(Luke 3: 7-18)
The house is beautifully decorated for the annual Christmas party, and all the guests are loving it. The tree stands majestically in the living room corner; it’s lights emitting a soft, warm glow. We’ve adjusted that little nightlight behind the manger scene on the fireplace mantle to give it a cozy, holy feel. All the cookies and Chex mix and hot cider are arranged on the dining room table, eagerly being consumed. Seasonal music is playing softly through the speakers – the boys choir from King’s College, Cambridge. We move joyfully through the gathering, exchanging pleasantries and holiday greetings. It is just as we had hoped when we began planning this party back in September.
We hear the doorbell ring, letting us know another one of our guests has arrived. We move to the door, reach for door knob and pull it open….
…..when suddenly, John the Baptist comes crashing in our living room! He flips on the overhead lights, and we are left squinting until our eyes adjust to the bright harshness that comes in with this man. Like hot cider burning tongue, John is blazing white-hot. He’s got a winnowing fork in his hand and he’s yelling like a street corner preacher.
Forget the cookies and chex mix. Forget the dulcet tones of the boys choir. All holiday music has been drowned out by this man who has no intention of blending his voice or even singing in the same key. You brood of vipers! he bellows, now standing on the dining room table. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! Either bear good fruit or be thrown into an unquenchable fire!
Now that’s how you crash a party, right? Somehow we missed John the Baptist on the invite list! Who brought him here, we wonder? What is this guy doing here?
It may be a legitimate question from a holiday party perspective. And yet – and yet, this is precisely what today’s Advent lectionary passage does. It throws John the Baptist on us – right in our face, in all his raw harshness. And it’s understandable if we feel a little put off by his presence. Because John, as our party guests can attest to, is not the “warm and fuzzy” type. He is loud and obnoxious. He reeks of camel hair and locust pie. And he doesn’t give a hoot whether we like what he says or not. His only concern is that we prepare the way of the Lord.
So perhaps we should dispense with the pleasantries here – John certainly has – and face the burning question he is more than ready to answer: how in the world is this “preparing the way of the Lord?” Why exactly does John the Baptist need to make an appearance on this third Sunday of Advent, a mere seven days from the birth of Jesus? Why is he, of all people, the one to prepare us for the coming of Jesus into the world?
I think it’d be safe to say that, if we had our druthers, we’d prefer someone a little more, shall we say, restrained. A little more refined. Ideally, someone who practices good hygiene. Brushes his teeth regularly. Just being honest here. We don’t need someone getting all up in our grill. To tell you the truth, it’s a little offensive.
And besides, it’s not like we don’t know what’s coming. We’ve been here before. Happens every year at the same time, like clockwork. We came to church two Sundays ago and – voila! – our Advent wreath was up. Next week, candles and greenery in the windows. Poinsettias up front as well. Point being, someone made this happen. Because that’s what we do in Advent. We know how to prepare the way of the Lord!
Or do we?
John the Baptist sure doesn’t think so. Dude has zero interest in our decorations. Could care less about our seasonal prep work. Doesn’t seem intrigued in the least with all the pomp and circumstance. Don’t get me wrong, our Advent preparations are wonderful and we treasure them greatly. It’s just they’re not the kind of things that John wants us working on.
He’s already given us a hint at what he’s got in mind. Grace preached on it last week: John calls us to repent. Grace mentioned that word is not about judgment, not about guilt. The word means: to turn away so one can turn to. It’s about our orientation in the scheme of things. How we position ourselves in the world around us. Repent.
And maybe that’s why today’s scripture takes us out in the wilderness. Outside the city; outside our normal surroundings. Strange and amazing things happen in the wilderness. All bets are off. We cannot fall back on the standard, because the wilderness will not let us. It keeps us honest. It keeps things real.
And that realness – that is what makes John so offensive to us.
And it’s not even the “brood of vipers” thing. That’s a little over the top, but we can handle it. No, what really gets us is what he says after that:
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.
Now that hits a nerve! Privilege, a foot in the door, a fast pass on the Disney World ride of life. That is what our world seeks in some form or fashion. Special treatment because of our family name, or how many zeroes in our bank account, or what zip code we live in.
And John tells us right off the bat, forget it. It’s a crowd of mostly Jewish people John is speaking to here; those who can trace their lineage all the way back to the great Father Abraham. Over the years they’d been in the habit of pulling that card out every now and then, cashing in on that perk when the need arose. And now, they think it’s all they’ll need to be ready for what is coming. All they’ll need to prepare.
But John pulls the classic mic-drop as if he’s dropping a decade-old fruit cake on the party table: Don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ God can make God’s children out of stones if God wants.
