Taking the Son
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dominique Peridans
on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 5, 2021
Years ago: a very wealthy man, a devoted son, and a shared passion for art. Father and
son traveled the world, adding only the finest to their collection. A piquant Picasso, a
turbulent Turner, a captivating Cassatt and others adorned the walls of the family estate.
The widowed father rejoiced in his only child become discerning art collector. The day
came, however, when war engulfed the nation. The young man left to serve his country.
Three months passed and the father received a telegram: his beloved son killed while
carrying a fellow soldier to the field hospital.
Christmas morning: a knock at the door. The man opened and was greeted by a soldier
with a large box in hand. “I was a friend of your son”, he said. “I was the one he was
rescuing when he died. I would like to give you something.” The old man opened the
box, to discover a portrait of his son painted by the soldier. Not an art critic
collectible, the painting did convey striking detail of the son’s face and captured his
The following spring, the old man passed away. And the art world was in anticipation!
According to his will, all the works of art would be auctioned. The day arrived. A room
full of expert collectors. The auction began, however, with a painting not on the list: the
portrait of his son painted by the soldier. The auctioneer asked, “Who will open the
bidding with $100?”. Silence. From the back of the room, someone sneered, “Who
cares about a quaint picture? Let’s move on to the important works.” Others nodded in
agreement. The auctioneer replied, “No, we have to sell this one first. Now, who will
take the son?” Silence. Finally, a friend of the old man spoke. “I knew the boy, so I’d like to have it.” “I have a bid for $100,” called the auctioneer. “Will anyone go higher?”
Silence. “Going once. Going twice. Gone.” And the gavel fell. Cheers filled the room and
someone said, “Now we can get on with it!” But the auctioneer announced that the
auction was over. Silence. Then, “What do you mean it’s over? What about all these
paintings? The auctioneer replied, “It’s very simple. According to the will of the father,
whoever takes the son...gets it all.”
John the Baptist understood that “whoever takes the son, gets it all”, and he would do
anything and give everything to take the son. Here we indeed see in him the inner
freedom to address forcefully whatever may diminish God, His Messiah or His Chosen
People and such instrumental attractiveness that “the people were filled with
expectation, and were questioning…whether he might be the Messiah.”
John is here, with us, to “prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his
paths” (Luke 3:4). John the Baptist was fashioned by God, prepared from the womb,
filled with the Holy Spirit, to become the last of the prophets, a calling to which he
responded without reservation. John the Baptist is deliberately, lovingly relative to
Christ, a relationship in which he finds his strength and his joy, and is both docile and
zealous. His zeal makes him unconcerned with peer pressure or review and
uncompromising. What makes for strong uncompromising character? Love.
When we really love, we do not tolerate anything that diminishes the one we love.
So, what exactly occurs here? Crowds are coming to this oddly compelling man, “to be
baptized by him”, as he had been preaching must occur. Being the refined socialite
that he is, he calls them a “brood of vipers”! Sure to win over the crowd! Imagine him in our day—with no trigger warnings!
St John Chrysostom, significant early theologian and Bishop, died 407) tells us that The holy Scripture often gives the names of wild beasts to persons, according to the passions which excite them, calling them vipers for their cunning. John will appeal to their cunning.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance”, John then exhorts. What are these fruits?
St. Maximus the Confessor (theologian, born in Israel, died in Georgia 662) speaks of
the fruit that is equanimity, literally “evenness of soul”, a fruit “worthy of repentance”.
A difficult expression which, per Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (390), suggests fruitfulness that touches many people, that has a particularly powerful ripple effect. Is “evenness of soul” not the peace that surpasses understanding, fruit of divine love and divine light at work in us, the peace, which we often wish one another, that creates a safe space for many?
John then warns them not to presume religious inheritance and, by implication, not to
misuse authority as power instead of service. The connection with Abraham that
matters is a spiritual one and is a gift. Entitlement suffocates the spiritual life.
The verse that follows is difficult to hear and understand: Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is
cut down and thrown into the fire. You may be asking: what is this fire? I bet some of us think it is the fire of hell. Not too quick! What is “good news” here, as the last verse tells us. Jesus’ purpose is to introduce humanity, us, to and in-to God. For this, He prunes us, He purifies our hearts. We must be holy to enter the Holy. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (another great 4th -century theologian) tells us that “the ax is our redeemer.” Jesus Himself. Jesus comes close, like an ax at the root, touching the core of who we are, mercifully loving even what is barren in our hearts unto fruitfulness. Rather than the painful, damning fire of separation, is this perhaps not the merciful purifying, purgatorial fire of divine love?
Finally, how do we cooperate with this? “What should we do?” John advises the
crowds, the tax collectors, the soldier, us: hearts wide open. Willingness. Generous
hearts. We prepare the way of the Lord by willingness to love one another. The straight
path and the fruit that pleases the Lord is an open heart.
