Here’s the text from Luke’s Gospel for this third Sunday of Advent:
“John 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? Bear 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 too Abraham. Even now the 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.
“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers 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.’
“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
“So, with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3: 7 – 18)
Week two with John the Baptist. No getting to the manger without passing through the wilderness with this fiery prophet. He reminds us why some say Advent is a “little Lent.”
But there’s a tension here that is puzzling, at least to me. John’s preaching is, to say the least, charged. “You brood of vipers . . .” “Don’t tell me you have Abraham for your father,” “Even now the ax . . .” “cut down and thrown into the fire.”
I’m reading dragon stories to one of the grandchildren at the moment. John is like a fire-breathing dragon.
Then the people, laid bare and cut to the heart by John’s preaching, ask “What then should we do?” Good preaching does leave people asking, “what then should we do?” “What now?”
But John’s answers, while not a piece of cake, aren’t nearly so earth shattering as the rhetoric that has preceded them.
He tells people to share with those in need. Then addresses two particular groups. You tax-collectors — stop skimming off the top, taking more than is due. And the soldiers aren’t to abuse their power either. “Be satisfied with your wages.”
You can appreciate the specificity and the contextualization and still be left asking, “Really, is that all?” He doesn’t tell people to give away all their possessions. He doesn’t tell people to leave their jobs in the imperial system or join a revolutionary force.
Do you see the tension? Apocalyptic preaching gives way to practices of repentance which, though real and important, aren’t exactly earth-shaking.
Don’t get me wrong. John’s call to not abuse power or privilege and to be generous is significant. For the balance of Advent I will seek to be more generous to those in need. For myself I will make a renewed effort to be content with my life, not trying to use what power and privilege I have to exact more. I invite you to join me in these practices of repentance.
One can be grateful for the down-to-earth, practical and do-able nature of these imperatives, and yet still puzzle about the gap between this extraordinary preaching and the fairly ordinary ethics.
What gives? What are we to make of this tension?
A clue comes in the third and last part of the reading where Luke says that the people “were filled with expectation.” In another translation, the people “were on the tip-toe of expectation.” I like that.
John’s ethical instruction and practices of repentance aren’t the whole thing, nor even the largest part of it. The big thing is the One who is to Come. And, says John in effect, don’t you forget it.
So for us, for Christ followers, ethics can never be separated from what God has done and is doing. Christianity is not simply an exhortation to behave yourself or to be better people. It is not good advice but “good news” (vs. 18). The news that God is on the move, turning things upside down (“the mighty are brought down, the lowly lifted up,” Luke 1: 52) and bringing a transformative baptism of the Holy Spirit.
John’s ethical demands are for people standing at an edge. The edge of a new creation. The tension between what we are to do and what God is doing is held. Or to put it another in another familiar frame, it is not either faith or works. It is both, faith and works.
So be generous. Don’t abuse power or privilege. But also, stand on tip-toe waiting, watching for what God is doing even now, even here.