The Third Sunday of Advent, which we celebrate this week, is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, “gaudete” being the Latin word for “rejoice.” And most of our texts seem suited to that theme.
- The prophet Isaiah writes, “Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!”
- The prophet Zephaniah portrays God as a joyful bridegroom: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
- And, of course, Paul exhorts his beloved church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
Unfortunately, John the Baptist doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. John is out in the wilderness of Judea, baptizing many people and lambasting those who have come out to see the spectacle:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance … I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Not a lot of joy in that proclamation: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Welcome to ministry! Let’s hope you’re bearing good fruit.
The Gospel text this week (like the texts from the last few weeks) reminds us that Advent is not only about joy, about waiting and hoping, it is also about judgment. Advent is preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but also for Christ’s second coming, in power and glory.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this theme of judgment in an Advent sermon he preached in 1928:
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us … [T]he God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.1
God is coming—yes, as a baby in a manger, but God is also coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.
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Now, I know that this doesn’t necessarily sound like good news. “Unquenchable fire” sounds more like hellfire and brimstone than most of us are comfortable with. In this Advent text, we are far from Bethlehem and the sweet strains of “Away in a Manger.”
But I would invite you to contemplate with me that this proclamation of John’s is actually good news. And the good news is that God is not finished with us yet.
God is not finished with us yet. Now, I should hasten to add, God has already claimed us and redeemed us in baptism. The work of salvation is over, and it is all God’s doing in Jesus Christ. But it is precisely here that the adventure begins! I think Eugene Peterson, in The Message, puts it well. He writes John’s speech with these words:
I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.2
Jesus will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.
God is not finished with us yet. In Scripture, after all, fire is not primarily a symbol for hell, it is above all a sign of the presence of God. God appears in a burning bush to Moses, in a pillar of fire to the Israelites, in consuming fire on Mt. Sinai, in four wheels of fire to Ezekiel.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This is good news! God in Christ comes to us not just as a baby in a manger, but as consuming fire, burning away in us all that keeps us from God, purifying us and strengthening us as metal is tempered, as gold is refined.
Refining, cleansing, purifying—these are all good activities. They are not easy, of course. There is pain involved in refining and cleansing. There is pain involved in repentance, in dying to our old selves. But it is all designed for our good, preparing our hearts for Christ’s advent.
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Don’t try to soft-pedal this good news, dear Working Preacher. I heard a sermon several years ago on the Malachi text from last week, a text that bears resemblance to John’s message: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (3:2). The well-meaning young preacher spoke of God’s tender love for us, in that God washes us carefully, like fine linen or expensive silk.
An interesting metaphor, though not particularly biblical. Fullers’ soap is not Woolite, and the oil and dirt to be cleansed requires not a gentle handwashing, but real scrubbing.
We know that. Deep down, we all know that there are things in us and in our world that need to be scrubbed away, burned away. I would have found that sermon more honest and more helpful if he had asked, “What is it in you that needs to be burned away? What is it in our world that needs to be cleansed?”
God is not finished with us yet. God is not finished with this world yet. And the process of refining and cleansing and purifying is a painful and, yes, fearful prospect. But it is also an essential work of God’s mercy, because through it, we are drawn more fully into God’s presence.
Paul, writing from prison, reminds us of that truth: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
The Lord is near. God’s coming as a babe in Bethlehem, God’s coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” is indeed a fearful prospect but it is also good news. Because in Christ’s mercy, he will finally burn away in us and in the world all that keeps us captive to sin and death.
And that is, indeed, reason to rejoice.
Thank you for all you do, dear Working Preacher, to proclaim this liberating and redeeming word to your people. A blessed Advent to you.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186.
- Eugene Peterson, The Message (NavPress, 1993, 2002, 2018).