The Third Sunday of Advent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 3:7-18

I don’t know if Jesus had any heroes. But if he did, one of them was probably John the Baptist. Not that they agreed on a lot of things. John was expecting, and no doubt wanted, a messiah a bit more aggressive in doling out the “wages of sin” than Jesus turned out to be. John might have been preparing the way for the “Lamb of God,” but he was really hoping for something more along the lines of a Rottweiler.

There were other differences too. Notable differences. John lived by a peculiar diet; Jesus ate and drank whatever was set before him. John told his disciples to fast; Jesus told his to feast. John wore the clothes of a prophet; Jesus wore no distinctive clothing. John said the only way to get right with God was by producing fruits worthy of repentance; Jesus said to come to God as a little child.

John proclaimed a God of unrelenting judgment; Jesus heralded a God of unlimited grace. John preached to sinners; Jesus identified with them. John scared people; Jesus healed them. Nevertheless, John impressed Jesus deeply.

And probably what impressed Jesus most about John was his authenticity, his “realness,” his being who and what he claimed to be. There was no duplicity in John. His allegiance to God was unwavering, the divine mission God had set before him unquestioned. And all of this impressed Jesus. Of all the people Jesus met in his lifetime, none of them, he said, was “greater” than John.

John was a mold-breaker. A difference-maker. And his methodology was fairly simple. Act your way into repentance. Don’t just “talk” repentance, “walk it.” John’s just the kind of guy that makes us good, comfortable church folk uncomfortable. Because he calls us to task–to responsibility. He’s not concerned about hurting feelings or embarrassing folks who claim to be something they’re not, who don’t live their lives according to what they profess with their lips, -who fake their faith. And he doesn’t think twice about telling those people that they’re no better than a nest of rattlesnakes.

Today’s gospel is crystal clear about John’s “prescription for repentance.” These aren’t vague suggestions, or little hints about spiritual values. They are, by God, sugar-free, real-life, this-world, nuts and bolts things to do that will effect true repentance in the individual who performs them. Guaranteed. And that’s why they scare us to death.

I was commiserating with a parishioner just this week about how we tried – both of us – to open ourselves to God’s will and follow that in our lives, and how that was almost regrettable–because it’s just so damned hard sometimes. But once you’ve done that, once you’ve taken that step, committed yourself. you can’t turn back. Well, you could, but that would be even harder, because you know better. (And, of course, neither of us really regrets the paths we have chosen, because we know, ultimately, finally, that has been and is and will be a blessing in our lives.)

But true religion often flies in the face of what we want religion to be–and do for us. We want it to be simple and sometimes it’s difficult. We want it to be clear and sometimes it’s fuzzy. We want it to be beneficial and sometimes it’s costly. We want blessing and sometimes it requires sacrifice—if it’s real.

John knew this. So where traditional religion (in his day) advocated a repentance marked by the putting on of sackcloth and ashes or offering appropriate sacrifices – a kind of ceremonial function – John called for concrete neighbor-love to be put into action. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” Tax collectors, collect honestly. Soldiers, live by your wages–not by extortion.

Notice, John doesn’t tell these people to flee from the world and become hermits in the wilderness. He doesn’t tell them to become Zealots and try to change the world by military means or revolution. He tells them to change what they can change – to change their lives where they are. To act out repentance through simple deeds of justice and loving kindness – to use what God gave you, (as a gift! – to use!) , and you will experience the power of repentance.

Don’t worry about being another Albert Schweitzer in Africa, or a Mother Teresa in India, in the radicalizing of your love. That might happen, but probably not. There are plenty of jails and hospitals and rest homes around here. There are Habitat houses and hospices and Meals on Wheels. There are feeding ministries right here in the church. There are lots of things you can do for your church with your money or your time–without waiting to be asked. You might even take the initiative to look around and see what needs to be done–or ask.

The point is opportunities abound for us to act our way into repentance, into a richer, fuller, more life-changing relationship with God. Wherever you are planted. Here. Next door. Down the street. Across town. Watch out and listen for the nudges God gives you. The urges, the inclinations, the whispers to move in certain directions of helpfulness.

Lastly, don’t just do it as a big-hearted “Christmas thing,” but as a larger movement of cultivating the habit of moving “Godward” at all times. Walter Brueggeman contends that biblical “justice” is the sorting out of what belongs to whom and returning it to them. Justice is the work of giving back.

In a world where we consider everything as “my” or “mine,” what John calls us back to is a world-view in which everything belongs to God. The question is not how much of my stuff will I give to God, but how much of God’s stuff will I keep?

And so, in these days when our understanding of God’s ownership of everything gets so out of whack—when our sense of self-sacrifice for the sake of others gets lost in the hustle and bustle of “acquirement” – acquisitive worldliness – John calls us back to God’s true ownership of all. And this truth comes to us most deeply as we let go of our excess, and unburden ourselves of what belongs to “me.” What must I hold on to?

There seems to be a “spiritual” law at work in the world about us, and one that Advent clearly confirms. That is, God does not seem to allow any great truth or blessing to come into our lives without some sort of sign or spiritual preparation preceding it. John the Baptist embodies the preparatory sign of the Great Coming–the Great Blessing in Jesus.

These first few weeks of Advent have been devoted to sign-watching, to listening to the forerunner. If we indeed have appropriated that sign, we have moved away, at least momentarily, from the pushing and shoving, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, to make room for the One who is to come: the One who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone once said, “To pray means to be willing to be naive.” And that is what John, finally and fully, calls us to do. To turn to God. To be naïve (in the best sense of that word—simple, childlike, undoubting). To expect a Deliverer. To await the “miracle of miracles”–the enfleshment of God.

To draw close to Bethlehem with open hands, and with a childlike heart. To make room in the inn of your heart by stilling the frenzy of creaturely activity. To welcome in that stillness the turning point of all human history–the coming of God in Jesus Christ.

To be naive enough–and bold enough–to experience God incarnate in the first birth of Jesus Christ, and in his second birth in each one of us.

May his coming bring blessing and joy to us all. In the Name of Christ, and in the Name of love.