Advent 3C Sermon (2021)

Third Sunday of Advent
Texts: Philippians 4:4-7;
Luke 3:7-18; Zeph 3:14-20



John the Baptist begins his sermon, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not exactly designed to endear himself to his congregation. I can safely say that I’ve never begun my sermon by addressing the people I’m speaking to as a “brood of vipers.”

But then he asks them a question that reveals a lot about their times — and perhaps ours, too. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” They lived in a time of wrath. John and Jesus, living in first century Palestine under the rule of the Roman Empire, lived in a time of seething anger and resentment that could catch fire at any moment, so to speak, issuing forth in dangerous political violence. As we’ve talked about in recent weeks (see sermons for Proper 28B and Advent 1C) — in connection with our Gospel Readings from Mark 13 and Luke 22, which begin with Jesus prophesying the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — this is exactly what finally happened about thirty years later. The Jews rose up in armed rebellion against the Romans and were utterly destroyed.

At the end of today’s Gospel Reading, John the Baptist speaks of a harvest in which the grain is stored away, but the chaff is burned in unquenchable fire. I think that John sees the Messiah, who will be his cousin Jesus, as the one wielding the fire. There’s a good chance that he envisions the Romans as the ones who will be burned up, while the Jews become the harvest of God’s victory. John still believes in sanctioned violence as a solution to violence. But John’s cousin Jesus will come to put the opposite spin on things. It’s those whose anger and wrath yield a violent solution to violence who are playing with fire and will get burned. Jesus, the true Messiah, has come with the only true answer to our problem of violence. He will teach his followers a courageous joy involved when standing against violence with nonviolent means, with things like forgiveness and loving service.

Yes, I said joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” writes St. Paul. He lived in the very breech of that time, that age of wrath which would consume his Jewish compatriots in a few years-time. On the timeline, he’s right in the middle. He wrote the letter to the Philippians about fifteen years after Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, but also fifteen years before the Jewish people in Palestine would rise up in wrath and be destroyed. Into that dangerous breech, a time truly of “the wrath to come,” he writes these amazing words which we read today. I’d like for us to listen to these short verses again (using my own translation this time), with the context in mind: Paul still very much lives in a time of wrath, when political violence breaks out continually, and he has come to believe in Jesus’s way of nonviolence as the true solution to the problem of violence. Listen again, intermixed with some questions and comments from me:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Rejoice? Is Paul asking us to keep our heads in the sand? No, because his next words are, “Let your nonviolence be known to all humankind.” In other words, he’s encouraging them to rejoice very much aware that they are also being called to live God’s nonviolent way of peace in the face of so much violence. So he tries to reassure them: “The Lord is near,” he writes. “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? How not to be anxious at a time of wrath? It’s going to take a lot of prayer. And so Paul concludes, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. . . .” This exactly what we’ve been talking about, right? God’s way of peace ordinarily, without Christ’s help, surpasses our understanding. Finally, “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Notice that Paul doesn’t included guarding our bodies. Our bodies will be on the line when going the Way of nonviolence in the face of violence. But God can guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, helping us to live into a courageous joy of knowing that we are part of God’s Way to ultimate peace.

So here’s the question for today. We, too, live in a time of wrath. We have leaders whose only agenda is to stoke anger against our enemies, leaders who identify the bad guys for us. So depending on which news outlets we watch, we get caught up in this anger at whichever enemies they identify for us. (Which enemies generally depends on which news shows we watch!) And at least on one side of the dividing line right now, a lot of these clearly seem aimed at provoking us to political violence. I fear that the attempted insurrection on January 6 is meant to be only the beginning, because the stoking of anger has only ramped up since then. These are scary times, aren’t they? I find them scary. St. Paul lived in that kind of time, too, so our question for him is, “How does one live in joy and gratitude, and without anxiety, at a time of brewing political violence?” How do we do that?

A few verses before this morning’s reading from Philippians 4, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” The following verses are very important, too, but first let me spend a few minutes on this notion of “imitating me.” The Greek word behind our English word “imitation” is mimētēs. I bring this up in as a lead into a moment of more full disclosure: One of the crucial moments that changed my life was discovering the work of René Girard about thirty years ago. Girard was a professor at Johns Hopkins and Stanford, who found himself elaborating a wholistic understanding of being human — an anthropology, if you will. I trust you can see the connection between the theme of Jesus showing us a new way to be human and having a wholistic understanding of that.

Girard called his work “Mimetic Theory.” I’m not about to elaborate the whole theory for you this morning. As with out main theme of revitalizing the basic Christian message, we’ll take things a little bit at a time. And to be honest with you, Girard’s work, especially his way of reading Scripture, has been behind everything I’ve been doing each week anyway. As we go forward, occasionally I’ll mention him by name, but most of the time I won’t.

