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.
It is interesting that out of the four Sundays of advent, John the Baptizer takes centre stage in Sundays two and three. It is naturally due the fact that Advent is a season of preparation and John is the Arch-Prophet of Preparation.
As we know by now, the first Sunday of Advent is about the trauma of contemporary chaotic events. In the context of Jesus’s words it was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Literally the mountains being made low! The second Sunday is the first John the Baptizer Sunday and focuses on the external preparation for the Coming One. (See The End of Access Control) This third Sunday, the second John Baptizer Sunday move the realm of preparation inwards as we shall see later, and the fourth Advent Sunday reaches the height of interiority with the Annunciation to Mary and the Cosmic conception of Emmanuel in her womb. Please remember that this is not the Immaculate Conception which is a Catholic doctrine referring to something completely different. More of that next week.
All I want to map this week is the concentric inward course of the Advent journey.
The route is Week 1 Outer chaos, Week 2 Outer landscape, Week 3 Inner heart scape, Week 4 Interior fruiting. I trust that your Advent journey is mirroring some of that gradual stepping inside?
And so to the Gospel passage of the week.
After two hundred years of quiet through the Inter-testamental period, (yes I know it wasn’t as silent as our fore-parents in Biblical studies presented,but it does capture the expectancy so cut me some slack?)one can understand the interest that the proclamations of John generated.
Two hundred years is a long time. Imagine religious life going on Sabbath by sabbath from 1810 till now with no change nor new inspiration! Mmmmmm come to think of it, that sounds too familiar for this Methodist.
John’s call to prepare the freeway for the Lord, brings the most interesting collection of people to hear him in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan.
Following the script of most significant theological shifts, there are the scripture scholars and the learned theologians, the Scribes and Pharisees. Good, sincere, religious leaders who somehow always feel obliged to have to see, judge and act upon anything different that emerges in the realms of religion. There is a joke amongst my Roman Catholic friends that any teacher or theologian worth their salt will have to be investigated by Rome at some point in their work. It’s a rite of passage.
One would expect the Scribes and Pharisees to be there. John makes short work of them. Calling someone a snake and the group a brood of vipers is pretty straight talk, but these are, after all, the people of power who are on the summit of the mountains of religious control and prejudice. Mountains that, he told us last week, are about to be downsized to the level of the plains. There is no way to escape the impermanence of power and privilege. The freeway is going to bulldoze its way right through the High Priest’s palace.
In my more inspired moments I think I understand why post-modern deconstruction has been good for the church. Although I long for the power and prestige that must have been a factor to draw me to this vocation all those years ago, I understand that John was correct, you can’t avoid the wrath that pulls down oppressive power. I understand even when it is difficult to live as a white South-African male now, and to see other mountains rising on what should be a level kingdom plain.
So the priests were duty bound to be there, listening to John.
What they are told however is deeply challenging. “Don’t think your dynasty that you trace back to Abraham will save you from being brought down. Like an axe cutting to the root, let me cut to the root of the problem with the Temple, there is no compassion! Discover that God’s work is compassion and you will realise you don’t have to be in the temple on the mountain top. You can be compassionate anywhere. In things as simple as sharing your surplus.
A surprising answer from someone who started out carving up the snakes with his locust stained tongue.
Less expected at the river sermon though, are his next group of questioners in the narrative. The Tax-collectors.
Who would have thought that these guys, who in our world would be regarded with the same disdain as loan sharks and traffic police (the South African variety who will accept on the spot payment of fines in cash, and small bills), could be attracted by a message of change?
I need to hit the pause button to help us understand this word repent. Too many years, and too many guilt inducing sermons, stand between us and the word that John included in his call. Repent in it’s ancient form, meant to change direction. Realizing that one is on the wrong path, one repents and goes another way. All the added weight of guilt, shame, blame, and boxes of Kleenex tissues is just unnecessary padding. Nonetheless, it is still fascinating that these financial grafters had a desire to change their lives.
Does this point to the truth of that Great Wesleyan teaching, “All people need to be saved”? Perhaps, but John’s answer, points to the next Wesleyan foundational understanding, “All people can be saved!” Even tax-collectors.
I wonder how many pastors in the church today would show John’s skill in counselling the change-desiring tax-collectors? He doesn’t demand that they give up their difficult and conflicted positions as Jews working as Roman agents. He simply says, “Be fair.” There will always be difficult and easily compromised jobs to do. Keep your values intact. Be ruled by compassion not greed.
Along similar lines, Luke introduces the next group of hearers simply as “soldiers”. We can’t be sure if these would be the hated Roman soldiers of the occupying force in Judea, or if they were the temple guards, accompanying the religious leaders to protect their security on this fact finding mission.
Whatever group of soldiers it might have been, and perhaps it was both, John’s response and invitation has a very contemporary ring to it. “Don’t abuse power for exploitation of the weak. Be satisfied with what you have.”
Of course in our world you don’t have to carry a gun to be able to abuse power, but sometimes it is a lever! Similarly there are many instruments of power that we can “lock and load” to ensure we get our way on the path to privilege and power. Soldiers face the temptation to use their might to get their way by force. Each partner, parent, priest, teacher, employer,and politician have at our disposal an arsenal of abuse with which we can wield power. John says,”You won’t find the kingdom down that road”
In next week’s reading of the Annunciation there is a disturbing phrase. The angel says to Mary, “the power from on high will overwhelm you.” Sounds abusive at one level, doesn’t it?
But remember what it generates.
The infant servant of peace!
Power needn’t exploit. Power can bring peace, compassion and a power of good.
This is the heart scape that John explores with us this third Advent Sunday.
It is a space where anyone may enter, Orthodox Traditionalist, Extortionist, Militarist may I continue with a contemporary list,Racist,Sexist,Atheist, Africanist, (ANY)ist?
Welcome to Emmanuel’s waiting room. Your only entrance requirement is the willingness to be changed by his truth. Observe your Open Heart scape. Change is possible.