On four occasions this week, I was asked to offer devotions or lead a time of prayer for various groups. On all four occasions, I brought with me my iPhone, loaded with the song “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth,” by Ana Hernandez. Each time, when the person facilitating pointed to me and said, “OK, time for prayers,” I said the same thing to the assembled: “In this midst of this holy but busy season of Advent, I invite you to relax and listen to this sung prayer for four minutes.”
And each time, the moment I said the word “Relax,” everyone in the group had the same reaction. They sat back, sighed, and closed their eyes. It was like they had been waiting for days, weeks, maybe years for someone to invite them to relax.
We are weary. We walk around, shoulder muscles contracted, barely breathing, minds filled with worries and fears. The news of the day adds to our busy calendars. and we walk around overly keyed-up.
Today is Rose Sunday, the day in Advent when we are invited to lighten up a bit, set aside our penitential disciplines, and relax. Let’s see what our lectionary has to refresh us: “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Oh no. Really? Can’t we just sing another beautiful hymn? Do we really have to deal with this? I’ve been good. I donated a coat to the homeless!
I want to explain to you why today’s gospel is good news – why it is cause for rejoicing on this Rose Sunday. But in order to get to the good news, we have to start with the hard news. And it is this: (Preacher puts on a nametag that says, “Hello, my name is Viper.”) We are the vipers. John the Baptist is preaching to the crowds – to “normal” people who came out to the Jordan to hear him, not a group that is particularly depraved. Likewise, Luke includes this story in his gospel because he wants us to hear it. He knows that we, like all people all through history, have fallen short of the possibilities God intended for us. He knows that we, too, are not always as compassionate, as kind, as honest as we could be. We do harm to one another through “things done and left undone” and through our participation in systems that are damaging and inequitable.
Last week, Zach Brooks preached about repentance, rightly reminding us of the rite of penitence and the opportunity and responsibility we have to offer individual confession of sins. This is important. But it is also true that the biblical call to repentance is often corporate. The prophets of Israel are speaking to “the people.” John in the wilderness is calling on all of Israel. Jesus often speak to “y’all” rather than “you particular person” when he is offering moral teaching or commenting on behavior.
That’s the hard news. We’re the vipers. But the good news is three-fold. First, neither John, in this passage, nor Jesus, in his teaching, leave us in our sins. The message is “repent.” This is an invitation, often a plea, to change our ways, to admit our need for help and to listen more closely to God’s Word so that we can live differently.
Second, we get to do this quite a bit every time we worship together on a Sunday. Our liturgy begins with a collect for purity: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.” Help us, God. We are so caught in our sins that it is hard to even come before you. This collect is our first confession, every Sunday. Then, in response to the gospel, we join in a corporate confession of sins. We acknowledge, together, that we have fallen short and need God’s promise of forgiveness. Then during the Eucharistic Prayer, if you are listening carefully, you will find that we always acknowledge that humanity has turned away from God, and that God’s response, over and over, is to send help. And this season, before we take communion, we are praying the agnus dei: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
And finally – most amazingly, to me – we offer our corporate repentance not only on our own behalf but on behalf of all of humanity. Part of our ministry as the “priesthood of all believers” is to stand before God and speak with our creator on behalf of all of creation. We repent, which means, in Hebrew, turn to face. We turn to face God and we turn to face one another. This is the ministry of the church: to restore all people to unity with God and one another.
Here each week, through our prayer, through hearing a sermon, and through the Eucharist, we gain a vision of that reconciled human community. Then when Deacon Ken sends us our “to do the work God has given us to do,” we take that vision with us and do what we can, with God’s help, to bring this world closer to it.
So, my fellow vipers, let us not loose heart. Let us on this Rose Sunday, be glad that our gospel tells the truth, and that we are invited to respond by turning to face God again, and that we are assured that God will be thrilled when we do. And let us go out to offer love to a broken world and let the Spirit work in us for restoration.