This is the fourth in a series of Advent reflections on Luke 3:7-18. I used to commute to Chicago every week for seminary. I rarely needed to go down to the “miracle mile” on Michigan Avenue, but every time I did, there would be a guy talking about the end of the world. What would it look like today if John the Baptist was preaching his message in our town today?
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.” – Luke 3:10-14 (NRSV)
Have you ever seen one of those sidewalk preachers? You know the ones I mean. They stand on a corner or at the train station and shout things like: “Repent! The end of the world is near!” or “You are a sinner – turn to Jesus and be saved!” Honestly, do they really think anyone is listening…
But you know, there is this one guy I see all the time. I walk past him on my way to work. Usually, I ignore him or I’m on my phone. But the other day, something was different.
I noticed that some people actually stopped and slowed down to listen. I had some extra time on my hands, so I slowed down, too. It was interesting watching the crowd. Usually, I just hear the guy yelling. But today, people were talking back to him. Not yelling things at him – I’ve heard that before. But that day, it was more like a conversation. They were asking him questions – and he was responding in way that made me wonder.
As I got closer, he was saying something about “bearing fruit worthy of your repentance.” Bear fruit? What on earth does that mean? I thought we just confessed our sins and that was it. Isn’t that right? We confess our sins and God forgives them?
While I was thinking about this, somebody else actually asked him what he meant.
A police officer was there. Maybe he sees this guy all the time, too. He said, “What should I do? What does that mean for me to bear fruit? To repent?”
This guys says, “Treat everyone with justice. Don’t assume that someone is guilty until it has been proved.” I thought that was a surprising response. The police officer probably sees people every day that look pretty guilty, and I’m guessing some aren’t very nice about it either. What would it be like to treat everyone equally, with justice? What if the prostitute on the corner was treated the same as the rich person who is pulled over for speeding? What if someone of color caught stealing from a store was treated the same as someone of white skin caught stealing from their company?
While I was still thinking about this, I heard another voice ask, “What about me? What should I do?” It came from a woman who looked like she was some sort of executive. The guy looked at her and said, “Make ethical decisions. Do what is right rather than what is easy. Be honest.” She looked surprised at his response. Something in her look seemed like this hit home. I wondered what she was dealing with at work.
Then this kid called out, “What should I do? I’m just a kid.” His mother looked horrified that he was talking to this guy. But the guy just looked at him – almost kindly – and said, “Be kind to those you meet. When you see someone who everyone is leaving out or making fun of – don’t make fun of them. Go over and talk with them. Invite them to play.“
As I watched and listened to everything that was going on, I wondered if I was thinking about repentance all wrong. Maybe it wasn’t just about being sorry but acting differently the next time. Is that what he was talking about when he said we should bear fruit?
After all, a tree bears fruit after it has been watered, and received sunlight and been cared for. The fruit is the result of what has already happened. What did that mean for me?
And before I knew what I was doing, I called out, “What should I do?”