There is an old cartoon that pictures a skeptic yelling up to the heavens, “God! If you are there, tell us what to do.” God calls back, “feed the hungry, house the homeless, and establish justice.” “Just checking” the skeptic says alarmed at the response. “Me, too” God calls back.
During this season of Advent, we have been picturing what the Advent of Christ might look like. We have pictured Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom through the eyes of a veteran. We have been preparing the way of God through the complexities of layers and nuance. This week, we turn the good work that John the Baptist called the eager and expectant followers to do as they gathered on the banks of the River Jordan.
For some of us it is hard to imagine how John the Baptist would fit into a Christmas nativity. In a nativity with a sweet, chubby cheeked baby, tender mother, and proud father, where does the unruly man with the compulsion to bear fruits weary of repentance fit? A man more at home with orange construction cones and long-term construction projects who calls us to repent, to literally, turn around and go a different path. A prophet, whose role is to set the stage for Jesus’ public ministry with shocking calls to action and intense requirements for life. He does not seem to have any place in our vision of a White Christmas complete with cookies, cards, and candles. And yet, it is our understanding of this season of Advent, preparing for the coming of Christ, preparing for Christmas that has room for change, instead of booting John the Baptist out of the Christmas story.
John preached repentance and following Christ. John called people beyond the comfort of their known ways into the ways of Christ, the life of the unknown and the preparing for and building of the kingdom of God. Repentance can be hard to understand, but preacher, John Ortberg describes it this way, “Low self- esteem causes me to believe that I have so little worth that my response does not matter. With repentance, however, I understand that being worth so much to God is why my response is so important. Repentance is remedial work to mend our minds and hearts, which get bent by sin.” 1John called the people to this unknown territory, dangerous thing to do as a preacher, a way of living they had never known. A place that nurtured many questions. Many of us have been raised with the understanding that asking questions is done in the quietness and stillness of our own company, if at all. We have been taught that asking questions including the words Why? When? And How? Are not appropriate for a faith-filled person. We were taught cultural values, not biblical values. Questions are the currency of conversation in the biblical story. Listen in!
Our scene continues from last week where the people are gathered around the Baptist. He is crying out, and they listened to John. They were eager to make sense of the messy world around them, to point to the path forward and call them to action. John did not mince words about the sins of those gathered. Brood of vipers, he calls them. He accuses them of hanging on the spiritual coattails of their ancestors, hoping to get by because their grandparents were on the rolls of the church. He calls them out, but he does not leave them struggling. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verses 8-9 of this text in The Message: “‘It’s your life that must change, not your skin….What counts is your life.'” He does not leave them in the muddy the waters of complex theoretical explanations. No. They ask, “what should we do?” John’s words are simple. You want to change? Do ordinary acts of grace.
In fact, we might hear them this way: Share what you have plenty of; don’t take what is not yours; be content with what you have been given. These are not new fresh revelations. These are the premises of righteousness and justice, this is the life of faith. Righteousness is like a perennial that is always in bloom in the various books comprising the Bible. Amos advocates letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). We will hear these themes next week in Mary’s Magnificat. We hear them in the prophet Zephaniah. We hear them echoing in God’s words throughout time. “John begins his career by singing the old song again, by holding out the old hopes, still alive and still strong even after six hundred years. He says that this very moment is the moment for which our grandmothers waited, this moment is the moment about which they sang.” 2
John’s preparations for the advent of the Christ are no different from what ours should be. He preaches a here and not yet, kind of a faith. A faith that is practiced in the here-and-now world that God loves, even as it looks forward to the re-creation and renewal of that world in God’s own time. Too often, we have said, either you prepare for the end to come or you serve people here and now. John the Baptist reminds us that this is a false dichotomy. The two are intrinsically tied together. To provide your neighbor a coat is necessarily connected to how you understand and enact your faith with God. Anglican evangelical, John Stott says it this way, “Social responsibility becomes an aspect not of Christian mission only, but also of Christian conversion. It is impossible to be truly converted to God without being thereby converted to our neighbor.” Our lives are connected to those around us. We cannot be completely independent of our world. John the Baptist called people to actions that lead to righteousness and community building, and bringing the kingdom of God in our midst.
Theologian, Walter Brueggemann makes John’s message sound clear and simple, however unwelcome it might be to the powerful, the comfortable, the elite in a world, a culture, a nation, like ours: “Nothing here about ethical niceties or moral purity or metaphysical explanations or arguments about economic systems. Advent is concrete, and it concerns neighbor stuff. ” To be good neighbors, we need to repent. We need to stop spend Advent composing lists of what we want, or what we’ll buy for those who already have an excess of goods, but in “rethinking the contrast…between ‘multi-coat people’ and ‘no-coat people.'” Instead of “a nice little charity gesture,” Brueggemann urges us to consider the “R” word, “redistribution.”3
How good of God to offer us the opportunity to serve our neighbors and minister with them through Family Promise. This week has been filled with vital ministry for all who engaged it. I invite you to ask those most involved to tell you the stories of the little ways in which their hearts were turned back to God through this experience. I share just one moment that I had that is still turning my heart back to God as the words of John the Baptist echo: Share what you have plenty of; don’t take what is not yours; be content with what you have been given. It was on Wednesday that I spent the night as an overnight host with our guests. I was speaking with one of the families about children. The mother asked me about Peter, was he my son? Yes, I said proudly. As parents do, we began to compare ages and discovered that our youngest children were a week apart in age. Our of curiosity, the pastor of Kennett Square Presbyterian, our supporting church for Family Promise, Andrew Smith, who was sharing in the conversation asked us which hospitals our children were born. We came to realize they were both born in Chester County hospital and shared time together in the Nicu, only beds away from each other. Imagine the tenderness in my heart as I rethink the barely existent distance between me with so many coats and the family with barely any.
Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand. Not so that we might just cross days off the calendar until the celebration of Christmas, but so that the joy of our salvation, the joy of the Lord might be fully known among us. The prophet Zephaniah, in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, proclaims this as well. This short book is primarily a book of judgment oracles that proclaim and invoke the coming Day of the Lord. The Scripture, using the present tense (rather than the future), says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” In other words, it is a reminder that this is not something that will happen “someday”, some other world that is “out there” waiting for us to get our act together enough to get there. This is now. God is in your midst, bearing the shaking and teaching us how to hold together.
Luke recounts that the people were filled with expectation. They were ripe and waiting for something in their lives. It was the moment in which they thought something might change; God might show up; and life might be different. It is when we watch children begin to read. It is when someone who has never cared for others, decides to stay for conversation after a meal. It is when you and I have awaited Christmas after the Christmas Eve service. It is when we feel God’s nudge to help another and follow it. It is when we have glimpsed the kingdom of God and imagine that it could indeed be close at hand, even when it seems so far away. The advent of Christ is at hand. Glory be to God in the highest!
This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
1John Ortberg Jr., The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You.
2Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C., 2006.
3″More Coats Than Imelda Had Shoes,” in Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann.
Old Testament Lesson: Zephaniah 3:14-20
A Song of Joy
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3:7-18
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.
For Your Week
Sunday, December 13 ~ Saturday, December 19
SUNDAY: Scripture: “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.” Luke 3:8
Devotion: God calls each us to prepare for the coming of Christ by living lives of emulating Christ. It is easy for us to say, I go to church; I help when someone asks me; I am nice. And yet, God calls us to live more fully into the fruitfulness of being disciples of Jesus. For today, do not rest on your laurels; instead, spend time asking God how you can live as a disciple.
Prayer: Gracious God, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the people for Jesus. Help us also to prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus. Find our eyes on you and the ways your love is lived out. Amen.
MONDAY: Scripture: “In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ “ Luke 3: 11
Devotion: The Gospel calls us to living love, not just feeling it. Favorite’s depiction of Mary in exploration and wonder might be in reaction to ways she experienced others’ actions living love. How will you be caught during this season living love to those who would be surprised to receive it?
Prayer: Surprising God, let us look on the world as you do. Open our eyes to bless those in need and to live love with all, Amen.
TUESDAY: Scripture: “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. “ Luke 3: 16
Devotion: Baptism is our consecration of being set aside for the holy purposes to which God calls us. Baptism is a grace that God offers us. How is God calling you to live out holy purposes in your life?
Prayer: Come, Holy Spirit, our hearts inspire. Come and direct us to your work, Amen.
WEDNESDAY: Scripture: “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.“ Zephaniah 3:16
Devotion: Christmas carols and songs are being sung around us and filling the spaces with cheer. DO you find yourself singing along in eager anticipation or wearied from over-exposure? Find moments today to hear anew the words of hope for the coming of our Savior.
Prayer: Glorious God, tune our hearts to sing your praises. Open our minds to your teachings in the words. Open ears to tunes of praise. In your name, Amen.
THURSDAY: Scripture: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Zephaniah 3:17
Devotion: God is always on the side of the downtrodden, the poor, the oppressed, and those most in need. In the Gospels, the prophets, and throughout the scripture, God speaks on behalf of those who need God’s justice most. How are you on the side of those in need?
Prayer: God of the lowly, we praise you that your ways are not the ways of the world, but are ways of ultimate justice. Tune our hearts to your ways, Amen.
FRIDAY: Scripture: “At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” Zephaniah 3:20
Devotion: This artist captures that brilliance of the home where God gathers us with the star-shine and angels. God’s glory is often described as the brilliance of light. Look today for signs of God’s coming around us in the light and brilliance breaking through in our world.
Prayer: Emmanuel, gather us near to you; restore our fortunes; let your name be praised through all the earth. Come Lord Jesus, Come, Amen.
SATURDAY: Scripture: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” Luke 1:41
Devotion: There have always been people who know and live joy so deeply that they even bring it out in us. Elizabeth’s physical response to Mary was to be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. During this time of preparing for the coming of Christ, find people who bring out joy in you. Spend time with them and call on the Holy Spirit to move among you.
Prayer: God of joy, you have gifted us with the presence of others. We do not walk this journey alone. May our lives together more fully reflect the joy of your coming Kingdom, Amen.