Sermon – Advent III, 2018 - The Wrath to Come - Luke 3: 7-18
I think September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. The next weekend synagogues and churches throughout the country were packed. Those were scary times; uncertain times. Passenger jets were turned into instruments of murder and destruction. Two icons of the New York skyline were gone – just gone, like that. What else might happen? What other plots were the terrorists planning and when would they occur? Some clergy proclaimed it was a sign of God’s punishment on America for the sin of…..fill in the blank – whatever sin that particular pastor saw as primary. For me, I saw it as nothing more complicated than human revenge.
But people turned to faith. People who hadn’t darkened a church doorway in decades, if ever; people who had no idea what occurred in worship – came. They knew they had to do something. They knew they had to be somewhere. Now, I don’t know why they came, or what they were looking for, or what they needed, or thought would happen. But in the face of inexplicable evil, death, and destruction people turned to God. Perhaps they believed they were fleeing the wrath to come, looking for a place of safety. I don’t know. But on the next Sunday attendance was not quite so robust, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around Sunday morning had pretty much returned to normal.
I’ve heard the gospel I just read to you my whole life. I’ve preached on it numerous times, but it wasn’t until last week that I wondered - for the first time - what “wrath” is John talking about? Nothing specific comes to mind. He lived in the middle of the Pax Romana, a 200-year period when wars ceased because Rome was so powerful and so brutal that no one dared take them on. So the “wrath” was not warfare. And although Luke knew about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, John did not, so it would have seemed out of place if that was what he meant. Or I guess you could think of it as a pearly-gates kind of judgment event for each individual, but does that qualify as “wrath?”
I really don’t know to what he is referring. I can only speculate. I can only guess. But maybe it would help to put the phrase in context.
John had set up an unauthorized, satellite purification station on the banks of the Jordan River, catching pilgrims on their way to offer sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. Presumably they are the “crowd” to whom he makes his comments in the reading. He basically says to them, “Don’t think that just because you’re following the rules that everything is going to be all right for you. You might very well be a ‘child of Abraham’ but that by itself is not going to be enough. You have to act like it. You have to connect your sacrifice with your heart and truly feel your repentance. Empty rituals are just that – empty.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” the crowd asks. And John tells them to take care of each other. If someone has more than they need, share with someone who doesn’t have enough. And remember he is talking to poor people here. There was no middle class in biblical times. John was not saying, “If you have 3, 4, or 5 coats hanging in your closet you will probably be okay if you donate one to charity.” John is not telling the crowd to toss some spare change into the paper cup. He’s saying that if you are storing an extra coat in case the one you have now wears out or gets ruined, take it out of storage so someone who needs it now can use it now. And if at some point in the future your current coat gets ruined, then someone else will provide for you. Take care of each other.
John is talking about a new order, a time of honesty, integrity, justice, rightness, and generosity. He’s talking about an order in which even Rome’s employees, tax collectors and soldiers stay within the proper limits of their jobs and don’t abuse their positions of power to illegally line their own pockets. That new order is associated with wrath because birthing that newness will be vehemently resisted by those who benefit from the existing order. They will not readily or willingly give up their power or wealth or control of others because all of that brings them a life of ease and luxury.
There will be wrath – not revenge like on 9/11 – but struggle between two visions of humanity. One vision, like Rome, says there is nothing wrong with exploiting others if you possess the power to achieve and maintain it. The other vision, like John and Jesus, says that our lives are enriched not by luxury but by relationship. It says that if our neighbors are in distress we feel it too. It says “we” is stronger than “me.”
John makes it clear: the new order is coming. He says, “….the wrath that is to come…” He does not say, “if it comes,” or “should it come” or “in case it comes.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arch of history is long but it bends toward justice. The new order is coming. It has not come fully in two thousand years. It may not come tomorrow. It may not even come in our lifetime, but it is coming.
So, prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
In Christ’s name, Amen.