Week of Sunday December 16 - Advent 3
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? 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 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.’
10 And 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.’
15 As 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.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
“Sooner or later a myth has to come in to land,” writes my colleague. “And when it does, it has to compete with the truths of all the other myths.” We find whether is all just airy talk, or a grounded faith in which we can live.
John brings us into land. He provides solid ground; a linking point between the Old Testament and the New, and firm place from which we may begin to follow Jesus.
It is clear he was a formidable figure during the life and times of Jesus, and that his influence persisted well after Jesus’ death. All the gospel writers mention him. He is not incidental to their narratives, but is the point of beginning.
While it is true that the later three all follow Mark to some degree, they also show, in many places, that they are free to tweak the story to get across their own sense of Jesus’ significance. None of them were able to leave John out; instead his role increases!
But all of them need emphasise that John was not the Messiah. They make it clear that John himself said he was not the Messiah, and that he was subordinate to Jesus. Interestingly, this need to put John in his correct place seems to grow with time; the strongest declamation is in the last gospel.
John was clearly a deeply attractive figure; and still is. Many seem to live a faith that is more in the heritage of John than Jesus; they keep rules, often sacrificially, but their faith is based in rule keeping, and what is right and wrong.
When Luke says John was not the Messiah, he is not stating an historical fact which is now understood. He is telling us that John, and his theology of repentance, is not our Messiah! It is a lesson we also have to learn.
For all his attractiveness, John was wrong. He clearly expected the end of all things would happen very soon; “the axe is already at the root of the trees... (9) his winnowing fork is in his hand.” (17) Later in the gospel Jesus himself says, “This generation will not pass away... (21:32)”
These things have not happened, and we need to include them in our understanding of Jesus, John, and Luke.
A first reflection might note that even though climate change is terrifying, the foreboding we feel is also only an echo of the foreboding of London in 1939, and the deep fears of the Cold War, and so many other fears. These things are not the end! There is always an end of the world in view; we seem to long for it. Our spirit rebels at the world as it is; surely this cannot go on, we cry.
Is it time for us to get beyond wishing for God to impose an answer upon creation, preserving us of course, and look for a deeper way; a way that actually corresponds to what we experience in life and faith?
After all, John’s good news was not that the world was to be ended, but that the Messiah would come bringing freedom, and would gather the wheat into his granary. (17). The end was, in a sense, incidental.
Perhaps the real commonality between us and John is the feeling that “this cannot go on!” The world is not right. For many, life is already almost unbearable, and global warming, or any other kind of apocalypse, is a worry they have little time to consider in their daily struggle for survival. Australian youth unemployment is as high as 40% in some areas. These folk simply want a job; climate change worries are almost a luxury they cannot afford. And they are among the more fortunate ones of Earth!
Here, unless we have no heart, our heart must surely cry out, “John is right; this cannot go on!”
In the context of “this cannot go on,” John calls people back to basics. We saw last week that he is placed in the region of the Jordan, back at the roots of the nation’s history, re-baptising the people, in a sense, in the river gateway to the Promised Land.
He preaches a return to the roots of faith. “Repent!” is like the Hebrew cry of “Turn again to the Lord your God!” As with the John of Matthew, Luke’s John is very clear that this baptism is no empty symbolism: “Do not presume to say you are Abraham’s children” is a clear echo of the words of the Hebrew scriptures.
Does the Lord require ten thousands of rivers of oil, or baptisms in the Jordan?
You know what is good! Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8) To mouth repentance, to be baptised for show, is to act like a nest of the most hated of snakes. This cannot go on; even now the axe is at the root of the trees.
In Luke, John brings us into land in a most concrete and grounded manner. This is no mere story.
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.
This is basic civil society. John’s repentance is stunning for its simplicity and ordinariness.
Luke specifically mentions two groups of people that we might not want to see gain the fruits of repentance. Tax collectors and soldiers come, and even these hated people were not rejected. His directions were clear and simple; and difficult. How easy was it to be an honest tax collector? The system was designed around legal graft.
Luke also draws us a John who knew the limitations of his call to repentance. “One is coming after me,” he said. John contrasts the baptism of water with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire in this One coming after.
There can be no following Jesus without the basic repentance John preached. We baptise with water even today as a symbol of beginning to follow that way of Jesus, which is also known as repentance.
Jesus takes us beyond John. We often quickly find we are in deeper than we expected. There is another baptism; the baptism with a different spirit. It may not take long to find this is also a baptism of fire. It costs. It purifies us of our dross.
It changes the way we see the world. We cannot continue to be the same. The act of repentance and the acceptance of Christ irrefusably demands changes of us. Unless we walk away, John’s call pushes us into a life of fire. John himself will soon run afoul of Herod, as he is driven by his uncompromising vision.
Jesus will take us much further than merely doing right. He will develop the logic of John to its fullest extent. With John, we could “do the right thing” with some expectation of seeking to make ourselves look good in the eyes of God.
But Jesus tells us this does not work: the one who seeks to save their life will lose it. (Luke 9 and 17) Loving God begins with “the right thing” but goes much deeper. It introduces us to a cycle of discipleship, death, and resurrection that goes beyond the rational and challenges all our common sense ideas of self preservation and being a good and successful person. John himself will wonder, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus reply fits the expectations of scripture: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me. [Luke 7:22-23 cf Isaiah 61:1-4.] His reply also fits the basic goods done by John’s definitions of repentance in chapter 3, which if lived out, are enormous good news for the poor.
As a person I must begin with John. I must decide to live for the good, the basic civility that all great religions and philosophies recognise. If I am not grounded here, I will be adrift in words and myths and will inevitably crash.
True, I may begin this path from some kind Pauline Damascus experience, with no forethought of repentance, but then I must progress to living the good on the ground. In each of his letters Paul appeals to civility, that decent living which must go with a life of faith.
But I must go beyond John, and find Jesus. The high stories and ideals of the gospel must come into land again. For doing good only begins to make me whole. To be complete, I must be prepared to go further, to lose it all, to risk resurrection, and to count loss as gain. It is then that my doing good best helps others and heals earth, because it is done only for its own sake, and for God, rather than for me.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!