Third Sunday in Advent
Mary Holmen

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Isaiah 12:2-6 Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.”

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Well. That’s a strange combination. The passage we heard from Zephaniah is joyful and optimistic. The prophet continues, “…he has taken away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more…he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival…I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth….I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes”.

Contrast this with the preaching of John the Baptist, which seems like nothing but judgment, condemnation, and warning: “Bear fruits worth of repentance…Even now the axe 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.” Even when he speaks of the One to come, John seems to emphasize his role as judge: “His 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.”

Then, strangely, Luke adds a summary: “So, with many exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news? “You bunch of snakes!” – good news! “The axe is lying at the root of the trees” – good news! “His winnowing fork is in his hand” – good news!

Last week, we heard about John the Baptist’s role as herald of the coming Messiah, the messenger sent out to prepare the way of the Lord by clearing a path and making the way straight. His message was an alert: prepare yourselves! Get ready! His job was to smooth out the rough places, to bring down mountains and barriers before the Lord. Today, we concentrate more on John’s message. At the end of last week’s passage, Luke quoted Isaiah: “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. Luke continues in this week’s passage, “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers…’”. Luke sees clearly that John’s preaching is the way he goes about bringing low the human barriers that get in the way of God’s advent. Let’s take a closer look at John’s message.

He addresses the crowds first. Perhaps we are a little puzzled by the force of his attack. I doubt the people who went out to hear John were any worse than most human beings. There’s nothing to indicate they were bad people. Indeed, they seem to have been searching for something – something they wanted badly enough to make them go into the wilderness to find it. John’s reputation would have preceded him. Luke tells us he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came in droves to hear him. They were stirred up and moved to take a positive step.

John treated all his listeners with complete impartiality. Luke tells us he addressed the crowds, then tax collectors and soldiers. Matthew speaks of Sadducees and Pharisees, and John’s gospel refers to priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to investigate this strange preacher. Whoever they were made no difference. John preached the truth and never changed his message to avoid ruffled feathers. We can even imagine the ordinary people listening with a certain amount of glee as their leaders were so roundly rebuked. Indeed, Luke tells us that some began to hope, and believe, that he might be the long-awaited and longed-for Messiah.

What John does attack is false security, the people’s reliance on their spiritual and racial history as descendants of Abraham. John undermines this false sense of security: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” In effect, John is saying, “Never mind about your roots. I want to know about your fruits.” Salvation, redemption, inclusion in God’s people – these are not automatic. They do not belong to any individual or group by right. God is entirely free to create children and call together a people elsewhere. If they – and we – would be counted as Abraham’s children and heirs of God’s promises, then we must show ourselves such by our actions. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

How similar are some of Jesus’ sayings:

  • “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43-45).
  • “As for the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Luke 8:15).
  •  “If it should bear fruit next year, well and good, but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9).

Jesus clearly connects the state of one’s heart to one’s actions, and both form the basis for judgement. Judgement is one of the great Advent themes. But it doesn’t mean being judgmental. Judgement means to weigh, to measure, to evaluate, to assess – to pass judgement and identify what needs to change.

Then follows a section of more detailed and specific preaching. It is not enough simply to call for repentance. What does that mean? What does it look like? John’s instructions are concrete and specific. Repentance is demonstrated by changed behaviour. This applies not only to individuals, but to communities. On Tuesday evening, some of us gathered to meditate on the O Antiphons we use in Advent, and we reflected on this gospel passage. Several people commented that John’s teaching is tailored to the circumstances of each group of people – the crowds or general population, the tax collectors, and soldiers. The crowds are told to provide generously for those in need. The tax collectors and soldiers ask what they, in their turn, should do. Now, both these groups worked for the government, keeping order in the name of the emperor. The imperial context is unavoidable, and so is the context of occupation and oppression. Tax collectors were known to take a cut off the top of what they collected for the emperor, filling their own pockets at the expense of their fellow-countrymen. Soldiers were part of the apparatus of empire, an occupying force that sometimes resorted to extortion and threats, just because they could. John tells both groups not to exceed the authority they’ve been given. They are not to use fear to coerce others into giving them what they want. For them, bearing fruit worthy of repentance means pursuing economic justice, doing the job they’ve been given, and being content with the compensation they receive.

Another comment from Tuesday’s session was that John’s instructions are just a starting point. He does not lay out a whole program of right living, but tells the people where they can begin. Demand too much at the outset, and they might not start at all. Changing behaviour takes time, and effort, and repetition. If you look at it, John’s ethical teaching could not really be considered radical at all. Those who have are urged to share with those who lack. Those in a position to be able to use violence and dishonesty to augment their incomes are warned against greed. These really are minimum standards. They are what we expect in ordinary, everyday situations – simply decent, fair behaviour.

And yet, these standards are radical, in the sense of getting back to roots, the foundations of right living and moral behaviour. These foundations are necessary for anything else to be built. I think we sometimes forget how important this is. It sounds much more noble to talk about love and justice in abstract, “big picture” ways. But love and justice are not abstract concepts. It is the little practical things, the almost humdrum decisions of day to day living, that are the building blocks of love, justice, mercy, and peace. Something as basic as not taking more than you are entitled to is a concrete way of demonstrating your commitment to justice.

Repentance, if it is genuine, leads to changed behaviour, and for John – and for us – that behaviour must be understood both personally and socially. All of this raises the question for us: what does right living look like in our own contexts? Parents, what does right living look like in relation to your children? Managers, what does right living look like in relation to those you supervise? Body of Christ, what does right living look like in the way we behave toward one another? What does right living look like in our stewardship of what we’ve been given? What does right living look like in this neighbourhood, this city, this society?

Well, the people who came out to hear John were pretty excited by what he was saying. Back in the day when the New English Bible was more widely used than it is now, I read the translation of this verse: “the people were on tiptoe of expectation”. They thought John might be the Messiah. We have to remember the fever pitch of hope and anticipation that existed at that time, waiting and hoping and praying and yearning for the coming of the Messiah and God’s day of justice. When he came, he would pronounce judgement on all that was false in Israel, but he would also announce salvation and vindication for those who remained faithful. John’s message, so full of warnings and calls to repentance, also gave the people great hope. Maybe the time was finally here. Maybe this was the one they had been looking for.

What we see, though, is John following his own words and refusing to take more than he has been given. He knows his role, and he will not push beyond the bounds of the call he has received. He points to one “more powerful than I”, who baptizes with “the Holy Spirit and fire” rather than plain water. John is content with what he has been given. It is the one coming after him, for whom John is not worthy to perform even the menial tasks of a slave, who will bring in the age of salvation.

So yes, John’s message is good news. “Rejoice in the Lord always! The Lord is at hand.” Along with this message of hope comes a clear call for conversion, for change, because the Lord is at hand. This is the core of John the Baptist’s message. And something more. The word translated “good news” was not originally Christian. In the Roman empire, it was used for any kind of good news, usually announced by the equivalent of the town crier, and often referring to the success of the imperial agenda, such as a military victory or the birthday of the emperor. Luke’s use of the word “good news” to describe both John’s preaching and the birth of Jesus had clear political connotations in the context of empire within which he wrote. Similarly, our proclamation of good news has both personal and political connotations.

John the Baptist’s job was to “prepare the way of the Lord”. He did this by preaching and baptizing. The rest was up to the people. His purpose would not be achieved unless they responded. Likewise, his message will not take root and produce fruit in us unless we also hear and respond. This raises some challenging questions for us. What hopes do we cherish? Do we really want to be set free? Are we “on tiptoe of expectation”? How much do we really want God to enter our lives? Are we prepared to make the changes that will demonstrate our commitment to justice, peace, mercy and love? Faced with such questions and with the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, it is surely appropriate to respond with both joy and repentance. Let us then purify our hearts and lives as we prepare to receive this wonderful gift, the God who comes to us. Amen.