3rd Sunday of ADVENT
Luke 3:10-18 (see below)
The Lectionary Gospel reading for today, this the third Sunday of Advent, opens to our hearing the preaching message John the Baptizer actually proclaimed, and like last week it serves to deepen our understanding of the preparation needed to make a good Advent this season.
You will remember in last Sunday's homily how the Baptizer called on us to hear and heed the Word of the LORD. In this case, to hear and to heed the Word was to experience a sincere repentance, a repentance which began with the heart and extended to the behavior. I said then that in order to repent as John would have us we must remember our baptism, the moment of our identification with and our inclusion into the new humanity, the new community of the LORD.
Said differently, we must return to that original calling we accepted when we joined that ragged band of followers who know the LORD as King and who not only proclaim him as such, but who truly live daily this difficult reality with sacrificial clarity.
Well, in today's pericope the Baptizer explains in detail just what his original hearers were to specifically do to hear and heed the Word, and his directions to them were both pithy and pungent.
Is This Good News?
Before we attempt to unpack his preaching, however, I thought it important to first think-through the final statement St.Luke says about John because it sets-up well the discussion that follows:
Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
The question came to me as I was working through this: How is the Baptizer's message good news?
I mean, just listen to what he preached:
"I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Does this really sound like good news?
Well, actually, yes, I believe it does. I always say, if it weren't for final judgment, I couldn't believe in the Almighty at all. I mean, the blood is too deep and the violence is too steep, isn't it? Someone has to settle the accounts, somehow, someday.
Clearly, if it is to be done with justice, then this someone must be GOD...
In today's text this truth means John’s preaching promises that GOD will come to his people as judge, so they had better prepare, which in this context means making the heart ready to obey the Christ before he appears. That is, John's proclamation reminds the people that the Almighty never once winked at their sins and injustices. But he also reminds them that provision and deliverance was available if they were willing to change.
Brothers and Sisters, let us allow John’s message to serve as a warning to us as well...
Now, having said that, let's go ahead and drill-down deeper into this idea of an Advent heart preparation. Let’s allow the text to shape our Advent construct and discussion.
What should we do?
First, I want you to see that the people asked the right question. Each time it was...
"What should we do?"
This question opens the door of Advent to us. What should we do, preacher, they asked? What changes need to be made? What behavior must be jettisoned and what actions must be forged into our discipleship-practice as the new humanity of GOD?
In some ways, because we are individuals, each answer will be different because each situation is unique:
"Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise."
"Stop collecting more than what is prescribed."
"Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages."
But, it is also just as true that some general guidelines are also well fitted for everyone:
Be Conformed to the Image of Christ -- Does this mean we take on the outward look of a 1st century Jew? Hardly. No, this means we daily -- and maybe sometimes even moment by moment -- grow into the humanness found in Jesus' character, which we have here described with the shorthand: A Sacrificial Love and A Reconciling Forgiveness.
Be Filled with the Spirit -- Does this mean we walk around seeing lighting flashing and hearing angels singing? Hardly. No, it means that the Spirit of the risen Christ empowers us to take on this life of a sacrificial love and a reconciling forgiveness.
Behave with True Religion -- Does this mean we experience baptism, become part of a church and then sit in silence? Hardly. No, it means that, as I've said time and again from this pulpit, the Christian faith is supremely something to be done. That is, in our redemption Jesus has left us with work to accomplish.
St.James says it like this:
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
St.Paul says it like this:
We are his workmanship, created in Christ-Jesus unto good works."
Live in True Humanness -- Does this mean we revel in a cultural captivity (a 1 John 2 type worldliness) and practice the scarcity of all things (a hoarding greed)? Hardly. No, we learn from Jesus what true humanness means. We learn that giving to the needs of the world ("sell what you have and give to the poor") and caring for the brokenness of the world at war with itself (a Psalm 8 sort of stewardship) is the true calling we have been given, and is actually what the LORD's Prayer means when it says: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..."
A Life Pointed At The Messiah
Second, we must see that John’s entire life and ministry pointed in the direction of the Messiah, the King, not to himself and not to his own ministry. And, this direction actually undergirded and outlined everything he did.
Now, this is a very difficult word for us to hear today, especially since we have so much and because we have such a well developed sense of entitlement. But we must hear it nonetheless.
Remember, the Baptizer was a prophetic desert-dweller, one for whom GOD was the only focus, but, this is not reality for most of us. No. We have so many legitimate distractions and so many trivial diversions that our time and attention, not to mention our accumulated wealth, finds only personal consumption, and is often, therefore, flittered away we know not how or where.
The Baptizer stands as a vivid reminder of not only what is truly important but what will ultimately stand in the day of testing and of judgment. For, as St.Paul writes,
we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ,
and as also says says,
we shall all know the terror of the LORD.
This tells us that, in the end, faithfulness to the Christ is ultimately the only thing that will endure. And it, therefore, calls into question everything for which we now offer our lives. I don’t know about you, but I suspect, like me, the example of the Baptizer is too lofty and must be explained away as a special case and an aberration.
But, like me, you have probably wondered one time or another what the world would be like if our lives were totally sold out to the true religion found in the humanness of Jesus. I wonder how the plight of the widows and orphans -- who are real but who also serve as a metaphor for the blinded, broken and butchered people of the earth -- how their plight would be changed if collectively the church took on the character of the Christ for merely one week, or even one day.
As G.K. Chesterton said:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
"What should we do?"
He said to them in reply,
"Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise."
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
"Teacher, what should we do?"
He answered them,
"Stop collecting more than what is prescribed."
Soldiers also asked him,
"And what is it that we should do?"
He told them,
"Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages."
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
"I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.