December 13, 2015
Third Sunday in Advent
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In looking up potential jokes about fiddles, I was somewhat surprised. There were the anti-fiddle jokes, like, what’s the best thing to play on a fiddle? A flame-thrower. Why are fiddles better than ukuleles? They burn longer. How can you tell if a fiddle is out of tune? The bow is moving.
And then there were the anti-violin jokes, like, what's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A fiddle is fun to listen to. How do you get two violinists to play in unison? Shoot one.
There was one joke that split the difference. What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin? No-one minds if you spill beer on a fiddle. This differentiation between them is helpful to note. It's a violin if you're selling it. It's a fiddle if you're buying it.
It has been said that Leonard Bernstein, director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, was once asked what was the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. The famous orchestra conductor said, probably with a smile, “Second fiddle!”
As so many know, every instrument is vital to the harmony of an orchestra. The finest musician in each section of the orchestra always occupies first chair. But there can be no triumphant harmony without those playing second, third, and even fourth chair.
Second fiddle was the role that God called John the Baptist to fulfill and his role was to prepare for the advent of Christ. In some ways, having so much focus on John the Baptist in this Lectionary Year C is sort of apropos, in that, I, for one, can’t wait to get to some of the real Christmas story and characters.
On a little side note, the word advent is interesting. It is defined as “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” (Notice the lack of a specific individual, like Jesus.) In Christian theology, it is the coming or second coming of Christ. But it also looks a little like the word “adventure.” Or to disassemble it a bit, into add and vent, it’s like adding a vent like air. And really confounding - is that Christ has already come, but we celebrate his coming - every year. I know that all may seem a little strange or weird, but it is sometimes in the weird and strange that insights rise up and become a point that makes for a richer understanding.
Anyway, that John understood his role is clearly seen in his own words, not very long after this morning’s passage. John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Contrary to popular understanding the role of second fiddle is not an inconsequential role but rather a significant one. All who occupy positions of leadership in any category depend upon hundreds of people behind the scenes who give support. Whatever melody is being played is dependent upon scores of people.
Drew J. Gunnels Jr., of Spring Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, AL once said that “God had raised up John, the son of Zechariah, as a witness to the coming of his son, Jesus. John was an ascetic, living in the desert on locusts and wild honey. He was a fiery preacher and always preached for a verdict.” I would venture to say that my preaching is not for a verdict so much, but for reflecting on our own lives, mine included, and how we can become better at following Christ, witnesses to the Holy Spirit, and servants of God.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Thank you, Bill. What a sweet little passage for this third Sunday in Advent! Yes, that was sarcasm.
But it has some relevant points for us in the 21st century crowds. Part of John’s point is that we cannot ride on the coat tails of those who came before us. Being related to the great Abraham would not be enough to anyone to avoid asking for God’s forgiveness. It would be like any one of us saying we were sinless because we could trace our roots back to Adam and/or Eve. But in order to be that sinless, we have to be living completely sinless lives, living in purity on our own, to our own accounts. And Lord knows that just ain’t gonna happen.
Despite all the dire and drear warnings from John the Baptist, the crowd gets the warning and asks what they need to do. He told them to do three things—first, to share what they had with those in need. The “haves” were to share with the “have-nots.” In addition, John told them to be honest. Perhaps it has always been so, but it sure seems that our world today could sure use a good batch of honesty, sprinkled with tact and kindness. And finally John said to be content. Like our day, the people wanted more. They were never satisfied.
In one sense, if John the Baptist had said that the crowd would be exonerated of their sins by climbing a mountain or paying X number shekels or making a pilgrimage to the great state of Minnesota, that would be easy. Instead, John says to be rightly related to God as well as to our neighbor, essentially living our lives around the basics of humility, justice, and mercy.
He could have told people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere or some mountaintop cave - to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives. John could have told folks - especially the soldiers who were there - no doubt armed - to go launch a revolution and found a political movement. Or he could have told the ordinary working folks - carpenters, bakers, tax collectors - to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day.
He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said. In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!” And I know a lot of us are, especially those from Minnesota.
In a crazy sort of way, that is the message that foretells the advent of the Messiah. The coming of Christ and Christ’s salvation and the reconciliation of all things - entails and involves a nearly endless lists of things. Ultimately we believe that no corner of the cosmos will go untouched by the renewal project that is salvation through Christ. The Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper is famous for many things, and one of his most famous is the saying, “There is not one square inch of this universe about which Christ cannot say ‘That is mine.’” True enough.
Such a sweeping claim involves all sorts of really big things - powers and principalities, nations and kings, planets and star systems. And it also involves all the not-so-big things like cooking lutefisk and working on Excel spreadsheets and volunteering at a food pantry.
When people went to ask John what the coming of all this change meant for them in their ordinary lives, John sent them back to their ordinary lives as changed people. He sent them back - not necessarily to try to change the world on their own, and not necessarily to assume a new set of spiritual practices or ambitious projects the likes of which they’d never dreamed of before. John just told them to do what they had been doing all along and do it better, to do it all in ways that are a part of their every day lives - little though those actions may seem to be - that would be part of a grander work of cosmic renewal.
So often people don’t think they are very spiritual. They don’t think that what they do at retirement, at their work, in the classroom, around the dinner table matters much or has much by way of spiritual implications. But they are wrong. You are wrong if you think that. If even a preacher as radical as old John the Baptist was could dole out the advice he did to people who wondered what active repentance and salvation would look like in their lives, then everything we do is profoundly spiritual and profoundly important.
“And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.” That’s how Luke sums up John’s ministry. It was Good News to be told both to stop the excuses and get it together AND to be told a little bit about what the result of such honesty and synchronicity would look like in action. The Gospel will change the whole world, including that little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning, Friday afternoon or Sunday evening.
Advent has become such a “special” time of the year that preachers and those who listen to preachers alike can too easily forget that this special time of the year is not so very special at all unless it has a profound effect on all the ordinary, non-special moments of our lives as well. And in that realization, there is a deep and satisfying joy that can change us from the inside out. To that end, let us pray.
God of time and eternity, we thank you for this season that reminds us of the scope of your world in its timelessness and meaning - even if we sometimes forget those things. For all the ways that you give us to help bring about your “coming again,” we are grateful. For the opportunities, which are as constant as our breath, we thank you for be able to be workers with you in bringing your kingdom to this world. For your Son, who brings your love to a place where we can so much more appreciate it, we are blessed. So help us be mindful in the coming week of our true relationship with you, that we are never separated or divided in you, that you are the tuning fork to which we all play second, third and fourth fiddle. For the joy of such great and meaningful work and privilege, all your people say, Amen.