Friday, December 11, 2009
Reflections about the Third Sunday of Advent
7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
To connect to text week's resources for all the readings follow this link: http://www.textweek.com/yearc/adventc3.htm; to look at resources for the Gospel reading follow this link: http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/lk3b.htm
The passage can be found here at Oremus: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Luke+3:7-18&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
We continue this week the story of John the Baptist's proclamation of baptism. We remember the uniqueness of this baptism as a metanoia or turning that is essential bedrock within the catholic tradition of our church. While there were many prophets in that time and scholars recognize that baptism was not unusual, we see in the Gospel a self differentiation for the follower of Jesus in the lukan community that sees baptism as a primary way a Christian marks their choice to follow Jesus. We can easily imagine in this unique combination of accepting an ordered life in the manner of Jesus and the water of baptism as a cleansing ritual the growth of our understanding that sins are forgiven and life is forever changed in baptism.
John the Baptizer is not offering us an opportunity to adopt his way of life where home is the desert, clothes are skins, foods are grasshoppers and wild honey, there are no alcoholic beverages and prayer and fasting mark the hours of the day. John is offering us in his proclamation and act of baptism an opportunity to turn away from our previous life to a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is very possible that some of these words, which make up the synoptic tradition, are deeply rooted in the earliest Christian documents of sayings and traditions. Sometimes these documents are called Q.
We know in the Gospel of Luke that the Pharisees and high priests will reject John's baptisms (7.30 and 20.5). Nevertheless, crowds of people looking for a savior come out to the Jordan to hear the message and receive the baptism, to take a sacramental journey into the wild places and wash as a pilgrimage towards ever new and transformed life.
They are met there by the wild John the Baptist calling them vipers! Jesus also will call those who live questionable lives with alternative and destructive intentions vipers (23.33). The people who come to John are recognized by him as people who are in need of change. They are in fact creatures of the desert place and the washing may prepare them for the coming kingdom, and deliverance from the wildness of this world into the grace of the coming reign of Christ.
We might well remember Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians 1:10 where Paul says, "you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming”.
In verse 8 we see the word “repentance," metanoia. The word in Greek literally means returning, or coming back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel. See also Exodus 19:3-6 (where God commands Moses to tell the Israelites “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”); 24:3-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34 (“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. ... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts ... they shall all know me ... I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more”).
John the baptizer is demanding right living based on a sincere search for God’s will (Matthew 7:15-20; Galatians 5:22-23) and suited to the promise of repentance. We see this ancient covenant connection and the life of our faith ancestors throughout Luke's Gospel and Jesus teaching as we are reminded of “Abraham our ancestor”. See also Luke: 1:54-55, 72-73; 3:34; 13:16, 28-29; 19:9; 20:37; Acts 3:13, 25; 7:17, 32; 13:26; 26:6; 28:20; John 8:33, 39; Romans 2:28, 29. We are then named a desert people who have found our life and our faith in the bosom of God and deep within the well of his heart. For those who choose to live a life oriented on the Christ and his reign we see the promise and potential of a life lived not in scarcity but the bounty of grace which promised manna from heaven, that the lilies be clothed, that the poor would have good things and the hungry fed.
Verses 10 - 14 are unique to Luke's Gospel. Here we see the Gospel's proclamation that right living has to do with sharing what we are given, and that it is characterized by a special concern, sensitivity and action on behalf of the poor. Jesus in Luke's Gospel will speak clearly about stewardship of possessions and so central was this to Jesus' teachings that we see it mirrored throughout the Acts, see Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35.
We get a sense of the rich and the poor being unified in this proclamation of change and baptism, and in their ministry one to another. We cannot read verse 12ff without remembering here we are to hear of the story in Luke's Gospel of Zacchaeus the tax collector who gives half of his possessions to the poor.
So powerful was John's message and such a figure of hope and transformation was he that others believed he was the messiah. So it is the last verses of this passage that we see him continue to refocus our attention, beginning in verse 15, on the coming of Christ who ultimately will provide the Holy Spirit to the baptism of water. How often do we move into positions of power or authority or ministry and the glory which rightly belongs to Christ comes to us? In this advent season we are challenged to remember the humility of the Christ family as described in the Gospels and be challenged to do as John the baptizer does and point forward to the Christ who is truly working in us and our life together greater things than we can ask for or imagine.
As I think about these verses and the opportunity to preach this weekend, I am wondering how the season of Advent can serve to reorient our lives to our baptismal promises? How can our time, in the midst of preparations for Christmas celebrations, help us to see that we are to change, take a step back into the life of Christ? That we are called and challenged to live a particular life of continuous returning to the desert and waters of baptism for refreshment in a life's long journey. When we come to this place of Advent, we are to realize our place within the faith family of Abraham and seek not only to be reconciled with our Jesus but also to be reconciled with the right living which is to give to the poor, and to aid those who go without.
I recently read this Christmas rant: http://expatminister.org/2009/12/04/something-i-have-to-get-off-my-chest/. What was particularly stunning were these figures. Americans will spend some $450 billion to celebrate Christmas. In comparison, it would only take $10 billion to ensure clean water for every human being in the world, and $13 billion to keep folks from going hungry. Certainly these are numbers to make one pause in the face of Zaccheaus who gives away half of what he possesses to the poor. What if we lived out the change and right living John the Baptist offers us not only at Christmas but throughout the year?
- "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
- "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
- "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
- "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
- "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
- "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
- "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
- "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball