Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 11:1-10+Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19+Romans 15:4-13+Matthew 3:1-12

On a sunny September day in New York City, 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared before members of the United Nations attending a Global Climate Action Summit and said:

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of endless economic growth. How dare you![1]

A year before this appearance at the UN, Thunberg spent three weeks skipping school to sit outside the parliament building in Stockholm, all by herself, trying to draw attention to the growing climate crisis. Within a year, millions of people around the world were marching in solidarity with her in 150 countries around the world, in cities from New York to Bujumbura to Delhi.

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “How dare you!” sparked a global movement.

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I don’t spend a lot of time in my car since moving to Hoboken, so my car radio doesn’t get much of a workout anymore, but I still tune in when I’m working or sitting around, usually listening to either NPR, Symphony Hall on Sirius XM, or whatever interesting ballgame happens to be going on. Every now and then, though, I change things up, and listen to popular music. I do, after all, need to keep up on pop culture if I intend to keep my “cool pastor” card.

Not long ago, over the radio came the unmistakable blues-y voice of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. Back in 2007 at the age of 24, she won an armload of Grammy Awards for the song Rehab and the album Back to Black. Amy Winehouse was known as much for her struggle with drugs and alcohol as she was for her music (and her bouffant hairdo and cat’s-eye make-up), and Rehab is her anthem.

The song was written when her recording company and manager were trying to do an intervention and get her to enter a rehab facility for addiction. She refused to go, and sings in the opening of the song:

They tried to make me go to rehab,

I said “no, no, no.”[2]

Now, I don’t know of anybody who wants to go to rehab. Whether you need to get sober or recover from surgery or an injury or regain the use of physical capacity after a stroke or other medical event, rehab is hard. It is work. It is painful. It can take a long, long time.

But avoiding rehab is to shield ourselves from healing and wholeness. Without going to rehab, we may never regain the use of those limbs. We may never know the tranquility of being clean of drugs and alcohol. We risk losing our jobs, our relationships, our freedom. Rehab may be hard, but the alternative can be infinitely worse

Four years after winning those Grammys, after a tumultuous and well-publicized public life, Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. They tried to make her go to rehab; she said no, no, no.

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When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness shouting at us to repent, he’s actually telling us that we need to go to rehab. Can’t you just imagine this scraggly, smelly, wild man with locust wings stuck in his teeth and honey dripping down his chin bellowing at us that we’ve picked up some toxic, addictive beliefs and behaviors that we need to shed. We have forgotten who and whose we are. We’ve built up barriers between ourselves and the truth of the Gospel and taken to heart only those parts we want to believe. We have glossed over the admonition that to be a Jesus follower means that we follow him all the way to the cross.We have watered down the hard parts and cherry-picked the ones that suit us best.

And this peculiar prophet is just getting warmed up.

We somehow think they we are able to manage our lives very well on our own, thank you very much, and if we just do the right things everything will be just fine. God can stay over there in the corner until we have need of something really big.

We’ve gotten used to building our own towers of strength and stability, and what I have is mine, all mine, because I’ve earned it, and all those other people can do the same. If those people want assistance buying food then they have to work for it.

We think highly of ourselves because we proclaim our love for all people, yet we buy clothing produced in sweatshops and, while we really want to preserve the environment, we cling to our gas-guzzling automobiles and our airplane rides and squawk at consumption taxes on gasoline and investment in renewable energy sources.

We decorate our homes and spend a small fortune on gifts and holiday preparations, when even a fraction of that could provide for many families in need. We have created a God that fits neatly into our world view, accepting and affirming our choices, our successes, our wealth, our political views.

Friends, this unwelcome prophet is saying that we all need to go to rehab. We are the brood of vipers. Sure, we can say that we come to church every week and know all the words to the Creed or we serve on this or that board or committee, but if we have divorced what we do in here from how we live out there, in the world, then we have missed the point; we have not produced good fruit, and the ax stands ready.

We need to go to rehab.[3]

This call to spiritual rehab is not so that we can avoid physical death. It’s to save us from spiritual death. Spiritual atrophy. Spiritual blindness.

We need to turn around – that’s what repentance means. Turn around. Refocus on what it truly means to follow Jesus. Study scripture. Spend time in prayer. Come together in community. And then go into the world to seek the least and the lost, to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart.

Prophets come in all shapes and sizes. Greta Thunberg is a teenager with a passion, and her “How dare you” is akin to John calling people a pile of snakes.

We have much for which to repent. What we’ve done to this earth. The disregard we have for the poor and the hungry and the refugee.

We need to go to rehab.

We need to repent.

Turn around.

Don’t say no, no, no.

Our Savior draws near.


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-23/teen-activist-greta-thunberg-to-world-leaders-how-dare-you

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUmZp8pR1uc

[3] I first encountered this idea of John the Baptist calling us to rehab in a sermon by a Yale classmate, Ashley Hurst, when she preached at First Presbyterian Church in New Haven. She was recovering from a severe knee injury at the time, going through rehab.

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas