It’s dark outside. Night has fallen and the sun is hidden far below the horizon. The darkness seems to seep into our bones. The Advent and Christ candles are precious, in part because they are so fragile, barely able to fend off the night’s darkness.
It’s dark outside. The economy is shaky. Oil, on which so much of our life and livelihood depends in this city, is selling at $35 per barrel. The stock market has become a roller coaster. Racial and ethnic tensions are flaring again in our nation’s cities. Our leaders act like petulant children toward one another, and they extol the dumbing down of our discourse and our culture as though it is a virtue. Mass shooters and terrorists walk brazenly into restaurants and schools and make sport of snuffing out lives like so many candles, taking pleasure and perverse satisfaction at breeding confusion and fear. The sun indeed seems to have slipped inexorably below the horizon. It is dark outside.
You have to hand it to John the Baptist. He certainly knows how to get one’s attention. Today’s Gospel picks up immediately where last week’s Gospel left off. A crowd has followed John out to the River Jordan, waiting with anticipation to be inspired by his teaching. John looks them in the eye and says, “You brood of vipers!” Let’s pause for a moment and think about that. How do you think the good people of Christ Church Cathedral would respond if I stepped into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and launched into the sermon by hurling insults at them? I might end up with my head on the chopping block, which is, well, exactly what eventually happens to John.
“People get ready! There’s a train a-coming. You don’t need no baggage; you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming. Don’t need no ticket; you just thank the Lord.”
That’s the opening stanza of Curtis Mayfield’s well-known and beloved song. The tune is a call for preparation, for attentive readiness. It’s a charge to act, to be alert, and it implies that, if we are inattentive, we may miss something important, and we will feel the lack.