What We Do Matters To God
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
I might be wrong, but does anything say holiday cheer more than some guy who wears scratchy camel hair and eats locusts shouting, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” How has this not become an Advent carol after all these centuries? Maybe Kathy can be the pioneer on that front.
But seriously, I don’t particularly love John the Baptist crashing my Advent. I don’t like his talk of winnowing forks and chaff burning with unquenchable fire. It really kills the hanging lights and drinking eggnog vibe most of us are going for during this season.
But I think he has a point. I’m not sure I love the way he makes that point, but I do think he has a point. And that point is this: What we do matters to God.
It’s so easy to read this gospel as harsh judgment. And a lot of us have been taught that it’s about harsh judgment. But so often I think we put our own human fallibility on God when we interpret God. Even John the Baptist seems to fall victim to that. What he’s saying, though, is: What the Pharisees do matters to God. What the Sadducees do matters to God. And what we do matters to God.
Here’s what I mean: God does want us to behave in particular ways. Not because they’re the “right” ways that will get us into heaven. Not to have an excuse to punish us if we don’t follow God’s will. God wants us to behave in particular ways because they are liberating and life-giving for us, and they are liberating and life-giving for the world. God wants us to behave in particular ways in order to make manifest God’s kingdom within this life. And those ways are about love, about grace.
What we do matters to God. And as I preached a few weeks back, love without accountability isn’t love. Love without accountability is meaningless.
Let me try to illustrate this.
The other night, I had plans to hang out with a good friend of mine. But when the time came I was feeling exhausted and honestly a little sad. This has been a hard season for me. I didn’t feel like I had the energy to be a fun friend. I thought I’d just bring her down.
When I canceled, she told me she was really disappointed. I’d committed to going and then backed out and she was really looking forward to seeing me. And of course I felt guilty for disappointing her. But in jumping so quickly to guilt, I kind of missed the point.
This friend was disappointed because she loves me and she wanted to spend time with me. When we talked a little more, I found out that she was also a little disappointed that I didn’t think I could show up with her exactly as I was, that I didn’t think she could handle my sadness.
And then I imagined how I might have felt if she had just said, “Okay, have a good night” when I bailed. I would have thought, do I even matter to her? Does my presence matter to this person I consider a very close friend?
Her disappointment told me that who I am and what I do matters to her. And the thing is, I did end up hanging out with her. And I was a little sad, and I was exhausted, and she made space for all of that. We talked and laughed, and I felt so deeply cared for. She showed me that I deserve love even when I’m sad, even when I’m struggling.
Through her disappointment I also learned grace. Yes, I let her down but that didn’t mean she was done with me, that our friendship was over. In fact, in expressing her disappointment she gave our friendship the opportunity to deepen. And it did.
The whole experience ended up being liberating and life-giving.
I want God to let me know when I’m off track. I want God to hold me accountable to love, to grace. Not because I want to go to heaven or I’m afraid of going to hell. But because learning how to live God’s love and grace more fully is liberating and life-giving, for me, for those around me, and for the world.
For some of us, God speaks to us through a friend telling us they’re disappointed. Or a neighbor telling us that we’re being careless. Or a sibling telling us how we hurt them.
And there comes a time in every single one of our lives when it takes the equivalent of some weirdo yelling “you brood of vipers” at us to shake us out of some deeply entrenched behaviors and into God’s love and grace.
What we do matters to God. We can frame it as harsh judgment, or we can frame it as God wanting life for us, and life abundant. God doesn’t want us to hurt others, yes for others’ sake but also for our own sake. God wants us to act with intention and integrity, not because it’s the “right” thing to do but because it is a joyful way of living, and that joy that is contagious.
I know you know someone who models that for you. I know you can picture them right now. You like being around them because they bring out the joy in you.
John the Baptist might have been a weirdo. He might have been a little too blunt. But he lived with intention and integrity, and yes, with a kind of joy, and people flocked to him for it. There’s a reason he’s featured during Advent. It’s that kind of joy that prepares the way for the Word made flesh to come.
Preparing for Christmas isn’t about hanging lights or wrapping presents, it’s about darkness and the potential it holds. It’s about encountering the places where we fall short and recognizing that what we do matters to God.
It’s about slowing down and sitting in that darkness, sitting with the ways the people around you are calling you more deeply into God’s love and grace. Instead of frantically trying to find a lightswitch to get away from the discomfort of what you cannot see about yourself, of what you do not know about yourself. Of what you can’t know until you let yourself rest in the darkness.
And let me tell you from experience: guilt is a lightswitch we reach for to avoid going more deeply into the darkness. Blame is a lightswitch we reach for to avoid going more deeply into the darkness.
We light one candle each week to honor the darkness, to recognize the importance of the darkness, letting the light in only gradually.
When we don’t honor the darkness, when we dash as quickly as possible to the light, that light just becomes another thing we reach for to avoid ourselves and the fullness of how God created us.
Advent is an opportunity to get intentional about preparing the way for God’s love and grace. May we have the patience and the courage to rest in its darkness.