St John’s, Centralia—Luke 3:7–17, Philippians 4:4–9
If you pay close attention to what’s going on in church at this time of year, you’ll eventually notice that the season of Advent has a very peculiar shape. Next Sunday we’ll be able to sing, “It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!” because we’ll be hearing about the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary and telling her … well, you know how that one goes. Two weeks ago, it was all doom and gloom. We heard Jesus talk about some really scary stuff—wars, natural disasters, violent social unrest—that would be signs of the end of the world as we know it.
So the beginning of Advent is apocalyptic, the end of Advent is Christmas-y, and the middle of Advent, where we are now, last Sunday and today, is … well, kind of awkward. The star of the show is John the Baptist, who—let’s face it—is just not a fun guy. He’s rude and crude. You would never invite him to a holiday party. He’s dressed in a camel skin. His diet consists of insects and wild honey. He always seems angry, and he doesn’t mind insulting people. Clearly, he doesn’t care what people think of him. We wish he would either … you know … clean up or go away.
John talks about repentance, and repentance is absolutely nobody’s favorite subject. Repentance invites us first to self-examination—as Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, to take a “fearless moral inventory” of ourselves—and when is that ever fun? And the result of repentance, most likely, will be that we’ll feel guilty, and that we should make some changes in our habits of speaking and acting, which is never not painful. This all certainly violates the holiday spirit, right?!
But if we work past our initial misgivings, and attend carefully to John’s actual words in this passage from Luke, we might find ourselves a little bit relieved rather than put off or intimidated. Perhaps somewhat to John’s surprise, the people we read about in this passage actually listen, they actually take him seriously. He apparently succeeds in “putting the fear of God into them.” They want to escape the dire consequences that he predicts, so they ask him, “What should we do? How can we get out of this mess?” There are three categories of his listeners who put questions to him: what Luke calls “the crowds,” then tax collectors, then soldiers.
First, the crowds. John’s advice to them can be summed up in one word—share. In other words, something most of us learned in kindergarten! Play well with others. Don’t hoard all the good stuff that you have just because you caught a break, and stumbled into the right place at the right time. Share it with those who weren’t as lucky.
Next come the tax collectors. Now, remember, tax collectors were considered the scum of the earth, absolute social vermin. They were collaborators with an oppressive occupying government, and, the way their arrangement with that government was structured, they were incentivized to cheat, to gouge. So what was John’s counsel to them? Don’t cheat. Don’t gouge. Be fair, abide by the rules, don’t try to exploit the people you’re collecting taxes from, just because you can. Now, isn’t that the very image of the “good person” we all aspire to be?
What about the soldiers? These were probably not members of the Roman legion, but mercenaries who had a similar financial arrangement with Rome as did the tax collectors; they had an incentive to engage in racketeering. What does John say? Don’t be greedy. Don’t give others a reason to resent and hate you.
None of this is moral rocket science, is it? There’s nothing in what John says that is obscure or complicated or elite or mystical. It’s just good, basic, self-evident personal morality. Be nice, have good sandbox manners, don’t be a scumbag. It’s not even particularly inspiring. There’s no call to “change the world,” or even make it “a better place.” Just behave and mind your own business.
John warns us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” But what does that fruit look like? Apparently, it looks like ordinary, boringly wholesome, self-evident stuff. And this is precisely the good news for today: Bearing fruit worthy of repentance is a clear and attainable goal. Which means, of course, that we are pretty much without excuse if we fall short of it!
We can even “do” repentance before we “feel” repentant. So often we think of repentance as something that needs to be profoundly felt, something that comes from the heart. Well, it probably should in most cases, and usually is. But it doesn’t have to be, at least not immediately. It can be a decision, an act of the mind and the will. There’s no need to wait for inspiration or a bolt-from-the-blue mystical insight, because what we need to do is so unmistakably obvious! It’s OK if our feelings about it lag. They’ll catch up!
And when we do eventually feel repentant, we’re going to like the way we feel, because it will lead immediately to indescribable joy. The traditional epistle reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, back when there was only a one-year lectionary, was the passage from Philippians that we get today, in Year C of the three-year cycle: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” The sort of basic good behavior that John the Baptist talks about is the practical fruit of repentance, but the emotional and spiritual fruit of repentance is the kind of joy and low anxiety that Paul urges on the Philippians. And right on the heels of such joy, Paul says, is “the peace of God, which passes all understanding.” Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.