According to Greek tradition, Apollo had been taunting Eros, the God of Love by telling him that Eros’ little bow and arrow could never match his accomplishments as a warrior. So Eros shot Apollo with a golden arrow which made him burn with passion for Daphne, a river nymph. Eros then shot Daphne with a lead arrow which made her burn with utter hatred for Apollo.

Apollo chased Daphne, and yet Daphne always managed to get away. This went on for quite some time and finally Eros felt bad for Apollo and helped him catch up to Daphne. When Daphne saw that she was about to be taken, she called out to her father who then turned her into a laurel tree.

Because Apollo still burned with passion for Daphne, he vowed that she would always be a part of him, and so he cut a branch of the laurel tree and formed from it a laurel wreath. This is why Apollo is most often depicted wearing a laurel wreath.

Fast forward a few years in Greek history, and we see the rise of something called the Pythian Games – a forerunner to the Olympics – that honored Apollo the warrior. Because these games were in honor of Apollo, all the victors in the events were given a laurel wreath to wear to have a physical sign of their victory. A laurel wreath was a sign of respect, and the victors could trade in favors upon the respect they had earned.

Fast forward a few more years to the Roman Empire. The Romans, who liked very much to take ideas from the Greeks and turn them into their own, saw the symbolism of the laurel wreath, and when their generals were triumphant in battle, they bestowed upon those generals the honor of wearing a laurel wreath.

One of Rome’s greatest generals – even though he did say so himself – was Julius Caesar, and this is why we often see him depicted wearing a laurel wreath as well: Caesar intended to let everyone know of his victories in battle so that he could use it to his own political advantage.

Now, I know that at this point some of you are thinking, “What on earth does a laurel wreath have to do with the Gospel reading for today? Wasn’t there something about John the Baptist yelling at a bunch of people and calling them snakes? A brood of vipers?”

The key is in what John says:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

You see, many of those present counted themselves among the people of Israel, and because of their heritage they believed that that was good enough to allow them to receive all the promises that God had in store for the children of Abraham.

But John is not saying that at all. He continues on, telling them that “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.”

John is essentially telling them that they have been deceiving themselves, thinking that their heritage merits any kind of special treatment for them; it does not. Instead, the people are to repent, to seek how they might turn their lives around and begin to bear good fruit. Trees that do not bear good fruit are cut down, and they are thrown into the fire.

Resting upon our own accomplishments never goes well for us. If you’ve read any history, or read any Shakespeare, you know that by consistently using his own accomplishments for his own advantage, even those closest to him finally gave in to their darkest emotions and murdered Julius Caesar.

It turns out even worse when we rest upon things that we did nothing to achieve, or had no control over, like what family or tribe we are born into. The Israelites wanted to use their family lineage of being a part of the tribe of Abraham as a get out of jail free card, but John would not let them off the hook.

If you’ve spent any time reading the old testament, you know why John the Baptist is put into the tradition of the prophets. In the Old Testament, the prophets were always calling people to repentance, because God only had some simple requirements for the people of Israel – those who counted Abraham as their father. They were:

Love god and follow his commandments.

Love god and follow his commandments.

And when the people of Israel did not do so, a prophet would arise and tell people that they needed to repent and return to following the ways of God or some calamity would befall them. Most of the time they did not, instead they continued to believe that their membership in the the Tribe of Abraham would warrant them favor with God, even when their behavior clearly did not.

Until their membership card no longer worked.

Until calamity befell them.

Oh, then they would fall all over themselves trying to right themselves with God, calling out for mercy and help. And, because God is loving, he would forgive them and take them back.

Do we ever do the same thing as the Israelites? Do we ever do the same as the people who came to hear John preach at the the Jordan River? Do we ever rely on the fact that we go to church, that we’re good people, or – perhaps in more Episcopalian terms – “members in good standing?”

John the Baptist tells us that this is simply not good enough.

And, because we are unlikely to see prophets arise during our lifetimes, like they did in the days before Christ, the Church in her infinite wisdom provided us with times of penitential seasons during Advent and Lent.

Every year, just before Christmas, we enter into a period of waiting, a period of preparation for the arrival of Christ. And during this time we are asked to prepare ourselves both mentally and spiritually for the significance of that birth.

It used to be that during Advent, just as in Lent, people were expected to fast and pray in preparation for the coming of the lord, but as time has progressed, and as Advent generally falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only things we have time for is running around making preparations for the big day, purchasing gifts, going to holiday events at work or with friends and thinking of all the many things we have to get accomplished before the big day.

The people in today’s Gospel heard John the Baptist’s message. They understood that <point to laurel wreath> simply being a part of the tribe of Abraham was not good enough to warrant their own salvation. They heard his message of repentance and they asked him, “What then should we do?”

Some of his responses are recorded. “If you have more than you need, give some away.” Or, to the tax collectors: “Don’t steal from others.” And to the soldiers: “Don’t extort people and be satisfied with what you earn.”

If we were standing at the River Jordan, what do you think John would tell you to change? What do I think he would tell me?

The season of Advent is there to remind us to examine our own hearts, and remind us that we ought not to rely on any past accomplishments – especially when we cannot take credit for them – but we ought always to look for ways to draw ever closer to God, even as the day of the celebration of his birth draws near.

If we were standing at the River Jordan, what do you think John would tell you to change? What do I think he would tell me?

Now, you might see that today we have Rose colored vestments on the altar. Once again, the church in her infinite wisdom realized that if you have people focusing on their sins during these seasons of penitence, things get a little gloomy and dark. And so, on the third Sunday in Advent, and the fourth Sunday in Lent, we are given a reprieve from our introspection and fasting, and our self-flagellation for a single Sunday to remind ourselves about what we are waiting for, and what that might mean to us. It is intended to bring us Joy in the midst of suffering. In fact, today is called “Gaudete Sunday,” and “Gaudete” literally just means, “Rejoice.”

In Advent, we prepare specifically for the celebration of the Birth of Christ, and when we finally come to Christmas we are reminded that God Himself chose to be born a mortal and spend time with us on this earth: “Emmanuel.” Or, “God with us.”

And yet, because we are privy to the whole story of the Christ, and are taken through it every year as we go through the seasons of the church, we understand that God would would not only humble himself to the point of being born to a human, but he would eventually also die for us on a cross.

Just after Pontius Pilate had judged Jesus and released him into the custody of the soldiers, these soldiers took him to the palace courtyard and there they covered him in a purple cloak, and they twisted together a wreath of thorns to put upon his head.

They intended that wreath of thorns as a mockery, to indicate that he was not a victorious military commander and was not, in fact, the king of the Jews, but instead a loser who would die a miserable death on the cross like the lowest of criminals.

But we know that at the moment of his death the curtain separating the holy of holies in the temple was torn asunder and the sky went dark because at that very moment the only battle of any significance – a battle in which we played no part – was won.

And it was won with finality in eternity.

This wreath of thorns, intended for mockery, became a wreath of victory.

If that doesn’t make you want to say “Rejoice!” I don’t know what will.

If we ever feel like we can wear one of these laurel wreaths <put on laurels> for reasons that we have no control over, then we must remember that the only reason we can even wear one is because someone who loves us wore a wreath of thorns <put on thorns>.

So rejoice and be glad!

[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on December 16, 2018. Listen Here.]

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