[Episcopal News Service] Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post’s religion section.
I want to challenge you to find something to rejoice about today. Even in the face of the pain around us, we are here to discover joy — today and every day. What can you find to rejoice over? Your new bishop? A new job — or the end of a boring one? Healing, or relief from pain? Jan’s 20th anniversary? The birth of a child or a grandchild? Good news and joy feel different depending on our own need, but it is always seems more wonderful when there’s someone to share it with. Joy is multiplied when it’s shared.
This next to last Sunday of Advent is always about rejoicing. Some places use pink or rose colored vestments, and Advent wreaths often have a pink candle for the third week. Some people say the pink candle is because Mary wanted a girl. In any event, we’re meant to rejoice!
What is your good news — today, this week, this year?
Zephaniah is telling people their future is a black hole of despair — war and invasion, economic collapse, death and destruction — unless they turn around and live differently. He tells them their current ways are corrupt and godless, and can only end in destruction. But there is hope. Life will be changed, not ended. God is always doing something profoundly new that will yield abundant joy.
The Canticle we sang is from another prophet, Isaiah, reminding people of the same realities — the present may be filled with fear and violence, nevertheless “ring out your joy, for the Holy One is in your midst; remember God is with you, and give thanks.” Paul writes even more bluntly to the people in Philippi — ‘rejoice, and forget your anxiety, for God is near. Be grateful for what is, be honest about what you need, and discover what God is already doing in your midst.’
So what happened with the gospel, and John the crazy, camel-clothed locust eater? His words don’t exactly sound like glad tidings of great joy: ‘You brood of vipers, you bunch of snakes, what made you think you were getting off scot-free? Well, wake up, cuz “heah come da judge!”‘ The grim reaper is sharpening his scythe, and the fire has begun.’
Good news sounds different to different people. And John does have some, but we have to keep reading to find it. For those snakes, good news means discovering that they are meant to live in peace with their neighbors, and deal justly with all, in courtrooms, in the army, and in business. It means living as though every single person on this planet is a member of your own family. Nobody should go hungry, no one should be without a roof overhead, no one should suffer because health care is too expensive. Share what you have, he says, and you will indeed find joy.
It’s very much what Zephaniah tells his people: God is here among you, God will remind you — ‘I will heal the lame, gather the outcast, and change your shame into pride in who you are.’ With the added twist that those who don’t live that way can expect the worst. That is actually a promise of good news, given before judgment. It’s like a stop sign at a dangerous intersection reminding people to stop and look both ways before proceeding; look to God and your neighbor, lest you run straight into perdition.
The challenge is that John addresses all those people coming to be baptized as snakes. We’ve got to find our place in that crowd, and it’s not easy. Yet in spite of the way we’ve often read the story of Adam and Eve and the snake in the garden, all of them were created by God as part of the same good creation. Those crowds of people John calls snakes aren’t intrinsically bad creatures. Jesus seems to affirm that when he tells his followers to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” There is good news offered to the snakes, as the old hymn puts it, good tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.
What does it look like to be wise snakes, sharing what you have, rather than exploiting the defenseless? Snakes are profoundly aware of their surroundings, they strike accurately, and they keep other creatures on their toes, watching carefully lest they step on one, or meet a cobra unawares. Given the rampant bad news around us, how might smart snakes behave?
What if a bunch of redeemed snakes got together and used their collective ability to motivate watchfulness over the weak and vulnerable? Given what happened in Connecticut on Friday, is there a place for a precise, even surgical, strike against gun violence? When nearly 3000 young people in this country die every year from guns, wise heads must get to work and find a creative and life-giving response. The deadly snakes out there are peddling and profiting from guns while children die. What is a good news response? Other nations have found ways to limit access to assault weapons while still permitting people to shoot clay pigeons and hunt game.
Other smart adders might look at the loneliness and lostness around us. The young shooter in Connecticut seems to have been mentally ill — his former classmates aren’t terribly surprised at what’s happened. We’ve heard almost exactly the same thing every time one of these events has occurred in recent years. Preventing more of them is going to mean greater watchfulness, and a willingness to reach out to the outcast, the one who doesn’t fit, the kid who sees nothing to live for. It means loving the ones who don’t seem terribly lovable, and that’s exactly where Jesus would be, and what he’d be doing.
When John tells the tax collectors to collect only what’s owed, and the soldiers not to extort from people, he’s telling those snakes to keep their fangs sheathed and their venom in reserve — to put their aggression and exploitation away and turn in another direction. He’s telling us to find good ways to share what we have with the lonely outcast — like welcome into community and relationship, to share what we know of meaning in life, to share what we know of a God who is near and loves us beyond imagining. Jesus called us friend, but that gift is not meant to be hoarded.
The winnowing fork and the unquenchable fire would seem to be reserved for those who aren’t sharing what they have in order to end the death around us. The good news is that there is another way.
That other way requires watchfulness and the ability and willingness to risk. The way of life and hope, and the rejoicing we’re meant to know means letting down our defenses, and letting go of our offensive ways, in order to find the lovely image of God in another snake. We are all redeemable, Jesus insists. He walked into the snake pit for the sake of every one of us. His followers are invited to do the same, and discover that God is always snatching life out of the jaws of death. That is the ultimate source of joy.
Rejoice! God is near. Rejoice! God is here, baptizing with Holy Spirit and with fire, igniting passion even in grieving hearts. That love can change the world — if we’re willing to be canny and loving snakes. Maybe you’d prefer to be an adder – or a multiplier of joy — but the love we know in Jesus always makes more of itself, even in snakes.
— The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.