Advent 3 C
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.
In both Lent and Advent we are faced with the fiery John the Baptist. It would really mess with our minds if someone dressed up as John the Baptist rather than St. Nicholas this time of year. Wild eyes, bearded face, camel hair tunic telling everyone to ‘repent!’ Rather than candy canes he might hand out honey flavored grasshoppers.
John preached where we expect wild prophets like him to preach–on the margins, in the desert. There was no pulpit and stained glass to accompany his words. He preached fiercly with no concern about who might be offended. “You brood of vipers!” He said to the multitude that surrounded him. So is the paradox of Advent.
There was little comfort and confirmation in John’s voice. He held up the mirror of truth to all who dared to look in. There was no fear in him, as there is for many preachers.
Alaistar Begg says, ‘The voice of the prophet can never be heard when he is concerned about the sound of his own voice.’
What might John say to us?
Our gospel reading is in three nice paragraphs each with a theme.
The first one is this children of Abraham business. “Do not say,” says John, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
To paraphrase, John might say, ‘you can’t ride into the kingdom on someone else’s coattails.’ Whether you are a son of Abraham or a cradle Episcopalian, you must come to God on his terms, not anyone else’s. It is not enough that Grammy grew up in the church or that mom and dad took you to Sunday School. The Faith must be your faith and you must repent. No one can believe for anyone else. You must come to Christ on your own. Sometimes that means being converted to your own faith. Those promises made in baptism must become your promises. We must have hearts of flesh towards our own faith, not hearts of stone.
Turning stones into children of God is a fascinating image which John uses. How do you make a child of God from a cold, stony, heart? We’ll get back to that.
Secondly, in the next paragraph, the sinners, tax collectors and soldiers ask John what they should do in response to his message. Those are three interesting categories. All three represent the worst in religious circles. Sinners are, well, sinners. Tax collectors are cheaters who compromise with the Romans, and Roman soldiers are Gentile thugs who use their power to steal from the weak.
“What then should we do?” In reply John 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.”
John is returning to the rudiments of the Torah. These are very practical but also very basic behaviors. These are simple rules to play better in the sandbox.
John may say to us, ‘Are you too tied to this world and its possessions? Have you cheated anyone lately? Are you kind and loving to your family and friends? Are you living a life that only you know about?’ ‘Do you gossip? Do you backbite?’ Then John would say, ‘repent.’ Turn it around, for your sake and the sake of others.
John is clearing the threshing floor, he is bringing folks back to the basics. He is, in many ways, the last of the Old Testament prophets so he gives us what we would expect. There is nothing particularly unusual about the moral commands of the Torah—be just, be fair, don’t abuse others, keep God first. But John was preparing the people for a more radical time and a more radical Kingdom. John’s purpose was to prepare and to step aside.
There is an interesting juxtaposition between John the Baptist’s commands in Luke 3 and Jesus commands in Luke chapter 6. You would think the Baptist was more radical, but it is actually Jesus who is.
John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” What does Jesus say, just three chapters later?
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
John says share your extra cloak. Jesus says give your cloak and your tunic too. John says to be fair with others, Jesus says to give to strangers and your enemies without asking for anything in return.
Torah says play nice, Jesus says open your heart. Like turning a stone into a child of God.
This brings us to our third reflection. The third paragraph.
He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
What does that mean?
The waters of John cleaned the stony heart, the fire of Jesus transforms a stone into a child of God.
Canon Gray Temple says this, “John could soak you in water and you’d come up clean. Jesus, as John predicted, can soak you in the very life, the very breath of God, and you come up transformed. Try to imagine how your life would feel if you got soaked in a vat of God’s own substance, like you were a bolt of cloth being dyed God-colored.”
Christ is the restoration of humanity to God. In Christ we are healed and become what we were intended to be—children, and friends of God. Our sin and brokenness are healed by God in Christ. God became man to make us new. God became man so he could share his life with ours. God became man so we could be what we were intended to be in Eden—sons and daughters of the most high God.
Scott Cairns says, “He takes our hands into his own, and, if we will agree to it, he makes our hands into his own, so that we may become the very members of the Body we pray to be.”
Christmas is God becoming one of us to transform us and to make us like him.
Nancy Rockwell says, “Jesus mingles fire the water alchemy, mystical fire, like the burning bush…tears become grace, generosity becomes blessing; love becomes central to it all.”
“But now, as at the ending. The low is lifted high; The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, In praises to the Child, By whose descent among us, The worlds are reconciled.”