I’ve been ordained for over 17 years now, and I still think that somehow we’ll get a different gospel reading on the Third Sunday of Advent instead of a second dose of John the Baptist. And every year I am wrong. We gather to light the third candle of our Advent wreath—the pink one!—signifying our great joy expressed in our other lessons with the word, “Rejoice!” And then John leaps up from the wilderness and exclaims, “Repent!” It boggles the mind, and feels like a bit of ecclesiastical whiplash. Is it “Rejoice!” or “Repent”? And why is this the message of the third Sunday of Advent, when we’re now less than two weeks from the manger scene?
A sermon based on Luke 3.
John starts his message rather forcefully. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts. “You children of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Which is all ironic, isn’t it? Surely the ones showing up want to hear what John has to say. They choose to make their way from the city out into the wilderness in order to hear him, and possibly follow him. He needs to read Dale Carnegie’s classic tome on How to Win Friends and Influence People because this ain’t it. Calling the ones who are your prime audience slithery and forked-tongue children of snakes wouldn’t fly today; imagine if I did that each week. You’d be able to roll a bowling ball down that center aisle without hitting anyone if I did that too often. And surely John had to know that it was his own words that had warned them to flee the coming wrath. His message was making its way back to Jerusalem, and so they came in droves to hear it for themselves. He was the one who warned them. He was the one who exhorted them.
My seminary professor, Wes Avram, focuses in on that nugget found in this text in order open it up for us. The idea that John’s words are an exhortation, and not just “a command-and response.” Prof. Avram writes, “Normally taken as finger-pointing to good behavior, the richer meaning of [exhortation] is lost on modern hearers. For these urgent calls carry a fuller ethical intent than simple commands. They summon a way of being, an integrity of action, memory, and identity, that is not only compelling, but can even be comforting and reassuring. One exhorts others to act out of the deepest values of the tradition and the people that they claim, and that the exhorter claims with them.” John isn’t just heaping on the shame and guilt as much as reminding the ones who’ve walked out to the River Jordan what they already know. His message is the one the prophets proclaimed before him in the long tradition of their faith. That they have far too often ignored the poor and the needy, focusing instead on their own security and desires. That they lined their own pockets without considering the impact it has on their neighbors.
Interestingly, John reminds them most of all that while they might try to rest on their laurels as descendants of Abraham, God could take the overly abundant rocks out there in the wilderness and turn them into Abraham’s children. In other words, pedigree won’t get you far when it comes to addressing the wrongs you commit. God doesn’t simply allow for whitewashing based on your name alone. You must repent and seek forgiveness.
So, the ones gathered start asking for specifics. They get down to brass tacks to see what this all really means in their daily lives. “What should we do?” asks the crowd. And John doesn’t tell them to believe a certain creed, or to pray a certain prayer, or even just be truly sorry for their wrongs. He tells them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” Now I haven’t recently headed to my coat closet to count up how many I have hanging there, but I can unequivocally state that it is more than 2. Or 3. Or even 4. I’ve got fleece jackets to match different outfits so I can be somewhat stylish. I’ve got my pick of winter coats depending on the temperature or whether I’m wearing a suit or jeans or taking Charlie Brown out for a walk. There’s my yellow rain coat, and the puffy vest I like when there’s a slight chill in the air. Oh I’ve got coats, John. And we haven’t even turned our attention to my pantry yet, with its weeks’—if not months’—worth of food ready to go when I want it, all lined up by category. Of course, there will be times when I open those cupboard doors and think I’ve got nothing at all to eat in our house, when what I really mean is that there isn’t anything that tickles my fancy because I want take-out. So from the Baptizer’s perspective, I am certainly hoarding food. And—he reminds me—I’ve got neighbors who are hungry.
He does the same thing when the tax collectors and soldiers ask similar questions. He tells them to not expect more than they need, and to certainly not take advantage of the poor. What he’s telling them, of course, is that their repentance means absolutely nothing if there’s not a change in their actions as well. They need to bear fruit worthy of repentance, there must be something tangible being put into place to actually show that they mean it. That they truly seek to repent, to turn around, no matter the cost. That they are willing to change their ways, and offer proof as well.
Which isn’t at all how we imagine it. We think as long as we clear it with the big guy upstairs, it’s all good. That as long as we say “Sorry,” it’s enough to assure us that our ticket is punched for the pearly gates. Not so, according to John. That’s merely the beginning, the easy part of the whole equation. You must have works to back it up, where you change someone’s life for the better. The person who is cold and needing a coat. Or the one who is battling food insecurity and could use a hot meal. Or the one whose life is upended based on the systems we adhere to in our country. Or the people that we nonchalantly squeeze from across the world, who work for snake-belly low wages making the stuff we buy on the cheap at Target. I mean it’s all there, and we know it, and John’s exhorting us, but we forget. Or maybe we ignore him. We’re so eager to arrive at Bethlehem, that we disregard the reality of what’s in front of us. I mean, who really wants to hear from John two weeks out from the manger?
All of this leads Prof. Avram to ask, “Whose message is strong enough to lead us to the repentance to which we are called?” He goes on to answer his own question: “Not the church’s, for it is too much a snake pit. Not our own insight, for we are as needy as anyone in the crowd—hoarding coats and food when others are in need. We are as the tax collectors—dependent on unjust structures for our livelihood. We are as the occupying army—caught in a culture of exploitation and violence.” Dr. Avram rejects all these, recognizing that the exhortation to seek forgiveness can only come from one place, from, as he puts it, “the One who is coming.” That One’s exhortation is “calling [us] back to what [we] claimed in [our] baptism, and uniting the church in a call to integrity, self-reflection, mutual confession, and openness to the One who puts in us our Advent hope.”
And, friends, that is reason to rejoice. That is the source of our joy. While we may not like needing to do that self-reflection, confessing our wrongs, and taking the next step to real, substantial change, it can indeed bring us deep and abiding joy. It is not just that Jesus comes to bring us forgiveness, it’s also so we can then live in a way that brings hope and life to others. So let us repent, and amend our ways, and then share that hope by giving away our excess, working against the systems of injustice, and refusing to give into the easy allure of violence and power. Let us remember the call of God to live faithfully, working to establish the kingdom of love. Let us repent, and return to the One who is to come.