With some hilarity, I was imagining what it would be like to copy John the Baptist and start my reflection by insulting you. In my imaginings, I wondered how long you might last before you walked out, or made formal complaints to the Bishop, or refused to take communion with me. How quickly could I empty the church? Do you think calling you ‘snakes’ and ‘vipers’, treacherous, poisonous and hypocritical might just do it? In my defense, I would blame John and his example, because John was very clear with the crowd who had gathered to listen to him about God’s expectations; and he wanted to make sure he had their complete attention.
Let us remember where John is preaching. John, prophet, preacher and baptiser is standing by the River Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s message and actions are fiercely interrogating and shaping our relationship with God in this Advent season. He is a strong figure in Luke’s Gospel.
Last week we learned about John as God’s messenger, inviting us all to be faithful messengers like him, crying in the wilderness, preparing God’s way, making paths straight, filling in the valleys and flattening the hills, straightening and smoothing the paths, so ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (Luke 3:6)
John’s call to action leaves us without any wriggle room and the choices we make about our lives, our relationship with God and with each other are laid bare.
I feel a bit skewered by John’s expectations, about what repentance and forgiveness look like and feel like, where unexpected glimmers and moments of great joy may emerge into our lives. Where the transformation in our relationships occurs between us, in us, within God’s loving presence because we can’t help ourselves; or can we?
Jesus’ gospel, his good news about love cannot be fully understood until we’ve first faced John the Baptist’s gospel of repentance. Repentance, forgiveness, restitution, remembering, letting go, and in the end, giving the woundedness and hurt to God and letting in the joy of loving which is beyond, through and totally within God’s loving salvation is our starting point.
John’s message is sharp and his tone is one of warning. He recognised our inability to stick with God’s invitation. John reminded us, love cannot be sustained apart from conversion, change, repentance and forgiveness. John clearly defines for us, real repentance and sorrow at harm done, whether intentional or not, by its fruits.
Genuine faithfulness to God does not depend on a mild affection or loyalty towards a remote, patronising, patriarchal God who keeps your world steady as it goes, but faithfulness rather responds in a moment by bringing together and uniting word and act in repentance and transformation, changing everything, over and over again. Sisters and brothers, there is no more time for procrastination.
It seems to me John and Jesus are united by one characteristic. They are disturbers of the peace, our peace, our worldviews, our expectations and our privileges. So like John, I repeat the question, are you resisting his message or embracing it?
John says to his listeners, ‘Don’t think for one moment you can get away with claiming Abraham as your ancestor to get you into God’s good books. If you are repentant, you need to produce the appropriate results to show God. Don’t just talk about it, produce something new in your life, upend your life for God’s kingdom. Don’t hide behind your traditions, customs and practices, your privileges and expectations, your excuses and delays. I tell you God can raise up any number of you at any time. Your traditions or ancestry do not make you special or different or saved.’
What happens next between John and the crowd is a remarkable conversation which leaves us in no doubt what God invites from us if we really want to be disciples. True repentance is about change, changing ourselves and the world around us, with God’s help. True repentance is about returning to God and finding joy in the light of God’s love.
When the people around John asked him, ‘What should we do?’ he gave them very practical answers. He said, if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. In other words, if you’re really listening hard to the gospel, you will know it as a gospel of shared lives. If these types of acts aren’t happening, then we’re not listening to God.
The tax collectors asked the same question, ‘What should we do?’ These were people collecting taxes at rates of about 30 to 40% from people of whom about 90% lived in poverty. John said: ‘Take no more than is due.’
And I wonder how many of us turn up to church and provide for their families, but participate in workplaces which pay minimum wages, expect people to work overtime without pay, and extort everything possible with corrupt, cruel policies and practices to make unjust profits from slave labour and say or do nothing.
The soldiers referred to by Luke were Jewish police, men employed by the Sanhedrin to enforce Jewish law. This abuse of fellow Jews was in direct violation of their covenantal responsibilities: in John’s teaching, repentance for tax collectors and Jewish police meant turning back to the life of communal justice required by God.
As I put my imagination to work again, I think this world will be destroyed by greed and violence. As Christians we must put up barriers to both greed and violence. Jesus and John put this truth at the centre of their teaching. However, many Christians ignore this. Addictive greed knows no satisfaction. Even though many make more money, earn higher wages, buy bigger houses, cars, more expensive holidays and more stuff; it’s never, ever enough. Somehow, we always need more, which simply does not work.
We need to hear God speaking into our hearts through John and Jesus, bringing a conversion away from the way of greed and selfishness, as this is not the way of love.
All this behaviour and belief is destroying our planet, God’s awesome creation, and us. There is a direct line from the culture of greed and selfishness to a culture of violence which is the way we live.
In John’s preaching we hear the beginnings of a call to a new society. This is radical discipleship and is a God-inspired revolution Christianity should be bringing about. However, to avoid a confrontation and any change to our comfortable lives and worldviews, we’ve spiritualised the gospel and what it calls for. We’ve focused on establishing a gospel asking us to commit to a personal relationship with Jesus and carefully avoided any question about our lifestyles.
John does not allow for this type of spiritualising. He says: ‘Exact no more for your service than what you have a right to; (3:13); don’t intimidate people. Don’t manipulate them. No bribing, blackmailing or extortion, be content with your pay’. (3:14)
Untransformed people are always focused on power, controlling others, manipulating them, using them for gain. We value relationships by how they can be useful to us, which makes love and true community impossible. This gospel frees us from this exhausting and unsatisfying worldview and life experience.
Then, as the expectations of the people began to rise about John and they wondered if he was the Messiah, John is clear he is only the beginning of the gospel, of conversion, change, repentance and practical decisions. There is one coming after him who will complete and fulfill the message of good news for all people.
John’s radical message was so controversial, it got him imprisoned and killed. Just like Jesus. Sharing a story of a gentle, pious, non-controversial and compliant Jesus will ensure you live quite happily and comfortably with the privileged and powerful. Preach and share the gospel of repentance and the practical implications of God’s love for social, economic and political justice, and you will likely be repudiated, your reputation and life may be destroyed.
Yet, without any hesitation, I know this message is also one of joy, hope and faith. Jesus baptises us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is not a comfortable, gentle invitation. It is the promise of a new life with new ways. It is the beginning of the new creation in which we are living. As we look forward to Jesus’ birth, we can look forward with confidence to the fulfilment of the loving promises God made to us, with joy.
The Lord be with you.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. The Crossroads Publishing Company, USA.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Eds] 2014. Feasting on the Gospels. Luke Vol. 1. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky.