Readings – Zephaniah 3: 14-20; First Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 7-18
I can remember my mother’s ringer washing machine. In the center of the machine, there was a post with fins that went around and around, and up and down when the tub was filled with water and dirty clothes. The post was called an agitator. I think in current washing machines it is still called an agitator. It is designed to thoroughly mix water, soap, and dirty clothes. It was washed, rung out, and then onto the line hung in the back yard. On cold days the clothes froze on the line. There had to be agitation to accomplish the mission, to get the clothes clean.
John the Baptizer was an agitator; he came to shake things up. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”, he declared. “Even 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.” People in panic mode, cried out, “What then shall we do?” Having gotten their attention, John got very practical.
If you have two coats, give one away. If you have adequate food, share it with others. For the tax collector, don’t pad the tax bill. For the soldier, do not use your authority or your might to bully others.
John the Baptizer stirred up the people, and then pointed the way forward, to better behavior, better choices. John pointed the way to more faithful living.
While washing machine agitators are necessary, are essential, religious agitators are not well appreciated. We are told that while King Herod occasionally liked to listen to John, he did have him imprisoned. His daughter, encouraged by her mother, following a dance for the King’s entourage, asked for John’s head on a silver platter. John was too dangerous, even out in the wilderness, and was also too dangerous for the King to engage in conversation. John the Baptizer agitated for the coming reign of God and pointed the people of his day to seek the one who would follow him. The people had flocked to him, to this strange man who lived in the wilderness, dressed in a camel’s hair tunic, and who ate locusts and wild honey.
And John expected his cousin Jesus to agitate in a more persuasive, a more powerful way. John claimed that Jesus had “his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. John claimed that his cousin Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
This cousin Jesus would go beyond agitation; would go beyond separating; would go beyond pointing to a new way. This cousin Jesus walked among the people, walked a new way, and guided them home. The prophet Zephaniah got it right:
Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord God is in your midst… Do not fear… [again] your God is in your midst… He will renew you in his love … will gather the outcast… will bring you home…
John’s cousin Jesus did not just agitate, and separate, and point. This cousin Jesus walked in their midst, he gathered them, and he brought them to their heavenly home.
There is a hymn, “Jerusalem, my blissful home” that was sung by the congregation at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine. A variation of that hymn was noted in the Shann family prayer book of 1611 from Yorkshire, England, and is thought to be much more ancient. The last verse, verse #16 of that version, is as follows.
Instead of pearls, and purest gold our walls are only clay; Our bodies, too, of the same stuff, must molder first away. Jerusalem, thou happy home, then let us come to thee, Our sorrows then shall have an end; thy joys then shall we see.
On this Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, we are to rejoice, as St. Paul to the Philippians called out – “Rejoice let your gentleness be known to everyone”. On this Sunday we rejoice because cousin Jesus went beyond agitating and separating and pointing to walking among us, guiding us and leading us home.
Some of us have a long walk ahead and some of us not so much, but in faith, we know that we never walk alone, we walk with Jesus and the gathered people of God, and we will one day arrive at this life’s final destination. While we may wander off at times, the Good Shepherd and his guiding staff will guide us with a gentle nudge to Jerusalem, our blissful home”.
Therefore, as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, he also wrote to us
Rejoice in the Lord God, always; again, I will say, Rejoice.