This morning I raise Girard’s “Mimetic Theory” by name because I’m keying in on that Greek word in Paul’s writings for “imitation”: mimētēs. How crucial imitation is to understanding our being human! We learn everything through imitation — walking, talking, social behavior, even what we do for work. Carpenters and electricians do apprenticeships. Doctors and lawyers undertake internships. Yes, we do and learn everything by imitation. (Note: Girard chose not to use the English word imitation but instead one more directly from the Greek, “mimetic,” because the vast majority of all this happens subconsciously. We typically aren’t consciously aware of our imitating others as we learn our way through life.) So far, so good. The role of imitation is a gift to us that sets us apart from the other animals, who must rely on genetically transmitted instincts. We human beings can change and adapt so much more quickly because each innovation can be quickly transmitted through imitation.

But there’s one category of things we learn from one another which is problematic — and really provides the seeds for violence. We prefer not to think about this one; we try to hide it from ourselves. That most important thing? Desire. Desire is so basic, right? It gets us out of bed in the morning — that we desire to do something that day. How do we learn to desire? We ‘catch’ our desires from each other. (“Mimetic desire” is what Girard calls this.) We can see this most obviously, perhaps, in our children. They’ll be playing in a room full of toys, and how often do they end up fighting over one of the toys? Because they catch the desire for that toy from each other, and then they’re fighting over it.

Do you see, then, the basic seeds for violence? We catch our desires from each other, and then we become competitors for those same objects of desire. In our age of consumerism, advertisers understand this. They don’t just show us their products. They show us someone enjoying their products, so that we catch our desire for those objects from them. We have this phrase which I think we at least intuitively understand: that our way of life is about “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s all about a competition for better stuff — because we’re catching our desires from each other. So our lives can turn into a constant comparing ourselves to our neighbors, a being in perpetual competition with them. Our lives can become obsessed with winning this perpetual competition — a contest to see who gets more good stuff, better incomes, greater means.

John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel, has all these people coming to him who are trapped in this kind of competition fueled by mimetic desire. When it gets down to practical advice to the crowds, it’s about trying to keep the reins over the tumble of mimetic desire into conflict and violence. To the tax collectors, he tells them to not take more than they’re supposed to. Same thing to the soldiers: don’t gripe about your wages. Be satisfied. To everyone he urges sharing — like giving one coat away if you have two. This is all about trying to forestall falling deeper and deeper into the competition wrought by our desiring — to the point that we increasingly fall into envy and anger and resentment, and then conflict and violence.

It’s at this point that we then become ripe for manipulation. When we’re angry and resentful much of the time, on the constant verge of conflict and lashing out violently, we don’t want that to turn against those closest to us. It’s at this point that we’re susceptible to the most clever of our political leaders who will help us to name our true enemies — someone other than those closest to us. Do you see how this works? The deeper we fall into anger and resentment that there’s other folks beating us at the game of consumerism, we are susceptible to manipulation into turning that “wrath” (John’s “wrath to come, Luke 3:7) against an enemy. We become mired in a constant Us vs. Them.

Let’s jump quickly to the Good News, however. What this understanding of being human means is that we human beings aren’t born to be violent. God, in fact, created us “very good” (Gen 1:31). God created us to desire in a certain way which can easily lead to violence. But here’s the thing: we have a choice about who to imitate. About who to catch our desires from. When we’re caught up in the consumeristic society, all the advertisers and so many around us are trying to get us to catch our desires from each other, in a way that leads to anger and resentment and eventually violence. But so much of what our faith is about learning to catch our desires from who? Our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to show us a different way to be human, a different way to desire with love and forgiveness that reaches out even to enemies. It is about leading us out of the traps of anger and resentment and into the way of joy.

So St. Paul doesn’t just say, ‘Rejoice always,’ right? No, he says, ‘Rejoice always in the Lord.’ We have to be catching our desiring from him, imitating our Lord Jesus Christ. I mentioned that a few verses before our text today, Paul urges us disciples to imitate him. Paul has already got caught up in this ‘life in Christ.’ He talks about it all the time. A hundred times in his letters: everything is about being ‘in Christ.’ Paul is learning in his prayer and in his life to live in that desire.

At the heart of this letter to the Philippians is a passage we read every Palm Sunday. Listen for that theme of imitating desire [reading in paraphrase]: ‘Have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who, even though he was equal with God, didn’t that as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him. . .’ (Phil 2:5-9). This exaltation is what enables Paul later in the letter to encourage us to, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Let me end, then, with the words that come right before today’s reading. After the part about imitating him, listen to what follows with this frame of our living in a time of wrath while seeking a way of joy: “Join in imitating me. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:17-19). If Paul was here today, hearing about this theory, he might say, ‘Their minds are trapped in mimetic desire — catching their desires from each other in ways that lead down the wrong road . . . to destruction. “But our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). This is what we are doing in Advent. We are expecting our Lord’s coming into our lives with joy, even in the face of the “wrath to come.” “He will transform the body of our humiliation. . .” (Phil 3:21a) Again, being realistic here that our bodies are on the line when we are living a way of joy in a time of wrath. We can have joy because ‘he will transform our bodies to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (Phil 3:21b).

Closing words — a question: if we are learning together — in our praying, in our worship, in our life together — how to have a courageous joy in the face of all this anger and stuff to be anxious about — if we’re learning a courageous joy, a different way to be human, in the face of all that by imitating Christ, by living in Christ, do you think our children and grandchildren might want to imitate that? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, December 12, 2021


Print Friendly, PDF & Email