Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher. They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.
Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.
Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.
I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!
Advent for Average Sinners
Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’
I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?
Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?
I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:
Is God’s ego really so fragile?
True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?
Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?
Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?
And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.
Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.
Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?
With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?
Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?
Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.
With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.
And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.
And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.
Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.
We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.
And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”
The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.
No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
Denial that we are sinners.
But, since Advent is a season for honesty-
What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?
Like you? Like me?
Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.
Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’
It’s over the top.
It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.
I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.
Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.
To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.
You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?
We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork.
And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.
No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.
You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.
For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.
As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.
It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.
So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.
I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.
We are not great sinners.
I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.
We’re not rebelling day and night against God. Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.
We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.
No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.
Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.
Your sins do not offend God.
There, I said it.
Your sins do not offend God.
No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.
John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.
You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.
No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.
You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.
Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.
But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.
No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.
I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.
As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.
Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.
Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.
They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.
They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:
Sin is about where your love lies.
Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change.
Because God doesn’t change.
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.
God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.
So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.
Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love for you is unconditional- unchanging- because God is unchanging.
Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.
Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.
Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.
When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.
God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.
Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?
You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.
You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.
Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.
Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.
And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.
Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.
And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.
You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.
Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.
Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.
Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.
Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.