This is the first in a series of Advent reflections on 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. – Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
The message of John the Baptist is ancient, but timely. John’s message wasn’t really new. It was the same as prophets before him, for centuries before him – as God calls us to repentance. But John’s message is not just repentance but a life that is changed in response. I think that might be what drew people to John the Baptist. There was something in his message that was both familiar and different.
Maybe it was John’s certainty that the Kingdom of God was indeed near – that it wasn’t far off. And that it wasn’t the end of the world. Somehow the Kingdom is something that is yet to happen – about to happen. And maybe we have a part to play in that.
When I imagine John the Baptist, I think of sidewalk preachers. Maybe a little crazy-looking, odd clothes, a loud voice.
Can you see and hear him yelling to the crowds, “Repent!”
But unlike the sidewalk preachers that we see today, people didn’t cross to the other side of the Jordan and look away when they saw John. People actually travelled out of the city to see him. They left their homes, took time off from work, left the familiarity of the Temple to go out into the wilderness to hear a message that wasn’t new but was touching people in a new way.
Right after this passage, is Jesus’ baptism. Just like the crowds, Jesus and the disciples have come to hear John’s message and to be baptized. Of course, Jesus was different. He didn’t need to repent or be baptized – and John recognized this. John lived his message: He bore the fruit of repentance and awareness that Kingdom of God is near.
John wasn’t so caught up in his message or in the yelling that he was unaware of the presence of God when it stood right before him.
In Advent, our focus is usually on the birth of Jesus. We may refer to Christmas as Jesus’ birthday, which helps to make us more comfortable with our gift-giving. This is OK, and it is way to teach our children and make a distinction between the secular holiday that takes place from the day after Thanksgiving through December 26th (the 2nd biggest shopping day of the year) and the Christian celebration of Christmas. But we’re not children anymore.
Our Advent preparation is more than a daily devotion and a nativity set. In Advent, we actively acknowledge that the Kingdom of God is near. Jesus even said that it was among us, and that’s still true today.
In what way is the Kingdom of God near today?