Now John has our attention. Wild and crazy in the wilderness. Resumes and privileges mean nothing. So what is it, then? How do we prepare? How do we get ourselves ready? We want to know. So we ask John the Baptist a very, very practical question:
What do we do?
Now think about that question for a moment. The fact that they ask it means that they believe John. But more than that – they also begin to understand that a response is what’s in order here. This isn’t something they automatically acquire because of their lineage; this isn’t something just handed to them. For some reason, this preparation will have a direct impact on them and categorically change the way they live.
So what do we do?
You know, it’s interesting – that’s the same question another crowd would later ask; the crowd that was with Peter and the disciples on the day of Pentecost. That crowd, too, was called to “repent;” that crowd also sensed that something had changed. Then, as here, the people were longing to know not just what to prepare for, but how to prepare for it. Then, as here, the crowd present was the least likely to have anything to offer – the poor, the marginalized, the maligned tax collector, the wayward sinner. And yet – and this is important – even they are not excluded from John’s attention or the possibility of “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”
What do we do?
Let me ask you something – if someone were to ask you to describe your Advent and Christmas, what would you say? Would you tell them about the mental checklist you tuck away in the recesses of our brain and drag out like holiday decorations the day after Thanksgiving? Hang lights and ornaments on the Christmas tree – check. Bake Christmas cookies and sausage balls for the office party – check. Get your Christmas list in order and finish shopping some time before December 25th if at all possible – check. Make sure you and your family attend the church caroling and dinner at 4:30 in the Fellowship Hall this afternoon because it’s going to be awesome – check.
This is how we prepare the way of the Lord. And it is vastly, vastly different from what John is taking about.
So what do we do, they ask. Perhaps we are inclined to ask the same ourselves. Perhaps we are inclined to hear with new ears what John tells them, and us. Because it has very little to do with decorations or baking or lists or calendar events.
If you have two coats, John says, give one away.
If you have extra food, do the same.
If you collect taxes, quit your extortion. Collect only what’s required by law.
If you’re a soldier: no shakedowns, no blackmail. Be content with your rations.
So what should we do, they ask. And John tells them:
If this sounds like something you picked up in your preschool class, you’re not all that far off. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe this, at its very heart, is the key to our preparations. Not as much about how we treat the coming Jesus, as how we treat each other. How wonderfully appropriate is it, that John would view preparing for the messiah as a simple commitment to living out the very mercy and justice that the one we are preparing for would later embody himself.
Think about it. Think about some of the things that defined the very essence of the coming Jesus.
- Jesus healed on the Sabbath, even though tradition said not to.
- Jesus fed thousands in the wilderness, regardless of whether they deserved it or not.
- Jesus regularly put himself among people who were considered by societal standards to be ritually unclean or exceptional sinners.
- Jesus frequently told scandalous parables about things like good Samaritans helping injured Jews and loving fathers welcoming home wayward sons.
- Jesus challenged all accepted norms when it came to who had a seat at the table, and where they sat in the pecking order.
- Jesus told little children – the least powerful – that the kingdom of heaven – the place of greatest power – belonged to them.
- Jesus drove out of the temple those who preyed on the vulnerable for financial gain.
- Jesus dared to say that the small offering of a poor, humble woman was worth more than the large gift from a wealthy elite.
- And in the end, Jesus clashed with and defeated the powers of death using the only thing more powerful: unconditional and sacrificial love.
So what do we do? John tells us: we prepare the way of the Lord, we prepare for the coming of Christ, by living Christ-like ourselves. It is all that easy, and it is all that hard!
Nearly a century ago, English professor Lionel Basney penned these words for a newspaper editorial in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He said:
The real crime of Christmas is the way we heap pretensions on its simplicity. Christmas is a complex cultural possession….and the problem is how to keep clean in the welter of it all – how to distinguish the valuable cultural extension of Christmas from the pretense, the true branch from the tin.
Our Christmas rituals and celebrations are wonderful. We treasure them and hold them near and dear to our hearts because of what they mean to us – something more than mere words can convey. Meaning encountered through sight and smell and sound in the deep recesses of our soul. It is why we keep coming back every year at this same time, like clockwork – to hear and be part of a story we already know, because to experience it again is to get in touch with something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the lives we lead day to day.
But we are not preparing for Jesus. We are preparing his way. We’re not throwing Jesus a birthday party. We are prepping the world for the arrival of the One sent to save us. And the best way for us to do that, the greatest gift we can give this Christmas, is the gift of our own lives, molded and fashioned to look like the one who is coming, the one who is already here.
What do we do? We do this:
Share. Play fair. Don’t bully, just care.
Those are the Advent preparations God most desires.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.