December 16, 2018

Advent 3 Year C 2018

Today’s Gospel continues the story of John the Baptist that we started last week in the third chapter of Luke. The lectionary points us forward toward the coming of the incarnate one by pointing us backward to those who foretold of his coming. John is in the wilderness, the place where the Hebrew people were birthed before receiving the promise, a place where they might live in peace with their God, the promised land of Palestine.

The wilderness is a place no one chooses to live because of its harsh conditions and the message of John is as harsh as the surroundings. The wilderness is where you go to begin again, to find your identity anew, and maybe to connect with your past so that you can find your future.

The crowd that follows John is a thoroughly Jewish one; they claim their heritage with pride as God’s chosen people. Yet those gathered in these stark surroundings long for something more; their lives seem hollow, empty of the energy of life, so they offer themselves to God anew through this wild-eyed prophet’s baptism of repentance. But John insists that this is only the beginning. There is one coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

So the crowds follow John out into the wilderness to see this would-be prophet whom they had heard was proclaiming the words of the old prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Our reading today says the crowds came out not just to see this strange man and hear his prophetic rantings, but to be baptized by him, which meant joining his movement, seeking solace for their shortcomings and fears about God’s judgement. Maybe some of us have come to church for the same reason. Oh, not the part about hearing some raving lunatic preach, but the part about seeking solace for our shortcomings and to hear something about God’s love and forgiveness.

Well, John the Baptist forgot to put his velvet glove on the iron hand of his preaching that day and let the people have the full force of his wrath – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Apparently John had not read Dale Carnegie’s softer take on how to win friends and influence people? John continues by telling the crowds he knows what they’re thinking, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ therefore we have privileged status with God. We are God’s chosen people after all.

But John quickly dismisses this and declares that God can raise up a new people from stones if God wants to. Your status as Abraham’s children doesn’t exempt you from bearing fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, you should be even more responsible to act in ways that demonstrate your faithfulness to God’s covenant precisely because you are Abraham’s off-spring! Remember repentance is more about changing your perspective, seeing yourself in a new way, and changing direction than it is about feeling shameful about who you are.

You’ll notice that everyone asked John the same question, “What should we do?” Or to put it another way, “What are the fruits of repentance? What can we do to make it right with God and our neighbor?” Notice that John tells us that not only did the crowds ask him this question, but so did the tax collectors and the soldiers – the two groups that God’s chosen people felt the most oppressed by!

Interesting that John includes these two groups, because tax-collectors were Jewish traitors who made their living by charging more than their Roman overlords required and pocketing the excess for themselves. And Roman soldiers who were empowered to take from the people what they wanted in terms of food and necessities and even have the person on the street carry the soldier’s pack of gear for a mile at a time without compensation. It seems John was including these oppressors in the new kingdom that would be inaugurated by the one whom John was preparing the way for.

John answers each of these groups’ simple question, “What should we do?” with a simple answer, “Stop doing what you know is wrong, and start doing what is right!” If you’re a tax collector, stop taking more from the people than is required and if you’re a soldier, stop extorting money from people just because you can and be satisfied with what you have. And to the crowds he admonished them to share what they have with those who don’t.

John doesn’t invite the people to make their lives easy, to take the path of least resistance, but to follow the narrow and more difficult way, the way of love and the new kingdom that will be built on self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement.

Every Advent John the Baptist pays us a visit and calls us to repent, to change our minds and our actions to reflect who God is calling all of us to be. So I wonder how John might answer our question, “What should we do? How can we live our lives in such a way that we will please God and love our neighbors?” The good news is that God has given us the answer – bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do good and not harm. Be fair and generous with one another. Forgive as God forgives you. Listen to the prompting of the Spirit and love as Jesus loved.

The same God who led John the Baptist and those crowds into the wilderness to announce a new beginning is the same God who calls each of us to look for our new beginning this Advent. The one who is coming is already here and invites each of us to find him as we come to the table for nourishment each week. And then strengthened by that nourishment to go into the world and be present with those who need to be nourished with the same love we have found.

With the prophet Isaiah we can say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.”