The apostle Paul, writing to the fledgling Philippian Christian community from where he was in jail, sent these beautiful words that we heard this morning:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.(Philippians 4:4-7)
If my life is focused on me and what I can do, there can be no lasting peace. But if my life is centered in God, rejoicing that God in love created me and all of the universe, and continues the work of redeeming my life and this whole world, then there is much reason for rejoicing. And in rejoicing (otherwise known as gratitude) room is created, a pathway delved into the very fabric of our souls through which the peace of God that passes all understanding can enter into our hearts and lives.
This is the foundational understanding – that we are created and claimed in love by Jesus – that gives us grounding and sustenance to bear the second part of God’s message to us in scripture today – this time from our gospel lesson.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” cries John the Baptist to the crowd that has gathered around him. You’ve got good roots, John says, but it is as if those roots – your ancestry and all the good promises God has made to you matter for nothing if your repentance, your practice of turning back, does not include changes of action in your life.
Best fruits worthy of repentance, says John the Baptist. Share of what you have with others in need - give one of your coats to someone with none. John goes on to say stop adding an extra cut for yourself when you collect taxes (politicians stop pork barreling legislation!) And soldiers, police, others in power - do not abuse that power!
You know, relatively nearby here in New York State, in the town of Cairo, incredibly intact fossilized remains of tree roots have been uncovered. They are 385 million years old. This beats out the previously discovered oldest tree-like fossils - found in Gilboa, New York, which are a mere 365 million years old. These extensive root systems, which like oaks or maples, would have supported woody life systems with broad green leaves, were likely preserved by flooding waters that froze around these ancient life forms before they got buried.
Ancient roots that we can now view pictures of, and learn from for the sake of understanding the vast and wondrous work of God’s creation that stretches beyond our imagination.
And thank goodness, and thanks be to God, that the redemptive work of God through Christ also stretches beyond our imagination: calling us not to empty words that say we will change, but to action reflecting our desire to change. Helping those in need, not abusing power, carrying out our vocations – be they as teachers or preachers, aunts and uncles and grandparents and foster and biological parents – living out our lives secure in the knowledge of God’s deep and everlasting roots of love for us. Roots that also remind us not to take those roots for granted, but instead with gratitude for God’s roots of love, build practices and lives that reflect this love for the world around us.
When we hear the call for repentance, we have to remember that this is good news. And the work of repenting begins and ends with gratitude and rejoicing in God’s perfect love in Christ. And the work of having our lives re-oriented so that God in Christ is at the middle of them, this is work that brings peace that passes all understanding. These are deep, deep roots and this is good, good news. In fact, that’s how our gospel passage ends today, with Luke writing that with this, “and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to them.”
There are just days now until Christmas, until we welcome the Christ child. No better time for us to be receiving the good news and to be preparing to see again the eternal roots from which all that is good and all that brings life shall spring anew.