Third Sunday in Advent
Year C, RCL
December 16, 2018
North Fork Ministries
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. 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."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
If John the Baptist had taken a public speaking course, I’m not sure that he would have been advised to begin his address to his listeners on the banks of the Jordon by calling them “a brood of vipers”. And, indeed, John the Baptist wasn’t just on shaky rhetorical ground by starting his speech off by criticizing his hearers. If we had read one more verse, we would have learned that King Herod responded to John’s exhortations by having his soldiers toss him onto the floor of a cold prison cell.
Yet, we end the reading with Luke saying, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” The crowd is labeled a brood of vipers, warned of the wrath to come, compared to a fruitless tree that faces the woodsman’s axe and eventual flames. That doesn’t sound like particularly good news to me.
But judging from the people’s reaction - the way their hearts were filled with expectation, and their wonder over whether John might be the Messiah – it seems that the message, and the path, of repentance must have offered some measure of hope to the people that heard John’s voice.
Notice that John offered a very specific task to each of his listeners. Those with two coats were told to share the extra with someone who doesn’t have a coat. The same with those with an over abundance of food. Tax collectors were told to collect no more taxes than they were charged to collect. Soldiers were told to be satisfied with their soldier’s pay and stop extorting extra cash – protection money, we might call it – from helpless citizens.
I’m still not sure if this is good news or not. If you only had two coats, would you want to give one away? Tax collectors weren’t paid by the Roman authorities to collect taxes. It was the accepted practice for the tax collector to collect whatever he could, give the required amount to the Romans and pocket the rest. Likewise, soldiers were poorly paid. If they didn’t gather extra income from the practice of extortion, they probably couldn’t feed their families. Both groups depended on a little graft and corruption just to make a living.
So the advice that John had to offer wasn’t particularly easy. Following John’s suggested path to repentance required significant sacrifice. But it did offer them a clear path. It wasn’t a path that was as demanding as that presented by Jesus to the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be saved. Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Neither was the advice as harsh as that offered by Jesus to the crowd on his way to Jerusalem – “You must hate your father and mother…”
No, John the Baptist told his listeners that they must behave ethically. Sandwiched in between his condemning labels about broods of vipers and his depiction of a powerful Messiah with a winnowing fork in one hand deftly separating wheat from chaff – is this sage-like advice about treating your fellow human beings fairly, sharing what you have, not cheating or bullying. That might not always be easy advice to follow, but at least John’s listeners could get their minds around the concept.
Maybe that’s what Luke had in mind. Faithfulness to the gospel doesn’t always have to be heroic. Opportunities to follow God’s will abound and they are shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. There are opportunities to share in God’s project, to be God's people, all around us. . If we open our eyes, we discover needs everywhere we look – at work, in relationships, even here at church. All that is required is the perception of the sacred in the midst of the ordinary. Perhaps the realization that your particular path might be as simple as choosing to do business with companies that don't harm the environment, demanding that your elected officials be honest or practicing a generosity of spirit to those you encounter. In essence, John the Baptist told the crowd that they should share, be fair, and not bully others. It’s an ordinary, not so mystical path of repentance.
Repentance never meant remorse alone; it meant change away from one way of being towards another way of being. John was teaching the crowd that fruit is what counts. John wasn’t telling the tax collector or the soldier that they need to feel remorse, or to feel guilty. John was a man of action and preached the same message of action to his listeners. “Let’s see evidence of your repentant heart,” John would say.
The monk Lucas was walking through a village accompanied by a disciple. An old man asked the man from Scete:
- Holy man, how can I come closer to God? -
Enjoy yourself. Praise the Creator with your joy - was the reply.
The two went on their way. Just then, a young man came over. -
What must I do to come closer to God? - Enjoy yourself less - said Lucas.
When the young man left, the disciple commented: - It seems to me that you are not sure whether or not one should enjoy oneself. -
A spiritual journey is a bridge with no railings across an abyss - replied Lucas, - If someone is too near the right hand side, I tell him 'left a bit!' If he approaches the left side, I say 'right a bit!' The extremes veer us away from the Path.
And another story of the Desert Fathers:
A man decided to visit a hermit who lived near the monastery of Sceta. “What is the first step of one who aims to follow the spiritual path?” he asked.
The hermit took him to a well and asked him to look at his reflection in the water. The man obeyed, but the hermit began to throw small stones, making ripples on the surface. “I won’t be able to see my face right if you keep throwing stones.”
“Just as it is impossible to see your face in troubled waters, so it is impossible to seek God if your mind is anxious about the search,” said the monk. “Just move forward with faith. This will always be the first and most important step of all.
What does repentance look like for you and for me? Maybe it means being more generous - with your wealth, or with your compliments. Maybe it's allowing time for prayer and meditation, so that you can let go of anxiety -so that you can model for those around you a path of serenity and peace. Or perhaps striving a little less to buy the good life and instead showing others what it looks like.
As Paul’s letter to the Phillipians advised,” 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.”