Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. Christmas is just around the corner, less than two weeks away. It seems to have just sneaked up on me. It seems Advent just started and here we are halfway through it.
While Advent is a time for self examination and reflection in preparation for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus, it seems that the focus of my preparation is shifting from self examination and preparing my heart for Jesus’ coming, to the more celebratory tasks of decorating the house, putting up the Christmas tree and the outdoor lights, planning time with my family, and shopping for that perfect gift for my loved ones. I am enjoying hearing Christmas music on the radio and looking at the decorations other people have put up. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Perhaps some of you are also experiencing this same shift.
But then, the lectionary brings us to John the Baptist and his preaching and our focus is directed again on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the New Born King. I thought Johns words last week were harsh and challenging, but I think he has outdone himself this week. He starts out calling those who have come to him to be baptized a brood of vipers. He called those who have decided to follow Jesus, risking their lives and positions in society, children of vipers. I wonder who he was referring to as vipers, perhaps the Pharisees and Sadducees. But whoever it was, his question tells us that John didn’t believe they told the people coming to be baptized to do so.
He then talks to them about repentance and warns them about standing on their heritage. Being descendants of Abraham is not a substitute for bearing good fruits of repentance. The axe is ready to cut down the trees that do not produce good fruit and throw them into the fire.
The crowd asked John, What then shall we do? I imagine they were taken back a little by John’s words. He replied and 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.’
Certainly, John would not call us a brood of vipers. We are good people. We share with those in need. We reach out and help feed the hungry. We care about each other and those in our community. We are family. But if we look at Christians as a whole, John might be closer to reality than we would like to admit. There are many people who claim to be Christians who not only seem not to produce good fruits, but who seem downright mean. Some of the things they do in the name of Christianity just don’t seem very Christian. Their actions don’t reflect the love and compassion, the forgiveness and acceptance, or the fellowship and peace of Jesus.
Perhaps we are not as ready for Christmas as we think. Perhaps we need a little more Advent, a little more self-reflection, a little more preparation, not preparation for the holiday festivities, but more preparation of our hearts for the coming of our Savior. Perhaps John’s words are well timed and are not so harsh, but are actually good news and a reminder of why Christians celebrate Christmas.
In the final paragraph of John’s preaching this morning he talks about Baptism. He tells the crowd that he is baptizing them with water, but one who is more powerful is coming, one who is so great that John is not worthy of untying his sandal. And when he comes, he will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
We know the one who is coming is Jesus. It might be interesting to take a look at our own Baptisms, to refresh our memories of what we promised or what was promised for us by our guardians.
We, or our guardians on our behalf were asked these questions or questions very similar to them, and answered them.
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
Then we were asked about of profession of faith.
Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
Will you be a faithful member of this congregation,
share in its worship and ministry
through your prayers and gifts,
your study and service,
and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
We live in a world full of systemic oppression, prejudice, and evil. Many of the people who are suffering are victims of systemic evil. It is hard to see this evil sometimes because it has been part of our culture for so long and is ingrained into our minds.
For example, inner city schools generally get less funding than suburban schools, making it difficult for them to attract the best teachers and have the materials they need to teach inner city children. Without a good education, their chances of being successful in finding a meaningful career are limited. Some turn to crime and drugs. They end up in jail. When they get out of jail, they still don’t have a good education, they still can’t find jobs that pay living wages, and they either end up homeless or continue to be in trouble with the law.
The people asked John what they should do. John told them that those who have two coats must give share with someone who has none, and whoever has food must also share with anyone who has none.
The tax collectors came and asked what they should do. Tax collectors were well known as being dishonest and collecting more than the person really owed, and keeping some for themselves. While I do not believe our Internal Revenue Service does this, I do believe there are many people who will take advantage of trusting, unsuspecting people if they get the opportunity. John told them to collect no more than the amount prescribed for them.
Then the soldiers asked John, what shall we do. Our military is very strict about our soldiers conduct, but soldiers in other parts of the world routinely use intimidation and force to take what is not theirs. John told the soldiers not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with their wages.
John’s words still hold true for us today. They sound harsh, but when we were baptized and we proclaimed our faith in Jesus, and we vowed to renounce evil, turn to Jesus, and be his faithful disciple by obeying his Word and showing his love, we were also made part of the body of Christ. We belong to God, we always have and we always will. By our baptism, we received the mark of Christ on us, on our lives. John called those who followed him to be baptized to embrace what the mark of Christ means. John wanted his followers to understand the serious, life changing consequences of being baptized. John wanted the crowd to understand that the one who was to follow John would change them, and transform them.
Jesus also has transformed us. It is through Jesus that we can turn from sin and renounce evil and its power in the world. It is through the transformation Jesus has done on our lives that we can turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love. And it is through the transformation Jesus has done on our lives that we can be Christ’s faithful disciples, obeying his Word and showing his love.
What then, are we to do?
We are to continue reaching out to those in need, and offering them our help and our resources. We are to stand against all the evil powers in this world, including systemic evils that prevent some people from enjoying fulfilling, productive lives. We are to follow Jesus, proclaiming and showing the good news of his love for all of God’s children, and work to bring the kingdom of God, with its peace and justice, to this world.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!