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December 12, 2021
Several of my friends finally talked me into watching the HBO show “Succession.” I’m catching up on three seasons worth of this drama about a rich and powerful media mogul’s family and all the schemings that take place within that family. Neither the patriarch – Logan Roy – nor his four adult children are good people. In fact, they’re quite terrible. They behave horribly – to other people and to each other. All they care about are money and power, and they will do whatever backstabbing, bribing, or blackmailing is necessary to get what they want.
One of my favorite images in the series comes from the character Gerri, who has worked as general counsel for this family’s company for a long time. She knows where a lot of the bodies are buried. She understands the loathsome way that these people operate. She calls their family dynamic “snake linguine.” Snake linguine. Picture that for a minute.
I think John the Baptist would appreciate the term “snake linguine.” After all, he calls his own listeners a “brood of vipers.” It’s a vivid image, isn’t it? A swirling mass of snakes, all hissing and threatening, tangled up together in a writhing mass of danger. No one gets out of the snake pit unscathed.
Most of us are not part of a dysfunctional media mogul family, but we know something about what a snake linguine is like. We’ve all been tangled in conflicts that happen when people lash out in mutual pain. We know how it easy it is to get caught up in the hissing and the hurting and how difficult it is to extract ourselves once we’re there. We see it almost every day, if not close to home, then certainly at the level of our national politics. A social media post can become snake linguine faster than almost anything else.
And sometimes, as we know, the snake linguine is deep within ourselves – the tension between what we know we need to do and what we choose to do. Those internal conflicts roil around within us until we are paralyzed.
Curiously, given John’s rantings, the Third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Joy Sunday. In some Christian churches, the whole season of Advent is more like Lent, a time to intensify one’s self-examination and lean hard into repentance. So celebrating joy on the third Sunday of Advent is a way to take a break from all of that penitential work and feel lighter. The colors of the church are usually changed from purple or blue to pink that day. That’s why I wore a pink jacket this morning.
Today, in the midst of this talk about joy, John yells, “You brood of vipers!” and tells us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. So let’s ask ourselves: What’s the connection between repentance and joy?
What is repentance? The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means to change one’s mind or to turn in a new direction. Repentance as a kind of antidote to the snake linguine. Instead of devouring each other, repentance asks us to get untangled, to look outward, to do less hissing and more helping.
Repentance is not easy. The directions in which we’re moving often have a kind of momentum, and it’s hard to redirect ourselves, much less turn in a completely different direction. We spend more time developing reasons we don’t need to repent than doing the actual repenting.
John cuts off the people’s excuses before they even begin. Your family connections won’t save you from the consequences of your wrongdoing, he says. This is a time for truth-telling. A time to be honest with ourselves about what we need to change.
I appreciate that John’s harsh words don’t send the crowds scurrying away. They stay, willing to be curious about what John means. And I love what happens next. The people who are gathered out there in the wilderness, the people who have ventured out of their comfort zones to come and hear what John has to say – those people have an important question: “What then should we do?”
What a great question. Confronted with the call to repentance, they ask: “What then should we do?”
John’s first answer could apply to most of us: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” When you have more than you need, share it with those who don’t. That seems straightforward enough.
But notice how John’s next couple of answers are so specific to the people who are asking “What should we do?” To the tax collectors – who have come to be baptized, by the way – John says: “Stop your corrupt practice of collecting more than the designated amount. Stop taking advantage of your position to line your own pockets. Turn in a new direction.”
To the soldiers, who abuse their power by extorting money from the people they can intimidate, John says: “Stop threatening the people you’re supposed to protect. Be satisfied with what you have. Turn in a new direction.”
Think about the places you inhabit regularly. Where and with whom do you spend your time? In what ways might you try to be and to act differently in those places and in those relationships? How might you turn in a new direction?
What then should we do? We might not all be tax collectors or soldiers, but in our own specific roles we have something we can share – a coat, some food, a contribution to people who are hungry or without homes or displaced by war.
We are all family members. And friends. And colleagues. And citizens. We work hard at something on a daily basis – in our offices or our schools or our homes. How might we invite the Holy Spirit to transform the way that we speak and act in those places? What needs to be renewed, refined, replaced?
That’s the connection between repentance and joy. With God’s help we find some new directions, we show up in particular ways in our lives, especially in the relationships with those around us. This season is a good time to ask God to help us be present as joyfully as we can.
The apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always. It might help to know that Paul was writing those words from a prison cell without knowing whether he would live or die. And still he can speak of the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. That’s the key, I think. To understand joy not as a product of our circumstances, but as a gift from God.
Joy isn’t superficial. It’s rooted in the deep and abiding love that God has for us in all times and places – even when we are the worst versions of ourselves, even when we feel trapped in a pit of snakes. We trust that God can set us free from those worst versions of human failure. We can move in a different direction because we know that our salvation rests not in our hands, but in the Lord’s.
I read a blessing this week that I’d like to share with you. I hope you will receive it and hold it in your heart this week[i]:
Be glad in the Lord always!
Focus your thoughts on all that is true,
all that is holy, all that is just,
all that is pure, all that is lovely,
and all that is worthy of praise.
And the peace of God—
peace that goes far beyond anything we can comprehend—
that peace will guard your hearts and minds
as you live in Christ Jesus.
So go from here with confidence and joy,
to serve the Lord.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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