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 axe 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.
With Christmas nearly here, on this third Sunday in Advent, we are well on our way along our journey to Bethlehem. Many years ago when I was in college, I was privileged to make an actual physical journey to Bethlehem as I spent a month in Israel as part of a Biblical archeology class. Arriving in Tel Aviv, I was a naïve and starry-eyed idealist looking forward to this wonderful trip to the revered Holy Land that I had long dreamed of. Shortly upon arrival I boarded a tour bus, and a soldier accidentally knocked me on the head with the assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder as he passed through the center aisle inspecting people’s belongings. A few days later on a trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, our group disembarked from our bus at an armored check point, had our passports reviewed, and continued on our journey only under the watchful eye of heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Although Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only about six miles apart, it turned into quite a long journey given the circumstances.
If getting to Bethlehem physically seems a bit challenging, it’s nothing compared to the difficulty of getting to Bethlehem spiritually. Because during this season of Advent there’s no getting to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem without first passing through the check point that is run by John the Baptist Three of the four Gospels begin not with stories about Jesus but with John the Baptist. The Gospels seem to say that there’s no way to get to Jesus without going past John. You’ve got to hear John preach before you can hear Jesus preach. As our Gospel lesson this morning tells it, John’s first inhospitable greeting to the gathered throngs who have come for him to baptize them in the Jordan is, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?…Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
How much we long for God to come to us with blessing. But here we find John saying God’s anointed one comes with fire and judgment. In the same way, the multitudes who heard John were shocked. This wasn’t what they expected. So they cried out with one voice, “What then should we do?” They wanted to know what they should do to avoid the wrath of God’s judgment.
John responds, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”
“What then should we do?” Given our Congregational tradition, I don’t think a church expects its pastors to lay down the rules of belief or strict instruction. We tend to explain a Biblical passage and try to offer inspiring words of encouragement, extending hope and comfort, maybe a little bit of nudging. Sometimes, though, we do hear words like these: “You’re always telling us that Jesus expects us to go do something. You’re always encouraging us to live better Christian lives. But you never get around to telling us exactly what we’re supposed to do. Your sermons never get practical and specific.”
Well, today’s passage allows the opportunity to do just that.
“If you have two shirts, give away one of your shirts to somebody who has nothing.” (I know if I gave away half of all my shirts, I’d still have plenty left over.) “Those of you who are owed money by others, or who sell to others, be sure you don’t charge any more than is owed.” (I think not overcharging isn’t too much to ask of anyone, even with inflation rising.) “And you soldiers and law enforcement officers, don’t bully people. Be careful in your use of force against others.” (That last admonition seems especially timely.)
In other moments, Jesus asks his disciples to forgive their enemies, to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek when someone hits them in the face. While any of those actions may be difficult, John says that all we need to do to get ready for the coming Messiah is to give from our surplus of possessions, not to cheat people, and not to bully others. That’s not much to ask.
So here’s one lesson I get from this morning’s Gospel as we stand on the threshold of Christmas: if you want to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, for the advent of God into your life, then rejoice! It’s not that difficult – the bar isn’t raised beyond your reach. Just live your life in a way that shows you believe that you are accountable to some higher standard than your own judgment. Demonstrate, by your simple acts of mercy and generosity, that you’re turning, that you’re heading in the right direction. That even though you may not have fully arrived with complete faithfulness to God, you are at least on the way.
There are some Sundays when the Gospel readings ask us to perform great, heroic tasks to show that we’re walking with Jesus – like selling all that we have, or being perfect. This Sunday, we’re told that we simply need to start turning toward the God who is turned toward us. Our turnings may seem rather small and insignificant in themselves, but at least we’re going in the right direction.
John the Baptist essentially sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing, but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.
Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, said that church leadership ought to be governed by the motto “Overlook much. Correct a little.” God graciously overlooks most of our sins and only occasionally corrects us. John the Baptist surely embodies a sense of God’s active correction of our sin. That correction gives us a way of not being overwhelmed by our sin, or stuck in our sin. Rather, it gives us some specific, achievable means of repenting by living changed lives with our neighbors.
Jesus was coming to change the whole world, and few people sensed that better than John the Baptist. He knew that Jesus was coming to upend everything. When people came to ask John what the coming of all this change meant for them in their ordinary lives, John sent them back to those ordinary lives as changed people. He sent them back not necessarily to try to change the world on their own nor to take on a new set of spiritual practices and ambitious projects. No. John just told them to do what they had been doing all along and do it better. He told them that as small and simple their acts may seem to be, they will still be part of God’s larger work of renewal. It’s Jesus and the Gospel that will change the whole world, including that little corner of the world where you and I live and work every ordinary day of the week.
In a world where the challenges are so huge, we may wonder how seemingly small things can make any difference at all. And yet, one at a time? one person after another? seeking to live in these ways? Maybe in the end your simple acts could be the beginning of changing everything. Amen.