So, John the Baptist… I imagine he’d be the real “life of the party” if he showed up. People would start hearing things about “vipers” and “axes at the roots of the trees,” and they’d look around say, “Who invited that guy!?” He message stands in contrast to our other Scripture readings today, too. This is the Sunday of Joy; we call it “Guadete” Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” That’s part of why we light the rose candle, to remind us in this season of preparation, there is much to be joyful for. And then we have this encounter with John the Baptist. If he were at your dinner party, and people stuck around a few minutes, they might realize that John doesn’t just call out the bad behavior, but gives his hearers a way forward as well.
The masses to which John was teaching and preaching were an occupied people, thirsty, starving for some Good News. They were like a flock without a shepherd, and here comes John to offer some hope to them. He calls on them not only to bear fruit, but fruit worthy of repentance. They might not have known what “fruit worthy of repentance” looked like or tasted like or what tree it grew on, but I bet that he said it in a way that made them want to know more.
John calls people to repentance a lot in the short time he’s in the Gospels. Repentance means literally to “turn around;” to change our ways, to alter our ways of thinking and acting and working.Repentance isn’t about looking back at the wrong of the past and saying, “We’ll try not to do that again.” And it’s not about looking back on those wrongs and injustices and beating ourselves up about them, either. Bearing fruit worthy of repentance means looking back on the wrongs of the past, whether as a community or as individuals, and then looking forward to the future, about how we will learn from those sins and live a different life, as a people transformed and forgiven in God’s grace!
The Good News of John, and later Jesus, is that we are not left to figure out that fruit worthy of repentance all by ourselves. God has never left humanity to figure it out on our own, and doesn’t here either. It’s important to note that John doesn’t wave a magic wand and say, “Everything is better now!” I mean, it would be nice if he did, wouldn’t it? But God doesn’t do that, because God wants us to grow, and in order to grow, we have to do that work.
How many times have you said, or have you heard someone else say, “Oh! If God would just TELL ME what I’m supposed to do! Write it in the sky! Booming voice from above! Text me! Something!” (In my line of work, I probably hear that a lot more than most, but I will also admit that I’ve said it once or twice, too!)
It begs the question, though, Whatever God said to us, would we do it? Because so often, we KNOW, deep down in our hearts, what it is we are supposed to do. But it scares us. Shakes us to our core. Leaves us paralyzed and unable to actually do it. Think about the story of the rich, young ruler in Luke 18. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? I’m a good guy, I’ve kept all the commandments, and did I mention, I’m a good guy!” Jesus says, “Yes, I heard that you’re a good guy, and thanks for keeping all the commandments. But you need to sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” Luke tells us that the man went away sad because he was very wealthy. We don’t know what happened to him after this encounter, but in that moment, he is unable to turn himself around and do what God in the person of Jesus just told him to do.
John’s hearers, after the parts about vipers and axes, ask, “What should we do.” Three times, they ask, “What should we do?” This is a powerful moment in Luke’s Gospel and in John’s exchange with the people. Not only do the oppressed but even the oppressors ask, “What should we do?”
The first group that asks “what should we do” are the very people that John was blasting for thinking they were good enough because they have Abraham as their ancestor. John doesn’t tell them to abandon their faith. He tells them to live their faith, the faith that was passed down from Abraham and Moses; that the one in need is a higher priority than our own self-preservation. The tax collectors are the next group to ask. You know about the tax collectors, right? They didn’t earn a living by collecting taxes, so they had to pad their collections practices to make money. Sometimes they went back for more, claiming to have “forgotten” that they’d already made that round. Beyond that, most tax collectors were citizens of Israel and employees of Rome. So not only were they in-between both worlds, they weren’t really liked by their fellow Jews and tolerated by the Romans. Yet they were seeking repentance: How could they do better going forward? And John tells them: “Collect no more than prescribed for you.” No stealing, cheating, blackmailing, or doing what ‘everyone else is doing.’ And then there’s the soldiers, who have nothing to wield but power, and yet seem aware that there is a larger message to which they need to respond. “And what should we do?” they also ask. No deception, John tells them. No threats or extortion or coercion.
Luke does not tell us how the people who asked actually responded, either in the moment or in the weeks and months following. But in that moment, all three groups of people faced the same question and opportunity we all face every day: To turn our lives away for our own self-interest, to live for others (whether or not we know them, whether or not they can return the favor). John the Baptist give his hearers then and now a chance to do ordinary acts of grace. There is no call ot heroic measures or abandoning everything you’ve known. John calls them to stay where they are, but to be a different person where they are. This Gospel lesson reminds us to be where God has called us to be, but to look forward to be the best we can where we are. John seems to be telling us that by being where we are, our seemingly ordinary lives can be steeped with the extra-ordinary spirit of God to transform the world. And who cares how many people notice. We aren’t doing this to make headlines or be on the six o’clock news. We are out to serve God by serving the people whom God loves so dearly.
What then should we do?
Wen we are sorely hindered by our sins (and fears) as our Collect today says, we should look outward, not inward. We should look in our closet and see if we have a coat or belt or shoes that someone else may need. When we are at the grocery store, we can pick up one of the items on the RCS Food and Stuff list (cereal & soap for December!). We can be honest in our dealings with others, and not tolerate dishonesty when we see it. It’s not the big things that will show people we are followers of Jesus. It’s not by the big things that we will make the world ready for the 2nd Coming of Christ. If we are willing to turn our hearts and our minds and our eyes towards God, we will see how God is acting in our midst, and we’ll see where we can do something seemingly small that can change the world.