Sermon, 12/12/21: Hollywood outdoes Luke the Physician

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3 Advent

Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2–6; Zephaniah 3:14–20; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:7–18

As the people were filled with expectation… (Luke 3:15)

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 3:14f.)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. (Philippians 4:4)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘you brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke3:7)

It may have struck you, as you listened to the lectionary appointed for this Third Sunday in Advent, that the first two readings, that from prophet Zephaniah and that from Paul to the Church at Philippi, appear to be positive, celebratory, when compared with the seemingly harsh exhortations of John the Baptist as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Luke.  On the surface, perhaps, yes, but I beg you think for just a moment what John is attempting to accomplish.  For me, his exhortation must be seen as positive.  John wants nothing more than what Zephaniah is exclaiming and what St. Paul proclaims.  John wants his listeners then, and us now, merely to be prepared to join in the great celebration.  However, I believe that the secular world has misunderstood John and taken advantage of his vocabulary.

Some years ago, Hollywood produced a series of films that I have never seen, but which, because of TV advertisement, have found their place in my memory and perhaps also in your own.  In 2006, the film industry produced an action film with a simple, yet somewhat troubling title “Snakes on a Plane.”  A cargo of venomous vipers (snakes, in today’s jargon) is released in order to prevent a man, traveling from Honolulu to Los Angeles, from testifying in a trial against a mafia boss.  To save the passengers—both those of impeccable morals and those of questionable ethics—from the vipers, a hero springs into action.  The hero/star was Samuel J. Jackson.  I repeat: I have never seen this film, but the mere thought that such an event could occur, given that, prior to COVID, I often sat for 16 hours en route to Hong Kong, causes concern!

The film industry also produced a series of Rambo movies with Sylvester Stallone as the action hero.  If one liked blood and gore, with lots of dismemberment, one needed only watch one of the series.  Neo-Nazi skinheads invaded a small town and held the population hostage until the good guy comes along to rid the town of the bad guys.  The choice of weapon for the terrorists was the ax, lots of axes.

In 1985, the industry presented the American public with the film Witness, likewise an action movie.  It is set in Pennsylvania Deutsch country, where the bad guys, not accustomed to being around barns and farm equipment, stumble and fall.  One impales himself on the tines of a pitchfork, while another meets his end in a silo.  Harrison Ford saves the community from its captivity.  As to films with unquenchable fire, I have lost track of the number of movies in which incendiary bombs fall on unsuspecting and often innocent people, as well as on the bad guys!

There, in films for all to world to see, are scenes from the Gospel of Luke, which we have just heard.

  • You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
  • Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.
  • But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Nothing could have better prepared the way for Hollywood than Luke’s account of John the Baptist.  The language of urgency in Luke’s gospel, filled with vivid images that were supposed to shock and awe, did exactly that.  They shocked and they awed.  Forget R-rated cinema!  You heard it in the Bible!  A further, unsettling thought occurred to me: If these images of poisonous snakes unleashed on innocent people, and axes used to annihilate people, and other vivid language were not in the Bible (which bears often the title Holy Bible), the guardians of innocence in our own contemporary society would surely proclaim the Bible as X-rated, as being too graphic!

John the Baptist, however, did not anticipate becoming a proto-writer of Hollywood script.  Rather, as the offspring of a priest in the Temple, John’s call was to alert his world that a new order was on its way. John, a prophet in his own right, had surely seen much injustice, had been perhaps himself, as a Jew under Roman rule, the recipient of religious bigotry and governmental tyranny, had seen unfair distribution of wealth that he, like Jesus, thought should be shared more equitably.  Despite his language, John was a man of peace.  He called for reconciliation, and a first step toward making amends was to say that one was sorry.  Hence, John called out: repent.  And despite the language, John’s call at its base, for me, is one of hope and promise.

Who, in John’s film, were the cast of characters who came out to hear him?  Not only the regular folks from the hillsides and fields, but also many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to be cleansed by baptism.  These latter as a group, you will recall, were the political and social and religious elite of their community.  They were hardly the kind of people who would be expected to show up to wade in the water, to wash with the unclean. They were the establishment of their day, many of whom used and abused the system to their advantage.  And those who did, they were for John the vipers. 

They were there, those Pharisees and Sadducees, down at the water seeking redemption, seeking a rightness with God and with their community, although most probably had not thought the matter through, namely, what baptism really was going to mean to them if they took their new life seriously.  And John’s reaction, typical for prophets of his era, was not immediately one of celebration, but of caution. 

John could not have known, simply by looking at them, whether true penance and sincerity were in their hearts.  Standing there, as they did, in their fine attire, displaying their well-polished symbols of religious and political authority hanging around their necks and dangling from their wrists and hands, they appeared to John to claim and proclaim a privileged relationships to Abraham.  John’s words of caution and truth must have stung, either because they had been called out, or because they were sincere and that sincerity had not been rightly recognized.  Yet, John would admit that not he, but God alone was able to tell what was in their hearts.

Symbols are rife in John’s pronouncement. The ax was a symbol.  The unquenchable fire was a symbol.  Water was a symbol.  And John did not hesitate to state that water alone could no more make one clean and pure and unspotted than could one’s clothes be made clean by hanging them out to air.  They had to be washed, as well.  Yet, John did not simply castigate or cast blame.  He offered a way toward redemption, as well.

While many in our culture prefer that preachers offer a comforting message that God will shower blessings upon whatever we choose to do with our lives, the true message of Advent is unsettling.  God sent not only messengers such as John, but ultimately also the Messiah who instructed humankind then and now, how we might conform our lives to the greater good.

Yet, John’s promise must have been a most powerful message to all who heard it.  Surely, at least some of the religious Pharisees and Sadducees who gathered were sincere.  Caught between the poles of condemnation and salvation were John the Baptist and his brood of vipers.  John asked them then, as do his words in Luke’s gospel ask of us: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  As the crowds then, so are we presented now with the freedom to choose, to choose this day whom we will serve, God or our basest instincts.  And that is the good news.  No coercion.  No arm twisting.  We are free to accept the love of God.  The God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob and of Ruth and Elizabeth and Mary came into this world in the form of Jesus, in order to save the saint AND the sinner, alike.  We give in this holy season of Advent thanks that Christ still comes alike for both, and even for folks like you and me!  Amen