John the Baptist, Joy & Integrity
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
It’s the Sunday of joy in Advent today, and nothing says joy like John the Baptism screaming, “you brood of vipers!” and threatening people with eternal, unquenchable fire. This guy knows how to bring the cheer.
But actually, this is all kind of what I love about Advent. It’s actually a pretty subversive church season. While the world is pummeling us with holiday cheer, with non-stop Christmas carols and bustling shopping trips and holiday parties, the lectionary, our Church’s schedule of scriptures, is bringing us warnings of distress for the world and judgment for the people. While the world is getting excited for baby Jesus and the literal gifts his arrival will bring, our gospels are looking towards who Jesus will become and what he will call us to.
How are you living? these scriptures ask. Are we really preparing the way for Jesus? Because while part of preparing is decorating the Christmas tree and hanging lights on the house and drinking eggnog, another part is taking a long, deep look at ourselves.
John the Baptist isn’t calling people “a brood of vipers” to be mean, he’s doing it to get their attention. Let’s put this whole gospel reading into context. John the Baptist is out in the middle of nowhere. He’s in the desert. The wilderness. A long way from any creature comfort. In the gospel of Matthew, he’s described as an ascetic, one who deprives himself of comfort for the sake of his beliefs. He wears camel's hair clothes and eats bugs with honey. He’s quirky, to say the least.
But he’s compelling. So compelling that this crowd of people has followed him out into this barren, faraway place to hear his teachings and be baptized. There’s something about him that draws people to him.
It’s his integrity. John the Baptist walks his talk. He lives his values. He steps into who God is calling him to be. There’s nothing he challenges other people to do that he’s not willing to do himself to an even greater degree. There’s something about that kind of integrity that’s compelling.
So the crowd he’s admonishing as a brood of vipers is a group of people who are ready to listen, ready to follow. And instead of congratulating them on their faith, he calls them to take their faith even further.
John says to the Jews in the crowd: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
Have you ever seen one of those movies or read one of those stories where someone is accused of bad behavior and they reply indignantly, “I am a Christian!” As if that were explanation enough to refute the accusation? Often in those movies or stories, the person had been behaving badly, but they were so deluded by their identity as a Christian that they couldn’t believe that what they were doing was wrong.
That’s what John is talking about here. A lot of Jews had been doing that in his time. Behaving in all sorts of ways but using their identity as an ancestor of Abraham to gloss over any harmful impact their behavior might have.
Nope, John says. That’s not what living with integrity means. God can create new ancestors of Abraham at the snap of a finger. What makes people faithful is not who they’re related to or how they describe themselves. What makes people faithful is how they live.
A tax collector comes to him to ask what he should do to live faithfully. “Just stop stealing money from people,” John says. Do your job. Don’t hurt people. Live with integrity.
Soldiers come to him to ask what they should do to live faithfully. And John is like, “I don’t know, maybe don’t use your position of power to extort money from people.” Do your job. Don’t hurt people. Live with integrity.
If someone is cold and you have an extra coat, give it to them. If someone is hungry and you have extra food, give it to them. If you have more than you need and someone doesn’t have enough, living our faith means sharing our resources. That’s integrity, John says.
In the next breath after these teachings, he proclaims the coming of Jesus. Prepare the way, he says, by living with integrity.
What does this have to do with joy, though? Why is this fiery John the Baptist passage scheduled for Joy Sunday?
Well, I’ve said before that joy is a much richer, more complex state of being than we give it credit for. Joy isn’t about unfettered happiness or endless positivity. It’s not about warm comfort. Joy is about knowing who you are the way John the Baptist knew who he was. In all the ways you’re different. In your unique beauty. Joy is about knowing that God created you just as you are, and trusting that it is very good.
And if joy is about knowing who you are, integrity is about embodying who you are, as John did. Even when it’s challenging. Even when it feels really uncomfortable.
So integrity is all about joy. In fact, living with full integrity gives us the highest joy. It’s also really hard to do sometimes.
Anyone who’s ever had to come out as gay or lesbian or trans knows that fully living into who they are might mean rejection. A homophobic, transphobic society sometimes makes it really dangerous, sometimes even impossible, for people to live safely into their integrity, to have their joy.
Anyone who has stood up to a bully or a malicious boss or anyone acting unjustly, especially when no one else is standing up, knows that living with full integrity sometimes risks comfort and security.
Sometimes there’s a cost to living with integrity, but I think the cost of not living with integrity is even greater. Did you know that queer and trans youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts? That’s an unbearable cost.
When we can’t fully embody who God made us to be, I think that’s the unquenchable fire John the Baptist speaks of, but not in the way we think. Hell is not the punishment of eternal damnation, it’s the slow creep of losing who we are, losing the beauty God gave us. It’s the feeling of our joy burning and turning to ash.
It’s not just the queer and trans community. Women are so often taught to suppress the power God gave them. Men are so often taught to suppress the tenderness God gave them. We are all taught at some point that part of who we are isn’t acceptable. I don’t know what happens when we die—I don’t think our God of grace and love condemns anyone to an eternity of suffering—but I do know that feeling of suppressing who we are is hell. It’s destructive. Because when we feel that feeling, we either turn it in on ourselves or out on others. It can lull us into a deep depression or it can move us to harm others in all sorts of ways. We see this in our parents, our coworkers, our leaders.
But—but!—you know that feeling when you step into your integrity, that feeling of liberation and openness, the peace that comes when you move from that God place inside you, when you step fully and bravely into who you are. Even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done, you feel the joy—not happiness necessarily, not comfort necessarily. But joy.
When John was out in the wilderness in his scratchy clothes and eating locusts, I’m not sure he was feeling happy or comfortable. When Mary was eight and a half months pregnant with a baby everyone thought was illegitimate, I’m not sure she was feeling happy or comfortable. But they both knew the joy of saying yes to God.
We risk our integrity, risk our joy, with every choice we make. Do we choose to live the way God made us? Do we make safe space for others to live the way God made them? Do we act in ways that fully embody our faith? That’s what this week of Advent is about. Amen.