Advent: Week 3
10 And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
Revised Standard Version Catholic
The Revised Standard Version of the
Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian
Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United
States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Last week, Luke introduced us to the adult John the Baptist, taking pains to anchor John’s preaching in the historical context of the day. We noticed that Luke was audacious enough to believe that the events and people he described – last week John’s ministry, this week John’s message,next week the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary – were as important on the stage of world history as were any of the mighty rulers Luke names.
This week covers the second half of Luke’s account of John’s ministry and we discover that, according to Luke, John is a fairly “old school” preacher who can’t resist a three-point sermon. The first point is eschatological warning of the coming end of time. The second revolves around ethical exhortation, instructing hearers how to prepare for this end. And the third point is the announcement and expectation of the coming messiah.
What’s striking about these points is that, put along sidethe drama of the eschatological warning and messianic expectation, John’sethical exhortation seems rather mild, even a bit lame. I mean, in response to the crowds understandable reaction to John’s warning — asking the prophet “What shall we do?” — John basically tells them that they out to be honest (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”), be kind (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”)and to work hard (“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”).
Come on, John, I’m tempted to ask, is that really all? This is pretty much what we learned in kindergarten. Is this really all it takes to avoid eschatological judgment and enter into paradise?
Apparently, according to John, the answer is, Yes!
Or more accurately, perhaps it’s more that everything –from warning and expectation to ethical exhortation – looks different in lightof the coming Christ. Jesus’ coming, John implies, affects every dimension of our lives, including how we regard each other and our ethical obligations to one another and the world. The kingdom, that is, doesn’t show up only in grand actions or heroic deeds. Rather, in the simple acts of sharing what we have,being honest with each other, and working hard and resisting the urge to be bullies, we are helping to usher in the kingdom that Jesus will soon announce.
Okay, look, I know that we don’t bring the kingdom; God does. But it seems like one of the chief ways through which we can witness to God’s coming kingdom is to actually live like it’s here, like we believe it’s really coming, like we think it actually matters.
Which means that we have opportunities all around us to be the ordinary saints John calls us to be. And lest we think our everyday actions of being honest, kind, and hardworking don’t matter, ask yourself this: What would it look like if the political candidates running for president acted this way? What about our elected leaders? Or our law enforcement officers? I suspect our world work a whole lot better.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s get more personal: What would it look like if we went out from church looking for opportunities to be honest, kind, and hardworking? What if we determined to seek out such opportunities because we’ve heard that extraordinary acts of grace are within the reach of ordinary people. What if we believed – and acted on the belief – that being honest, kind, and hardworking in a culture that is impatient, immature, and fearful really makes a difference.
Keep in mind where we’re at. Not just two weeks shy of Christmas, but living in a nation and world constantly afraid that the next terrorist crime or random act of violence will happen around our street corner.And because of this fear we change how we live and, at times, even risk forgetting who we are. And when we do that, the terrorists win. So what might happen if we pledged that in light of the dangerous world we live in we intended to redouble our efforts to be honest, kind, and hardworking, meeting the needs of those around us, reaching out to help those who struggle, and in all these ways witness to our confidence that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make a difference? I think what would happen is that we would not only have a demonstrably better world but also a more vibrant church, one animated by John’s conviction that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
What John offers them, that is, is entirely within our reach. It may not be easy – we get accustomed to getting what we want and hoarding what we have – but it is still possible. Nor does John ask us to leave our current stations. The day after hearing John preach, presumably, the tax collectors are still collecting and the mercenaries still soldiering. But they are doing it better, dong it differently, doing it with the needs of their neighbours before them.
Which is interesting, when you think about it. I mean,caught between eschatological judgment and messianic consummation, the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.
This is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing. In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbours. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work?Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school. Learning everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven made (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember).And the list goes on.
Yes, this is a promise that we are all invited into. Or, to put it another way, this is a promise for those living “in the meantime.” We too, you see, are caught between judgment and hope every day of our lives, even when we don’t name it that way. The judgment may not feel eschatological; it may just be not living up to others’ or our own expectations. And the hope may not always be messianic; it may just be the deep desire that things will get better. But wherever we are, John has a message for those living in the meantime, struggling to be faithful in the time between the giving of the promise and its being kept once and for all.
I know all this can seem like small potatoes when the whole world feels at times like it’s falling apart. But I think that’s part of John’s message – and Jesus’ witness – that precisely because God has promised to redeem all creation in due time, we are free – here and now – to tend the little corner of the world in which we find ourselves. There are, according to John and Jesus, no small gestures, but rather varied – and contagious! – acts of both random and intentional kindness and honesty that really do make a difference in the world, particularly when caught up in the faith that in Jesus, God has drawn near to shower us – all of us – with the good news of grace, mercy, and redemption.