A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2022 (Advent 3, Year A)
John the Baptist looms large over the season of Advent. The Forerunner, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, this loud, larger-than-life figure who preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins along the banks of the Jordan river. And yet we don’t encounter a more counter-cultural figure in the days leading up to Christmas. You’ll never see a giant blow-up John the Baptist on anyone’s front lawn. He doesn’t feature prominently in any Christmas carols — no one’s singing “here comes John the Baptist right down John the Baptist Lane.” No one trims their tree with a John the Baptist ornament — although I would pay good money for one.
This morning, we hear Jesus ask the crowds that had sought out John the Baptist in the wilderness, what they went out to see? And it’s a good question. John, after all, was drawing ever larger crowds. Some were drawn to him because they thought he might have been the long-anticipated Messiah, some heard that he was a prophet, some of the religious elite were nervous about his growing popularity and wanted to catch him in heresy in order to discredit him, some were just interested in the spectacle of it all.
And so Jesus asks what they had gone out to see. A reed shaken by the wind? In other words, someone willing to bend to popular opinion? Someone who checked the polls before deciding what to say? Or did they go out to see someone dressed in “soft robes?” In other words, a member of the religious establishment who wouldn’t upset the status quo? Someone who wouldn’t challenge their understanding of God? Someone who wouldn’t demand much of them?
Well, we know John is the exact opposite of that. For starters, camel skin and leather could hardly be considered soft. And a guy who subsists on locusts and wild honey probably wouldn’t fit in very well at a fancy dinner party or a charity ball. After all, he’s known as John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian. And just last week we heard John greet those gathered around him by calling them a “brood of vipers,” so we know he wasn’t just telling the people what they wanted to hear. Surely they didn’t want to hear that.
But it begs the question, what do you go to church to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Well, you can certainly see that. But what do you come to church to see and hear? Sometimes we leave feeling inspired by the music or the liturgy or even, occasionally, the sermon. Sometimes we leave feeling good about ourselves and, perhaps if we’re honest, even a little self-righteous for having done the right thing and gone to church. Sometimes we leave with hearts bursting to go out into the world to serve others. Sometimes we leave feeling challenged or uncomfortable, even angry. Sometimes we leave feeling and knowing at our very core just how much God loves us. Often it’s a whole swirl of these emotions, depending on the week.
But it’s important to examine our inner motivations about what we’re hoping to see and hear when we gather for worship. Again, we can’t just go to church to see a bunch of people dressed in soft robes, and we can’t come to church just to make ourselves feel good. Or to simply revel in sacred space and beautiful music — which, believe me, I love. And is an important aspect of the spiritual life. But it can’t end there. We are not called to be passive recipients of faith, but active participants in it. Faith is not a spectator sport, it is a way of life; a call to action. And so every time we gather, the question posed to each one of us is how will we live out this faith with which we have been entrusted? How will we turn our faith into action?
And there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, just as there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all faith. There are varieties of ways to respond to God’s word and they are ever-shifting in our lives. Someone may feel compelled to feed the hungry through St. George’s, someone else may be inspired to join a Bible study or teach Sunday School, someone may share their gifts and passions through committee work, someone may want to donate money for a new set of soft robes. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” St. Paul tells us. And there are varieties of ways to live out our faith in the world. But live it out we must.
Around the corner from our rectory in Massachusetts lived two little girls who were also members of the parish. I’d pass by their house regularly whenever I walked to my local coffee shop. Which was often. So often that I used to refer to it as my “satellite office.” One afternoon as I was walking past, I noticed they had set up a lemonade stand. Now, that’s not a particularly unusual suburban sight. Many of us sold lemonade at the end of our driveways as kids and ended up being praised for our entrepreneurial spirit. The neighbors would stop by to purchase a cup, often telling us to keep the change; which was thrilling. And we’d keep at it until dinnertime, or until we realized we didn’t live on a main thoroughfare and standing in front of a table all day was boring.
But in the name of supporting small business owners, I stopped at their table and bought a dixie cup full of lemonade. Before I did, they told me all the money was going not to themselves but to feed the hungry. In Sunday School they’d learned about families who didn’t have enough to eat and they had collected food items for our local pantry. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more. And the end result was that they were putting their faith into action in a very tangible way.
We’re invited to do the same. It may not be setting up a lemonade stand — at this stage in life that might draw a few odd looks. And there’s the whole permitting process. But I encourage you to reflect upon whatever your version of a lemonade stand might be. We all set up different ones, just as we all respond to God’s call in different ways.
John the Baptist’s unique calling was to set up his lemonade stand along the banks of the Jordan. To use his prophetic voice to cry out in the wilderness, to baptize those seeking an authentic encounter with the living God, to prepare the way of the Lord, to point not to himself but to the one who was to come.
So, what do you go to church to see and hear? Your answer informs what kind of lemonade stand you set up. And in the spirit of John the Baptist, we are drawn ever closer to the heart of Jesus.