Rejoice or Repent?
Sermon Luke 3:7-18
December 12th, 2021
Today I want to talk about one of the most beloved figures of the Christmas season – and, no, I am not talking about Santa, Rudolph, or Frosty. I am talking about angels. We see angels on Christmas cards, as decorations, and ornaments. And many lessons we hear during the Advent and Christmas season talk about angels being involved in the great story of Jesus’ birth. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary during the annunciation, announcing the birth of Jesus, and his first words are: fear not. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and admonishes him to stay with Mary, though the child she bears is not from him, and the angel’s first words are: fear not! Then, of course, at Jesus’ birth, the shepherds in the field hear the angelic words: fear not; glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, and goodwill among all people.
We know of the 4 archangels: aforementioned Gabriel, whose name means, ‘God is my strength’. Michael, whose names means, ‘Who is like God?’ Raphael, whose name means, ‘God has healed’. And then the lesser-known Uriel, whose name means, ‘God is my light’. These are beautiful angelic names, who are a message of God in themselves.
We experience God’s angels as heavenly creatures who come to comfort, to assure us that there is nothing to fear whenever God is present, and to bring good news to all. And thinking of those angels, and feeling those good vibes, we may want to join the Apostle Paul in shouting with mirth: Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and AGAIN, I will say, rejoice! The Lord is near!
However, I left out one very important angel. And this angel is not like those angels we have come to expect during this season, those angels, which are often portrayed as whimsical. This angel doesn’t wear a flowing robe, doesn’t have any wings, or a halo; this angel is clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, looks quite unkempt, and leads a very down-to-earth, and, by the way, earth friendly life. I am talking of the angel named John.
Ever heard of this angel? I think I got some explaining to do. According to the entire Bible, what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament, angels are those who bring a message from God. The English word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which literally means messenger -any kind of messenger. We still can see the roots of this word for message, angelon, in the word evangelism, which comes from euangelion, which means good news. And so it says about John the Baptist, See, I am sending my angelos ahead of you, who will prepare the way.
It is simply by bias of those who translated those holy texts that sometimes, an angelos would be identified with an angel, a heavenly creature, or with a mere human messenger of God’s word.
And John’s name is a message in itself – in the original Hebrew, the name is ‘Yochanan’, which means, ‘God stoops down’, or ‘God is gracious’.
And by the way, we find the same ambiguity about God’s various messengers in Hebrew Scriptures as well: here the word is Malach, as in the prophet with the name of Malachi. Malach can mean heavenly messenger – or a malach is a very human and earthly messenger. No wings. No halo. No whimsy.
John seems to fall more in the latter category. Although in Orthodox iconography, John is often depicted with wings, as a true angel. Interesting, isn’t it?
Now the message we hear from the angel John sounds a little different than the message of the heavenly messengers we encounter in the story surrounding Jesus’ birth. Instead of a comforting and uplifting message, we hear: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance! Remember, John was talking to people who were flocking out to him, those were people who were ready to be baptized and have their lives turned around. Can you imagine what would happen if I addressed anyone who asked to be baptized that way?
And we may be more than confused by the quite different angelic messages we hear during this season. What now? Is it: fear not and rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always – or repent?
The answer is: yes!
As human beings, we may think in a more polarized fashion: yes or no, in or out, right or wrong, happy or serious, rejoice or repent. But, as all of you probably can attest, life often is not so clear and easy, but rather ambiguous, sometimes even downright messy. Yes, we have every reason to rejoice: because God became one of us, to walk with us, to be with us, and to take on our burden of guilt and hurt and sin. We are forgiven and whole in God’s eyes. Grace, God’s amazing grace, comes first. That’s a reason to rejoice, to rejoice always.
But then the buck doesn’t stop at forgiveness and liberation from sin. Grace is a gift. But we need to unwrap it – and use it. We have to live in this grace, and, yes, live up to that grace, or at least attempt to live up to it. And that’s where the angel John comes in.
Many may listen to John and his message and simply hear the part where it comes to God’s expectations of us: repent, bear fruit of repentance, do this, don’t do that. And we may just try to close our ears or simply sit there, smiling and nodding politely, well, yeah, somehow it’s part of the Advent season, but I don’t really want to hear that, and I don’t really care. But if we do that, we might miss that there is a lot of grace connected with the angel John’s message. God cares – about us, about humanity, about all of creation – that’s why God wants us to change our minds, change our hearts, change our thinking. And God knows peace and goodwill are only possible if and when we take care of one another.
And this angelic message of taking care of each other is at the root of what at first sounds more like John’s rather profane to-do list: if you have two coats, give one away, share your food; you, tax collectors, don’t take bribes but only what is allotted to you; you, soldiers, don’t blackmail and try to get ‘protection fees’ out of the people. John’s angelic and challenging message is about care and goodwill for the neighbor. Now if everyone listened to that angelic voice, and changed their attitude to the point that they truly cared for their neighbor and their neighbors’ well-being – can you imagine what a world this would be? It probably comes very close to what the angelic host proclaim to the shepherds in the field, ‘peace on earth, and goodwill among all people’ – if we only let God challenge us, and if only we let God work through us.
And how blessedly different are all those angelic messages we hear during this season compared to many of the political messages we are exposed to these days! I take the ‘Fear not’ and ‘Take care of each other’ over any message that says, “Be very much afraid, especially of those who are different from you”, and, “Everybody for themselves; my freedom comes first. What do I care about the plight of those in need?”
So here’s to all the angelic voices we hear around us – the ones that comfort us, and the ones that challenge us. And here’s to all of God’s angels: those heavenly creatures with wings and halos, and those unassuming and very down-to-earth ones who walk into our lives and, often unbeknownst to them, bring us a message from God and let us know: God is near. Don’t be afraid, even though the burden of your life is heavy, and the road ahead of you may be rough. Repent. And rejoice. Always. Amen
This post is also available in: German