ADVENT 3, C
Imagine this: there have been rumors all over town about some wild woman preacher who is calling on people to repent and baptizing them in the Rainy River. So we all decide to go out there after church one lovely warm Sunday to see what she has to say. We join a crowd of people sitting on the river bank. The preacher stands up and speaks.
“You are nothing but a bunch of snakes in the grass. Who sent you here? Repentance without amendment of life is meaningless. Do not console yourself by saying you go to church every Sunday. Oh no! God can always find more church goers. Even now the ax is hanging over your head. If you do not put your own life in order and show that forth in how you act in the world, that ax will surely cut you down and you will be cast into the fire.”
Well! How would you respond to that? How many would walk out offended and how many would stay to ask the question John’s crowd asked, “What then should we do?” For after all the fire and brimstone, John now responds much as Jesus might. Suddenly the tone and temper of his words change. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Notice, that John does not ask them to give away all they have, but only to share the excess of their belongings. We, as the congregation of Holy Trinity, and as individuals do give a lot away, but how much excess is left? That’s a typical Advent question, isn’t it. Not how well have I done this year, but rather, where have I fallen short.
John’s advice to the tax collectors and the soldiers is also astute. He doesn’t suggest they change jobs, even though their jobs are seen as part of the oppression of the people. Rather he advises that they carry out the job in a way that is not oppressive. Sure, the whole system is based on passing on the wealth of the country to Rome, and it’s rigged so that the tax collectors and soldiers will dig even deeper to line their own pockets. Remember the cry, “We’ve always done it this way!” John says NO – no excuses. If you oppress others then your repentance is worthless.
So John’s message is share the wealth, be fair and honest, do not abuse your power. These are the actions of people who have truly repented and are living a new life. Think for a moment what it might mean if everyone took this seriously. The current debate in Washington and the mess we may be in if it can’t be resolved would not be a problem.
This week Lee Grim gave us a reprint of an article by Jim Wallis, an Evangelical pastor who strongly believes in the kind of action urged by John today.
He says, “The biblical prophets say that a nation’s righteousness, or integrity as we might say, is determined by how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable; and Jesus said how we respond to the least of these is indicative of how we respond to him. That’s because the poor and vulnerable are the monitors of how everybody else will ultimately be treated. History shows how quickly and easily human dignity can be compromised by economic and political powers – and protecting the most vulnerable is the only way to safeguard us all.”
If we let the powers that be usurp what little power or privilege the poorest of the poor have, the powers that be will eventually do the same to us. Remember the poem by Pastor Niemoller?
“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
So what Jim Wallis is saying is that the people on the bottom of the heap must be protected in order to protect ourselves. John says we must share our excess. Harder to hear, but no less real.
Today’s reading concludes with John returning to threats of judgement. He claims there will be someone coming after him who is more powerful, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, rather than water. Fire is usually considered something that refines and purifies. But it’s also hot and suggests great pain. Often people who have been through great trauma, or near death experiences, will talk about it as walking through the fire.
It’s an experience that is heavy enough to mark a point in life after which everything is different, and the experience of getting there has changed the way they see, or think, or feel. While many things are lost in the experience, new things are also gained. Most of us have had some sort of similar experience, if not so extreme. I remember a cancer survivor once saying, “It may sound odd, but my cancer was a great gift to me.”
John then goes on to use the metaphor of threshing. The one coming after him has a winnowing fork 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.”
This is at one level a judgment proclamation. Jesus is coming and will separate the wheat, that is, the good fruit, or the people who have truly repented, from the chaff, that is, the bad people who have not. And the image is of the bad ones burning in unquenchable fire.
My problem with most judgment proclamations like this is that they are put forth in terms that are sure to frighten us. I don’t like anything that is fear based, and I don’t believe it really works to keep us in line, because we end up resenting the control it imposes on us. It’s like being led around on a leash rather than being able to make our own choices. But fear is a powerful motivator, and it is used frequently by those in authority to keep folks in line – another reason I don’t like it!
But if we use the same metaphor that John uses here and apply it to our house-cleaning task this Advent, I find it very useful. Here we are the ones wielding the winnowing fork. As we examine our own lives and our own hearts, we use the winnowing fork to separate the good stuff from the bad. We keep the good and pitch the bad, cutting it out, shoveling it out, whatever, in order to clean house, to make a path for God to enter. This is the time to throw open the windows and open the doors to our inner lives in order to let light shine in the dark places and to clear out the junk.
It’s the junk that gets in the way of sharing what we have. A big part of the junk we need to get rid of is fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of others, fear of death, fear of living life abundantly, and whatever other fears holds us back. The rest of the junk we want to cut out and throw away are the daily sins that have become habit – whether it’s selfishness or greed, whether it’s overeating or addiction, whether it’s hanging on to old hurts or anger.
Think of these things as underbrush that blocks the light, that blocks God’s pathway to us and vice versa, and that tends to grow and expand into whatever space is available. Our job in Advent is to cut it down, brush it out, and try to amend our lives so that it doesn’t grow back to clog our souls. AMEN