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Sermon: Sing, You Vipers! December 12, 2021

December 13, 2021

Here’s my sermon for December 12, the Third Sunday of Advent, from Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The photo is of Anders and his bandmates, in concert last week.

You can also watch Grace’s Advent Christmas concert, Holy Light, performed in the afternoon on the 12th: Holy Light.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Every year when the Advent wreath goes up, the question arises: Why four blue candles? Why not three purple and one pink? That, after all, is the tradition in which most of us grew up. For a long time, Advent was primarily a season of penitence, a time to focus on our deep need for the coming Savior. Purple, used for this purpose during Lent, made sense for Advent, too. Over the last several decades, however, many churches have come to see Advent more as a time of expectation and longing. As the earth is covered by a deep blue sky in the hours before dawn, so does Advent place us in the dark but hopeful watches of the night. It is dark, but morning draws near.Insofar as personal preference matters, I like the shift to blue. The only downside? We miss out on the candle, the Sunday, that isn’t purple, but rose. We miss seeing that today is supposed to be different. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Even when penitence was the theme, the coming joy of Christmas wouldn’t allow for a full month of dour moods. So, on Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, a rose candle would be lit. Rose reminds us that the fast is drawing to its close and the feast is almost upon us. Today is a day for joy to break forth. Our readings point us in this direction. Zephaniah and Isaiah, prophets of old, urge us to shout and sing for joy. Paul tells us to rejoice and, in case we missed it, he tells us again. Today is a day for joy, a day to exult with songs of praise.
  2. It seems, however, that John didn’t get the memo. He’s not blue or rose; he’s purple in the face, veins popping as he preaches repentance. “You brood of vipers,” he begins, taking up Isaiah’s message of valleys lifted and mountains lowered. Perhaps, John wants us to know, we are the mountains that need to be bulldozed; we are the valleys that need to be filled in. Perhaps it is not so much the roads we walk on that are crooked. John opens his sermon by declaring that we are the crooked ones; writhing vipers twisted in upon ourselves. There’s not much joy here, and it’s not how most young preachers would begin their careers in the pulpit, but there is truth in his words, however uncomfortable they make us. You, John tells us, are the brood are vipers. Not them; you. Truth be told, if there’s a cause for concern in today’s church, it’s not attendance or budgets or minor ecclesiastical squabbles. It’s that we have gotten really good at pointing out the sins of others while ignoring our own. We are quick – too quick, maybe – to name the injustice and oppression we see in others. And yes, it’s there. But perhaps this has become a defense mechanism, a means of deflection. If we point out the sin out there quickly enough, perhaps no one will see how twisted and complicit we are. This is more than saying we’re less than perfect or acknowledging a theological point. No, we are actual sinners, participants in and perpetrators of the broken systems and structures of this world. Today, John points the finger at us. At you. And, yes, at me, too. We are the vipers, children of the serpent’s lies; we are the hollowed-out trees who long ago stopped bearing fruit. We are the ones with axes ready at our roots. Just what you were hoping to hear at church when you woke up this morning! Rejoice? And again, I say, rejoice?

  3. Interestingly, in his telling of these events, Luke says that what John is doing is preaching good news. If this sounds surprising, it’s only because snakes don’t hear very well. While this may not be the news we want to hear, it is exactly the news we need, and that’s what makes it good. We are turned inward, twisted, coiled upon ourselves. We have not borne good fruit. We have gone so far astray that we’ve failed at the simple things John commends to us: keeping our neighbors warm in the cold, refraining from theft, declining to extort or accuse. We are sinners. This is good news precisely because John diagnosis the disease to prescribe the cure: Another is coming, he tells us: Messiah, who will baptize with fire and Spirit. He will clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff. As Kathryn Schifferdecker of Luther Seminary notes, “Deep down, we all know that there are things in us in in our world that need to be scrubbed away, burned away.” She points us to Bonhoeffer, who in an Advent sermon from 1928, proclaimed: “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.” The coming of Christ is not a bland or benign blessing; it is good news precisely because by speaking judgment, space is created for grace. New growth emerges from the once-barren stump. And again, I say, rejoice! The discordant notes sounded by John begin to resolve as the melody of joy emerges.
  4. Earlier this week, I attended Anders’s first band concert. Our burgeoning saxophonist was well prepared, having dutifully practiced “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He and his fellow beginners performed wonderfully before ceding the gymnasium floor to the older students. The more advanced band, comprised of fifth through eighth graders, worked their way through “Carol of the Bells” and a Christmas medley; they sounded good, but you’ll forgive me for thinking they were hardly the CSO. Then I looked at Anders, sitting next to me in the bleachers with his sax on his lap. He was entranced. When they were done, he looked at me and asked, “When can I be in that band?”
  5. Today, on this Sunday of joy, we hear the far-off strains of joyful praise that are drawing ever closer. Indeed, in addition to the songs we are enjoined to sing, we hear another voice for the first time. The prophet Zephaniah, who has thus far only spoken doom and destruction, changes his tune. He points to a time of return, of homecoming. He speaks of a God who is in our midst, a warrior king who wins victory through peace. And what will this God do? This God will exult over you with loud singing, as on a feast day. For all the singing in the Bible, from Miriam to Mary to creation itself, this is the only time in scripture that we hear God singing. God, creator of heaven and earth, will be so glad when the victory is won that God will sing! We, hearing this new song, marvel at the music. And we are invited to join the song, to be in that

  6. We are sinners, yes, but we are no longer bound by sin. As will happen this morning for Ava and Jeremy, we have been baptized into Christ, our once tuneless lives now woven into God’s song of triumph over sin and death. Where once we were fruitless stumps, now we are saplings of grace, growing in the joy of our Savior. In Christ, we bear fruit. And while we could never fulfill the law in its fulness, we don’t have to. We can now, by the Spirit’s power, fulfill the law one note at a time. We give coats. We don’t steal. We bake casseroles for those who grieve. We give the benefit of the doubt. We practice our simple notes, trusting that in God they will ring true. We rejoice. Untwisted, we sing. Chaff burned away, we sing. Sins forgiven, we sing. The song of the Creator, a song of unbridled joy and unequivocal victory, breaks over the horizon. Deep blue gives way to the first faint flecks of dawn. The Savior comes. Neither John nor we are worthy to untie his sandals, but no matter. In his fire you are refined. In his Spirt you are alive. To him, the Christ who come to you, you vipers, sing! Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

One Comment
  1. Paul Haberstock permalink

    Pastor David, thanks for sharing such cause and consequences for joy with me in this way.

    in CHRIST, Paul Haberstock

    On Mon, Dec 13, 2021 at 2:09 PM Grace Upon Grace wrote:

    > Dave Lyle posted: “Here’s my sermon for December 12, the Third Sunday of > Advent, from Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL. You can watch > the service and view the bulletin. The photo is of Anders and his > bandmates, in concert last week. You can also watch Grace’s Adve” >

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