we believe in comes to us in love this morning and says, do not be afraid to take a look at your life. Don’t be afraid to see what’s there because I am with you. I exalt over you as Isaiah says, I am your savior. I’m your stronghold. I have got you in the palm of my hand and I’m not letting go. So, whatever you see in there, I’ll be standing with you. And the kind of invitation I will give you to grow and to change and to become far more than you ever imagined will be something that I make possible in you.
We have the words from our collect this morning. Stir up your power, oh God in me, in us. And it’s that kind of partnership that Paul has a view when he tells the Philippians, rejoice in the Lord always. Don’t let your joy be found in how often you can get what you want. Because the moment you get it, it will disappear again and then where will your joy be? How will you know where to look for it? How will you know where to find it? Paul says, “Rejoice in the lord.” Because that’s something that God makes possible all the time.
Unless we think that Paul was just having a particularly good day and he was feeling really good about his chances of being able to be an eternal optimist and to always look on the bright side of life. A few verses after this he says to the Philippians, I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through the one who strengthens me.
So, re-echoing John the Baptist’s invitation, we have the Apostle Paul inviting us to see the fruits of God and God’s Holy Spirit born in our lives in time of need and time of plenty and everywhere in between. Two days ago, another habit that I’m not very good at but I have somehow by the grace of God managed to do with regularity recently is to go running. And no, not outside. At least not all the time. And I headed off to run and since I’m oh so busy and always holding someone or something, I called my mother while I was on the way because I can at least do that versus texting her which I don’t have the hands for. And I talked to her on the way to the little gym I go to and I was still talking to her standing in the vestibule and I thought to myself, I got it all together. I’m ready to go running. I organized everything so I could fit this into the ridiculous busy-ness that is December.
I am on the verge and it’s not going to work out because I’m on the phone to my mother and in the very same instant, I remembered that it wasn’t very long ago that my mother didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, for a pronounced period of time. And that it wasn’t so long ago that I would have given anything to be so inconvenienced that I would have to stop whatever I was doing and change my plans and talk to her. God grant you this advent, this Christmastide to come the curiosity to look and see where the fruits worthy of repentance are being born forth by God in your life, and grant you the partners to look at the invitations that God is extending to you so that you can see when you come up to someone who tries your patience over and over again. The opportunity God is giving you in that moment to become more patient, to learn what that’s like and how to do it. And with the coming of Christ, God grant you the discovery that what you truly want is far more life-giving and far more apparent than you had ever thought.
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