Judgement to Joy – Dec 16, 2018
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Thus ends our Gospel passage on this, the third Sunday of Advent and it’s theme of joy. We heard a command to joy from Zephaniah with the promise of the end of troubled times. We heard joy from Isaiah in response to God bringing salvation. We heard a command to joy from Paul writing to the Philippians. And then we got to our Gospel passage and John’s the Baptist’s address to “you brood of vipers!” By the end, the narrator tells us that with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people. I wonder what you hear as “good news” in this passage?!?
Today we hear “part 2” of John’s mission and ministry in the Judean wilderness, as told by Luke. Last Sunday we heard the introduction, with John located in time and place, among the rulers in his world. He is placed in the line of Hebrew prophets with a quote from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; [to] prepare the way of the Lord…” Today we hear from John directly, beginning with the address: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It is a harsh beginning. Maybe mostly just good storytelling, good theatre, to get our attention.
Whatever the case, John commands the gathered brood of vipers to: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Apparently he knows the crowd well and knows what to expect as their first and primary objection. He continues immediately, “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.” The objection is perhaps just an excuse to pay no attention to John’s call to bear fruit in repentance. It is not a new objection. The appeal to ancestory, to breeding or family lineage, as a basis for honor, respect, privilege was as common in Ancient Israel as it is today.
In the time of the restoration from the Babylonian exile, the debate about who was in and who was out of the Israelite community was intense. Were the “true” Israelites only those who had been exiled? The descendants of elite and priestly families? Or were “the people of land”, the peasants who stayed put struggling for existence through all the turmoil, were they also part of the remnant of Israel? More than a philosophical debate, violent skirmishes erupted over this question. Even back then, 500 years before John the Baptist came on the scene, the present day, real time, answer that emerged to redefine the community of faith was “keep the Sabbath”. This was the commandment that became the defining Jewish practice and the primary characteristic of community membership. Heritage and ancestory was secondary to the weekly spiritual practice of keeping sabbath.
In today’s Gospel, 500-odd years later, on the cusp of a new transformative moment in the story of salvation, John the Baptist addresses the same debate with a similar focus but a different answer. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Ancestory or family lineage isn’t ultimately what matters. The faith, the beliefs, the practices of our forebears can teach and inspire us; the tradition we receive can guide us, but it is not the defining factor for our salvation. Instead John commands: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John calls the crowds; John calls us; to an active, living faith, here and now. Our tradition, our past, our mentors and ancestors witness to us, but it is how we live now, today, in Calgary in 2018, that really matters.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. What sort of “fruit” might be so worthy? John clearly doesn’t mean fruit literally in the sense of apples or bananas or figs. It’s not a command to grow a literal orchard. “Fruit” metaphorically refers to positive outcomes after years of working and waiting, in partnership with God. It takes years for a tree to grow enough to bear fruit at all. Human effort… human skill and knowledge and sweat matters to help trees to bear fruit, but external factors like rain and sun also matter. Partnership matters. For the purpose of his metaphor, John goes as far as to threaten destruction for a tree that does not bear good fruit, saying: “Even 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.” The crowd knows that John speaks the truth because it has happened before. Their Hebrew ancestors had languished in exile in Babylon and their even more ancient tribes had wandered in the wilderness before them. And each time God sent salvation in one way and another, proclaimed by prophets. John is one such prophet, worth of their attention. John is a prophet worthy of our attention.
The crowd in our story today get it… they get past their initial objection, their dismissal of him as speaking to someone else, and ask a different question: “What then should we do?” And John goes on to address this question, asked by people in 3 different circumstances. “What then should we do?” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must to likewise,” Jesus instructs. Tax collectors are not to collect more money than prescribed… no bribes or tips allowed. Soldiers are not to put their power and might up for sale… no extortion by threats or lies. In other words, anyone who came for baptism by John were exhorted to do their jobs properly.
Faithfulness to God is about doing what you’re supposed to do in society. It’s not fancy and it’s not complicated. John doesn’t instruct people to disconnect or cloister away. They don’t have to quit their job or move to the wilderness or drop everything. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The command is to stay put, to fulfill whatever responsibility or position of authority you’ve been given, and to behave properly, honestly. Don’t use your position of extort, threaten or cheat people. That is the fruit worthy of repentance… that is the fruit of salvation, because that is how a just, compassionate and trust-worthy society is built – by people doing their jobs as part of the greater good. Not working to get ahead personally by stepping on whoever might be lower, lesser, poorer or weaker, but by being trustworthy and true. As one commentator described, “What God is doing through the law here is creating a more trust-worthy society.” (WP) And that, my friends, is salvation. Not just for individuals, but for everyone. For the common good. And it is good news.
John’s message of judgement begins by sounding oh so harsh… where is the joy in it? Where is the grace? How is it good? It’s good news because John’s command is totally do-able. By everyone. Our main work is to figure out what it means for each us to faithfully, justly and compassionately fulfil our role in the community, for the good of the community. None of us here are tax collectors (I don’t think…) and none of us are active soldiers. We are teachers and engineers and business people and health professionals. What then should we do? Some of us might have two coats. What else could it mean to fulfill your role with honesty and compassion? If you’re retired it’s even more important work to discern, what then should we do? How are the day-to-day activities of your life contributing to a more just, a more compassionate and a more trust-worthy society?
There is also good news in reading on in our Gospel passage to hear the response of the crowd. They were filled with expectation. The people… that brood of vipers… didn’t react to John’s message with fear or with anger… they didn’t fight or argue to hold on to their privilege as ancestors of Abraham. Instead, they were filled with expectation, and wondered about the coming Messiah. Salvation still and always comes from God by grace. Our faithful work is not about earning our salvation. But expecting a better world. A more trustworthy community. A more compassionate society… because everyone does their part with faithfulness and honesty… that is good news indeed. God’s judgement isn’t about punishing bad behaviour. God’s judgement is about creating a new order. Identifying wrong-doing isn’t an end in itself, but rather it’s about finding a way to do right. It’s about breaking unhealthy and destructive patterns, so that more life-giving ways can emerge. The people were filled with expectation, because they knew John’s exhortation to bear fruits worthy of repentance was only the beginning.
I’ve realized this week in particular just how difficult it is to understand Advent. The idea of waiting in darkness, expectantly, is so very counter-cultural. We want to skip straight to fulfilment. We want joy to come without hardship, without sacrifice, without expectation. We think that what is is all there is… but Advent promises something more… something more than we can ask or imagine. Advent is about waiting in darkness while looking expectantly for the light to come again. Advent is about seeing the way it is and hoping for the way it could be. Advent is about living justly and compassionately for the sake of peace. And Advent is about judgement that leads to joy. And that is good news.