Today, we are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent. And there’s something special about this Sunday. Look at the Advent wreath there. What’s the color of the third candle? Yes, pink. It’s the only candle colored in pink. Do you know why? The Season of Advent leads us to penitence, to a time of preparing our hearts for the coming Jesus. But the third Sunday of Advent offers us a break from penitence and opens a time of celebrating the joy we find in Christ and his gift of salvation. That’s why the third candle, which is called the rose candle, has this festive color of joy. Also, today’s Hebrew Bible and Epistle readings are not shy about delivering joy to us. In the Hebrew Bible reading, we see the Prophet Isaiah proclaim, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation….Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:3; 6). And in his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul exhorts, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Indeed, today is the Sunday filled with joy.
But in every joyful occasion, there’s a person who crashes the party. And today John the Baptist is the one. Reading today’s Gospel story, we hear, instead of joyful tidings, the furious voice of John the Baptist casting a chill over our joy. He denounces—almost curses—the crowd with very harsh words in his days, “You brood of vipers!Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). Why is he so enraged at the people who come all the way to the wilderness to meet him and get baptized? They would have traveled a couple of days to get there. To this well-meaning crowd, what an outburst of anger he expresses! Something’s seriously wrong with John the Baptist. And something’s seriously wrong with the Bible readings for today. Why does the lectionary reading schedule we follow give us this particular Gospel reading today, on this joy Sunday? I couldn’t figure it out. Why is this anger in the middle of joy?
Last week, I asked this question to myself again and again. And I could find one answer: if we want to be truly joyful, there must be a certain change in us. As Christians, our ground of joy should be our faith in Jesus Christ whose grace saves us, frees us from our sins, and embraces us as the beloved children of God. So, if we want to be truly joyful, we should be faithful to Jesus, the source of our true joy, and keep away from the sins that block our relationship with him. And if we want our world to become a truly joyful place with peace and justice, there must be a certain change too. In his ministry, Jesus revealed us the kingdom of God on earth. This kingdom of jubilee brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and lets the oppressed go free. As the disciples of Jesus, we are called to build this joyful kingdom from within our church for the transformation of the world. Yes, we are called to make change not only in our lives but also in our world for the joy of the Lord.
But making change in our lives may not be done only by our peaceful reflection or silent meditation. Making change in our world may not be completed by a nice conversation over a cup of coffee or a series of reasonable and scholarly discussion sessions. Sometimes the real change comes with a great deal of passion and energy to truly act and do good. And this energy is often found in our feelings of anger. Yes, anger it is. We all know that anger can be dangerous and destructive when it controls us. Anger can cause hostility, aggression, and violence. But how about righteous indignation like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had? How about fury against injustice like the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had? From John the Baptist, I learned that there is a certain kind of anger that we Christians must feel, that is, the anger at sins. Not only John the Baptist, but also our Jesus, who is usually meek and mild, got angry at people’s sins. And he didn’t hesitate to address them to make change. The Gospels tells us, Jesus was often enraged at his disciples, especially Peter, and at the Pharisees and the priests; and he even made a whip of cords and drove merchants out of the temple and overturned the money-changers’ tables. Such anger leads people into action, action to make change.
In today’s Gospel story, the righteous anger of John the Baptist drives the crowd to change themselves. John the Baptist warns the crowd, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance… 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” (Luke 3:8-9). After this scary warnings, the crowd ask, “What then should we do?” Then, John the Baptist teaches them how to make change in their lives and bear actual fruits. To them, he also doesn’t forget to bring good news of Jesus Christ, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Even though John the Baptist called the crowd the brood of vipers, now I am sure that the crowd will find true joy in their anticipation of Jesus, their true savior.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, if we want to be truly joyful with the coming Jesus Christ, we better get indignant at our personal sins and make actions to change our unfaithfulness, our hypocrisy, our unloving heart, our greed, our hard heartedness, our hatred, our self-centeredness, and so on. And if we want to build the kingdom of jubilee in our world, we better be angry at pervasive social sins around us and do something to change our society’s racial injustice, gun violence, serious economic inequality, bigotries that deepen divisions among people, and so on. In this Season of Advent, as we wait for Jesus and his kingdom on earth, “what then should we do?” Let us be righteous in our anger at sins; let us be proactive in our faithful actions to make changes; and let us keep anticipating the true joy that is coming with Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim