Summary: Focusing on John the Baptist’s preaching at the first advent, this sermon exhorts to preparation for the second advent.
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT
“Hedging Our Spiritual Bets”
In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, there was a column by a fellow named Vincent Carrol. He is an editor for the Rocky Mountain News. Let me read you the first three paragraphs of his column.
“On Christmas Eve, in line with my custom in recent years, I will arrive at my church in Denver at least 90 minutes before the service. After scouting out an empty pew near the front, I’ll lay down a couple of magazines to reserve space and then retreat outside briefly to phone my family with instructions on where to find me at the appointed hour. Then I’ll return to the pew and spend the next hour or so reading while fending off attempts by other churchgoers to horn in on my turf.
“This ritual is necessary in part because the Mass we attend occurs at an attractive time for families with children. But that is not the only reason for the overflow crowd. Late December is the season of the holiday Christian, that insouciant fellow whose religious practice consists of nine parts nostalgia and one part worship.
“To the many holiday Christians who long ago stopped attending church with any regularity, Christmas ... somehow doesn’t seem complete without dipping a toe into the cultural waters of their youth. They attend Christmas services in part for the same reason that they wear a Christmas tie or hang a wreath on the front door: It’s part of the total holiday experience. But if they no longer practice their faith with much conviction, they still respect its memory. And, after all, it is just possible that a child was born in Bethlehem who changed the world, and it’s never a bad idea to hedge one’s bets."
This column caught my eye as I was thinking about what to say this morning concerning the gospel reading for this third Sunday in Advent. It doesn’t sound very Christmasy, does it? What would you think if you invested the time and the money that these crowds invested, to go hear the preaching of a religious celebrity, and his first words to you were something like what Luke reports -- "You nest of snakes, Who warned you to flee from God’s wrath?"
It’s not hard to imagine what the typical reaction would be. Well, John the Baptist isn’t quite the crank that he appears to be from Luke’s gospel. When we look over at Matthew’s account of John’s ministry, we find out that John’s crankiness on this particular occasion was aimed at a particular group within the crowds who came out to see John in the wilderness. Matthew puts it this way:
When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of Vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" You see, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had something in common with those holiday Christians that Vincent Carrol was writing about in his newspaper column.
Now, the holiday Christian probably never shows up in Church except on during Christmas, or maybe Easter too, while the Pharisees made a habit of showing up for every religious event possible. Nevertheless, the Pharisees and holiday Christians are alike in this respect — they are both happy to give a salute to traditional religious values, to things like going to Temple, or going to Church, at least during the highest religious festivals. And, they do this because, as Carrol puts it, they are hedging their bets.
Why were these Pharisees hedging their bets, if they were so religious? Their interest in John the Baptist was simply part of a much greater interest among all the Jews of this time for the coming of the Messiah. For hundreds of years, the Old Testament prophets had foretold the day when a Servant of the Lord would come into the world, to redeem Israel out of its troubles, to save it from the oppression of the gentiles. At the time of John’s ministry, Israel definitely had a mountain of troubles, and they were heavily oppressed by Imperial Rome. The Roman province of Judea continually teetered on the brink of rebellion.
And, so, when a figure like John the Baptist appears on the scene, he gets everyone’s attention as we see in this gospel reading. In one sense, everyone at this time is interested in hedging his bets about the future — it doesn’t matter if you’re a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a Jewish commoner, a Jewish tax collector, or a Roman infantryman — at this time and place in history, you can’t afford to ignore someone like John. And, the more people who go to the wilderness to check him out, the more people who haven’t checked him already want to do so. Everyone’s hedging their bets.