The scripture readings we hear throughout Advent focus on this theme of anticipation and preparation. Through all three years of the lectionary cycle we hear the prophets of Hebrew scripture promising God’s salvation through a messiah to come, and during these two middle weeks of Advent, our gospel readings recount the ministry and preaching of John the Baptizer.
The gospel writers tell us about his odd garb – camels’ hair - and his peculiar diet – locusts and wild honey - but mostly they recall the dramatic phenomenon of crowds going out from the towns and cities into the countryside to hear John, and to receive the ritual of baptism that he offered.
John didn’t go into the towns to get attention and spread his message. Luke tells us that “the word of God came to John in the wilderness”, and he traveled throughout the region around the Jordan in his preaching.
Many scholars believe that John’s spiritual awareness may have been formed by time spent among the Essenes, a sect of monastic and mystic Jews whose theology focused on anticipation of God’s Messiah. (The Essnes, who lived in isolated communities and lived an ascetic lifestyle produced the Dead Sea Scrolls that have been so useful in modern times in helping us to understand the biblical world.)
This morning’s reading from Luke gives us a summary of John’s teaching. The first thing I always find striking is the harshness of his critique of his listeners. “You brood of vipers”, he begins, speaking to the crowds. Other gospel writers have John directing this invective toward the Pharisees and Sadducees, but Luke tells us John addressed it to his listeners as a whole.
Would you have stuck around to hear more, if the preacher you had traveled a good distance to hear started out this way? Clearly, there was something very compelling in John’s person and his message. There was something going on that caused John’s listeners to pause rather than either arguing or turning their backs, some readiness in the people – perhaps even some longing – for the words he offered.
John’s words to the crowd stood very much within the tradition of the prophets of Israel, who for generations had called their communities to accountability, and who foresaw judgement on the horizon.
As had his prophetic predecessors, John called for repentance, for turning around and re-orienting, metanoia in Greek, turning away from a life orientation that reflected the values of a culture that was not in keeping with the call and the commands of God. John warned against the complacent self-delusion that because we belong to the right club, because we have the right credentials on our resumes, we will escape being held to account.
In, again, longstanding prophetic tradition, John called for right action, and not just right words. “Fruits worthy of repentance”, he told them, will still the axe that waits to cut down the barren tree.
And this is where the interaction between John and his listeners takes a turn. “What shall we do?”, they ask him.
And John’s answer is pretty wonderful. He offers the advice that what they need to do is not so very difficult, that it is well within their grasp.
“Share”, he says to those who presumably do not have much.
“Be fair”, he tells the tax collectors: don’t use your position to take advantage of others’ vulnerability.
“Don’t bully”, he directs the soldiers: don’t use your position of power to better your own lot. “Be satisfied with what you have been given.”
John’s counsel sounds like it comes from the Robert Fulghum school of thought – you remember his book, “All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. It also echoes Moses final exhortation to the people of Israel before his death, knowing that he would not enter the Promised Land with them: Choose life. (Dt. 30:19 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. (Dt 30:11)
In helping them to understand the repentance they needed to practice, John did not tell the tax collectors that they needed to abandon their responsibilities to Rome. He didn’t demand that the soldiers become pacifists. Let’s note that Jesus sometimes did make just such extreme demands – “Leave your nets”, or “Sell all that you have”. John, in fleshing out what it means to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”, simply asked his listeners to serve as decent human beings in the contexts in which they find themselves.*
As I work at being faithful, I can generally remember that Jesus’ commands are ideals, practices “to be aspired to”, and that I am never going to achieve them. It is easy to feel dispirited by the conclusion that I will never measure up, however. This may be why I find John’s teaching as we hear it today from Luke so appealing, so conforting: he offers a “bloom where you are planted” message.
Pastor David Lose (whom you have heard me quote many times) summarizes John’s advice this way:
“Fidelity does not have to be heroic. There are opportunities to do God’s will, to be God’s people, all around us. These opportunities are shaped by our context: the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted. But make no mistake, opportunities abound. John may have come from the wilderness, but the crowds — and we — live in the towns, villages, and marketplace, and these, too, can be places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity to God through service to neighbor.”
Unlike many who came before him, but foreshadowing the one who way he prepared, John’s message applied to everyone who had ears to hear, and it certainly speaks to us.
As we pause and practice quiet waiting, quiet listening during this Advent season, may we receive John’s words with open hearts. May we take seriously the call to live our lives bearing fruits of repentance. May we each find ways to do our parts in preparing the way for the inbreaking of the Holy One among us, and for the building up of God’s Realm.
I closing, I wanted to share one more reflection on Advent that I read and found inspiration in this week. These are the words of Howard Thurman, twentieth century pastor and theologian. They were posted this week by my colleague Anna Woofenden.
In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen,
we can hear the whisper of the heart
giving strength to weakness,
courage to fear,
hope to despair.
Listen to the long stillness:
New life is stirring
New dreams are on the wing
New hopes are being readied:
Humankind is fashioning a new heart
Humankind is forging a new mind
God is at work.
This is the season of Promise.
Howard Thurman, posted by Rev. Anna Woofenden
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