Advent is all about allowing the Holy Spirit to open our hearts sometimes closed by
sadness, confusion, bitterness, fatigue—even refusal, and moving us to love one another, even those whom our hearts deem enemies.
Come, Holy Spirit, enkindle in us the fire of your love.
Preached by MJ Layton, Seminarian Intern
on Luke 3:1-6
At first glance, I don’t like this Gospel passage very much. But, before Fr Dominique and my Lay Support Team get too nervous, let me explain!
When I hear the word, “wilderness,” I think of my many backpacking trips in the White Mountains. Carrying my supplies on my back, hiking with friends, camping out, winding up and down the slopes and ridges — it’s exhausting and exhilarating, and there’s nothing quite like reaching the summit and seeing where you have come from and where you are going.
Then I read in our gospel that we’re going to level all that out? Bring down the mountains? Raise up the valleys? Smooth out the rocks and tangles?
Why on earth?!! Joni Mitchell put it quite aptly, “Why would you pave paradise to put up a parking lot?!” But even more than that, for me, the wilderness is a chance to know God more in his creation. The journey and the struggle, the mountaintops and the valleys are all important pieces of that. Why get rid of them?
But, that’s me, a 21st century woman, responding to a text written almost 2000 years ago, which itself is quoting words from about 600 years before that. As the first few verses of our passage tell us, in that a long list of hard to pronounce names, the context for our reading is that John the Baptist is preaching to the Jewish people in the first century AD, in the wilderness around the Jordan river, which at that time was something of a boundary marker for the region of Judaea. And, to John’s audience, the word wilderness meant something much, much different.
Wilderness for them would have conjured up images of their ancestors wandering in the desert for 40 years, in the very desert which lay just beyond the horizon from where John was preaching. God had rescued the Israelites’ ancestors from slavery in Egypt, but then because of their lack of faith in God, they had to wander in the desert for 40 years before they could enter the promised land, Canaan. 40 years of going up and down ridges and slopes, searching for water, eating manna provided by God, watching an entire generation die out and another one grow up in its place, one which would be willing to trust in God’s provision for them as they entered the promised land. It’s quite the consequence for sin. The long journey of the Exodus was such an important part of Israelite history, that this would have come to mind for John’s audience as they heard and considered his words. In this context, the leveling of mountains and the raising up of valleys and the smoothing out of roads becomes not a moment of destruction, but a promise, a promise that despite sin, lack of faith and disobedience, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
Here back in the 21st century, we don’t end up wandering through a desert for 40 years when we disobey God. But, our tendency to sin, and the consequences of our sin, can create a sort of wilderness for us in the here and now.
Friends, this is when our Gospel passage becomes Good News. “Prepare the way for the Lord! Fill in the valleys! Tear down the mountains! Make the way to God smooth!” This is the message of Advent, the message that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness 2000 years ago: God is coming. God will forgive our sins and heal our world. Be ready for him.
And there is one step that we can take to prepare for God’s coming while we are still in the wilderness. This one thing is the overarching message of Advent: repent, so that your sins will be forgiven. Repent. That’s it. Repentance will make the mountains feel lower and the valleys seem higher and the road we walk not quite so fraught with pitfalls.
However, it’s important that we understand what repentance is, because a misunderstanding of it can just make a personal wilderness feel even deeper and more entangling. Repentance is a turning around, a changing of mind, or maybe better, a renewing of our minds. It’s naming our sins and coming to grips with the idea that our own actions are harmful to ourselves and to others. It’s admitting that we are utterly dependent on God for forgiveness and for the strength to obey him and trust him.
The tricky part is, that sometimes we treat repentance like a chance to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be better people.” And, yes, the hope is that with repentance, our lives will change and we will trust God better and treat those around us with more love, more patience, and more respect. But so often when we attempt to change ourselves, we just end up doing the same old thing over and over again. And the more we fall into old patterns and old ruts, the bigger our wildernesses feel, and the longer the paths to God seem.
That is why such an important part of repentance is not only naming our sin, but naming that we are powerless to help ourselves out of our wildernesses. We repent, and God smooths out our paths for us. We repent, and God gives us the grace to trust him more and to love those around us more. And, taking it one step further, our repentance itself is a response to God’s grace given to us. The only way repentance can be real is if it begins with God’s grace and ends with God’s grace. Any attempt to change ourselves in our own power is futile. But God longs to offer us that grace and forgiveness and the first step towards seeing that in our lives is repentance.
And this is what the season of Advent is for. It is a season where we look forward to Jesus Christ’s return and to the time when God will make all things new. It is a season where we repent of our sins and thank God for his grace and his forgiveness. It is a season where, in the midst of our personal wilderness, we long for his coming and for the healing he will bring.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.