It’s hard, but don’t get distracted by John the Baptism crying out, “You brood of vipers…” I know it’s hard because when I first read the scriptures set for this Sunday. I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Why do we always have to preach on John the Baptist two weeks before Christmas?” This close to Christmas we don’t know want to hear about sin and repentance or a man in the wilderness crying out, “You brood of vipers.” Especially on this third Sunday of Advent which is Joy Sunday. I was going to change the readings set for today and find something that seemed in keeping with Joy.
But I reconsidered. John the Baptist is the one who points the way to Jesus. He is the prophetic voice in the wilderness who points us in the direction of good news. Everything he is saying can’t be bad news. That means we must dig a little deeper. Repentance literally means a change direction. And couldn’t our world and even our own lives use a little change in direction?
There are so many things right now that are frightening in our world. How many of you heard about the 7 year old refugee who died of dehydration while in the custody of US immigration. How is this possible? How is it possible in this world where so many have so much that there are people who do without? Who don’t have food or shelter or a safe place to live? Rachel Held Evans in her blog post on the Magnificat, which we read this morning, sums it up so well. “When sung in a warm, candlelit church at Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting.
But I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless.
And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
In the halls of the Capitol Building….
"He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” …
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.” (https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent)
This is the heart of John’s message to us. Repentance means a change in direction for our lives and our world. John isn’t preaching bad news and that is why the crowds came from far and near. They were looking for something. Hope? Joy? A new way of living in the world? Many of the people who made the journey to the world wilderness for the baptism of repentance were poor. There were also soldiers and tax collectors in the crowd. John invites them all to begin the journey by “bear[ing] fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) John’s advice to us on turning our lives around, changing directions is remarkably simple. It’s something we can all do.
Listen to what John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) Not so hard really. Isn’t what we all learned from our parents and at school? Share what you have with others. Now the tax collectors in the crowd are thinking, well what do I need to do to bear fruit worthy of repentance. John says to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13) In other words don’t cheat or lie so you can pocket the extra money. Notice what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t tell them to stop doing their job or collecting money for Rome. He says don’t cheat. Do your job with integrity. Now the soldiers want to know what they must do. John says to them, “Do not exhort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:14) So really don’t threaten people and be happy with what you have.
Bearing fruit worthy of repentance can change our world. Imagine what our lives and world would look like if all did what John said – share what we have; don’t cheat; don’t threaten people and be happy with what you have. I’m not going to tell you that this is always easy but it is something we can all do. Any change in direction and turning around will have its challenges. But we never do these things alone. God is with us.
John, even with his harsh words, points us to the good news that is coming to us on Christmas Eve. John’s words echo Mary’s words, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. His Mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. … he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, an sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46 – 47, 50, 52 – 53)
As we get ready for the joy of Christmas and the birth of the child who changes everything, we too can point the way to a world remade in God way. That is good news for us all. Amen.