I always find the readings for the third Sunday of Advent kind of funny. Maybe funny is not the right word. Puzzling is better.
We start with a clear and encouraging theme.
Our Advent prayers at the beginning of the service are all about joy. The prophet Zephaniah says, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Our Canticle includes “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
That’s all great. The passage from Paul in particular is one of my favorites.
And then there is our Gospel reading about John the Baptist with its memorable opening. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Every year I have the same reaction. Where’s the joy in that? How does John’s message fit with our otherwise joyful readings?
So, I struggle with John. John has always seemed a little too severe. It’s hard to imagine John relaxing with friends after a hard day of preaching.
Jesus himself says something similar. Jesus noted that John fasted so much people thought he might be possessed by some kind of demon. Jesus was very different. Jesus would eat and drink with just about anyone. Jesus attended supper parties so often that people accused him of gluttony and drunkenness (Matt 11:18-19). The accusations against John and Jesus were not true, of course. But they tell us something about the personal style of each one. I must say, I prefer Jesus’ style to John’s.
Still, Jesus praises John as perhaps the greatest human being who ever lived (Matt 11:11). That’s high praise. And people flocked to hear John’s message, which apparently sounded to them like good news, despite the whole “brood of vipers” thing.
So, is there joy in John’s preaching? Can we hear John’s proclamation of repentance as good news? The answer is yes, but we have to look for it.
It helps to remember where John came from. His was a prominent family. John’s father was a high-ranking priest in Jerusalem. His mother was descended from the same priestly line. John was literally a miracle child, born to them in their old age.
I think what John’s childhood must have been like. Life was harder then than now. But John must have had all the comforts available at that time to a beloved child of prosperous parents in a big city.
Then, at some point, John gave all that up. John retreated from comfortable city life into the wilderness to live off the land and to be alone with God.
What inspired John to do that, to renounce everything?
The Gospels don’t tell us, but we can make a good guess. Presumably John had the same hostile reaction to some of the less savory parts of life in Jerusalem that Jesus did.
Jesus was so offended at corruption in the Temple that he drove out the money-changers. Jesus found the Temple leadership so objectionable that he publicly attacked them as hypocrites and told parables about the judgment they would face.
John’s father was a good and holy man. But John’s father worked in that corrupt temple with that hypocritical leadership. John grew up seeing exactly what Jesus saw and criticized. Given what we know about John, I’m guessing his reaction to the religious elite of the city was at least as strong as Jesus’.
As I picture John, he eventually got so disgusted at the corruption, oppression, and selfishness he saw all around him that he left. Probably people thought he was crazy. He may have been a little crazy at the time.
If that had been the end of John’s story, we would never have heard of the angry young man living by himself in the wilderness. But, Luke tells us, “the word of the Lord came to John,” giving him a special calling: to go into the region around the Jordan River “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:2-3). And that’s where we meet him in our reading for this morning.
With a background like that, it is not surprising that John criticizes the people who come to him from Jerusalem. These are the very people John left Jerusalem to avoid, the people he assumed were destined for the wrath to come.
What is surprising, what comes from God, is grace, grace that we see in John’s offer to these same people of another chance, John’s message that they can still repent and receive forgiveness, John’s invitation to embrace the good news of Jesus Christ. John’s call to repentance is also, for these apparently lost souls, a call to hope.
Many in the crowd heard that hope in John’s message. Many recognized that John was giving them hope for new life, hope for a real relationship with God.
Naturally, they looked to John for guidance about what new life, right relationship with God, looks like. What should we do, they ask him? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he answers. Live justly and generously. Share what you have. Don’t take more than you are due.
And many of them were so moved by John’s preaching, by the hope John offered of a better life, that they begin to wonder if John himself might not be Messiah, if John might not be the one they have been waiting for. Clearly they are hearing good news, even if they don’t quite understand it!
John must have been horrified at the suggestion that he might be the Messiah. John immediately corrects them. I am not the one. One considerably more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thing of his sandals. Look for him because he is close.
Now, what can we take from all this? How should we hear John’s preaching?
Well, John speaks a hard truth. When we want to pretend that everything is OK, John reminds us that all is not right in our lives or in our world.
I’m a nice guy. But there is plenty of sin in my life. I have plenty of growing to do. John invites me to be honest about that.
One of the images John uses is separating wheat from chaff. I used to hear that as separating good people (the wheat) from bad people (the chaff). But I don’t think that’s what John means. John is talking about each of us. Each of us has chaff in our lives.
John points to our chaff, to our sins. And John won’t let us look away.
But John doesn’t leave us there. John offers us hope just as he offered hope to the crowds who came to him. John reminds us that we are not just chaff. John invites us to name and repent the chaff in our lives so that the wheat, the goodness, in us can emerge.
John tells us that. And John points to Jesus, who comes to make it happen, to purge away the chaff, to free the wheat, to help us become the people God created us to be, to help us live like the beloved people we are.
John calls us to repent in order to clear away the chaff and open ourselves up to new life in Christ. And if John’s message is not exactly one of joy, it does help to make true Christian joy possible. For that, I give thanks. And, heeding John’s message and following John’s example, I look to Christ in hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan