THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT, DECEMBER 17, 2006
He (John the Baptizer) said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats; let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His 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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
LIVING IN EXPECTATION
“The people were in expectation,” the Gospel says of those who came out to hear John. What were they expecting? What were they hoping for?
The times were harsh and hard for the faithful among the Jews. Rome held an iron grip on them. Its boot was firmly on their neck. They were entirely at the mercy of a government that had, to be sure, granted them the right to practice their religion, but that also could and did crack down at the most unexpected and unwanted places. Their whole future was, to all intents and purposes, in jeopardy!
So what did John lead them to expect when they came out to hear him?
They were people who remembered prophets before John and faithfully rehearsed what they had said in earlier times. They heard an echo of those prophets in this man baptizing in the River Jordan and calling the people to repentance. Most of the people considered John to be a revival of those prophetic voices now silent for four hundred years. Excitement was running high. “The people were in expectation.”
But what did John lead them to expect when they came out to hear him?
Judging from the opening words we hear in the text one would think they expected the full judgment of God to fall! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” What would that lead you to expect? Frankly, I think it would lead me to tremble in my Texas sized boots! I think I would run the other way . . . or else I would try to silence that voice . . .
Which is exactly what some did! Some tried to tame him down, to shut him up. The one who finally shut him up, however, was the Jew serving as a Roman delegate at the time, Herod by name, considered by most of the Jews to be a traitor to Judaism as a conspirator with the enemy. John’s message “got through,” to be sure, but not it proved to be his undoing.
Yet many (perhaps even most) resonated to his message. “As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John … “ They certainly expected something or someone.
But what did John lead them to expect?
Expectations are hard to define most of the time. They frequently are quite ambiguous. We “hope” for something better . . . but just, exactly, what the “better” is that we hope for, whether we “expect” it or not, is hard to identify. Better health for those whose bodies are troubled with physical distress. Better wages for those who are mired in debt. Better circumstances for those enduring difficult circumstances of various kinds such as soldiers in Iraq, battered wives in miserable marriages, neglected children longing for caring parents, warmth and comfort for the cold and homeless, a return to safety and security for refugees in many parts of the earth, food and drink for the hungry . . . the list is endless. Those are the things people desperately “hope” for in many cases, to be sure.
But to “hope for” something is different from “living in expectation” that the hope will be fulfilled, is it not? For many / most people who live in “hope” their “expectations” are often far closer to “despair,” for they see no way for their hope to be fulfilled and therefore expectations are low to non-existent.
What expectations do you sense in the church and in the nation or even in your own personal lives at this time? It is hard to read the “signs of the times.” There are many promising signs, to be sure . . . but they seem to be so heavily outweighed with signs of deterioration in society-at-large, in the conditions of the early twenty-first century world-at-large, in the churches that sometimes seem to be fighting an uphill battle simply to sustain a true representation of the Gospel because of pressures to make them function more like the world than like the church. There is a very apparent call for change . . . for a change of heart and mind and life. But there is so much momentum to keep on the course presently established that it is hard to imagine changing that course. Even if we could change course, for that matter, what kind of changes would that mean for us?
The people who heard John the Baptizer preaching on the banks of the Jordan (at least, some of them, anyway!) heard him truly calling for a change. What would we hear John calling for were he to be preaching today on the banks of the Mississippi?
The question remains however: What were they expecting? “As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ . . .” We have an answer at least in part to our question when we hear this continuation of the statement concerning the people’s expectations. Is he “perhaps the Christ?”
John is quick to deny it! “He who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” John is only the one “preparing the way of the Lord,” to use the words of last Sunday’s Gospel. Those who were in expectation need not expect their expectations to be fulfilled in this trumpeter of One who is yet to come.
John says, in effect, “Place your expectations on the One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His 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.”
Did John, himself, fully understand what to expect? Some time after this he, then in prison because of Herod’s displeasure with John’s ministry, sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Instead of the expected fire and brimstone that he evidently expected at the hand of Jesus, “cleaning house,” so to speak, he has heard of little other than love and compassion and grace and mercy. He has become uncertain. Were his expectations wrong when he had preached on the banks of the Jordan . . . or had he failed to identify the proper person?
Jesus replied, “Report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Luke 7:22,23 RSV)
Evidently, in an ever so human fashion this bearer of the Lord’s word had looked, like virtually all the Jews of his time, for one who would take on Rome head to head, restoring again the glory of Israel as an independent representative of the presence of God among the nations of the earth. Jesus makes clear that his mission is of quite another sort.
I say “in an ever so human fashion,” though, because our own first expectation is that a God who promises “salvation” will “save us” in some way that meets our own personal kind of anticipation, do we not? We, too, desperately want to be saved from all kinds of problems and troubles . . . but we want to be “saved” in a way that accommodates our own wishes. It seems only right and good that God would “favor” those whom he loves and who love him. Will he not, therefore, privilege such people with health, wealth, reputation, security, protection, and a host of other such earthly blessings? Is this not God’s job . . . to take care of us? When he does not act in the way we think he should, we do not understand, for these are things we surely ought to be able to expect from the God who assures us he is ever and always “on our side.” If he gave sight to the blind, caused the lame to walk, cleansed lepers, gave hearing to the deaf, as he reminded John when John questioned him, why does he not do so today? We, too, send our messengers asking, “Are you he who was to come, or do we look for another.”
We too quickly forget John’s other words to the people, as even he evidently did, on the banks of the Jordan: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’” To us he may be saying, “Don’t think you have privilege with God because you have faith in him, serve him, obey him, trust his promises without doubt or fail. God can raise up followers like that from any place or people he chooses. Taking a subtle ‘pride’ in your willingness to follow me you propose that I should become your servant instead of your Lord! Do not deceive yourselves!”
John’s point was very clear: “Bear fruits that befit repentance. . . .Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” There were those who heard this loudly and clearly. “The multitudes asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’” John responds by urging them to care for the needy, conduct their lives in an upright and just fashion, look to the good of others in their service toward them and be satisfied with what is rightfully theirs. There is nothing spectacular here, as we might have expected. There is nothing here about great works that are ever so noticeable by lesser people. There is nothing here about extravagant deeds that reach into the heavens begging for recognition. There is only the urging to live lives quietly, honestly, justly, lovingly, humbly as people of God who are preparing for the coming of One who will make everything different. The point is not to enjoy privilege. The point is to live responsibly.
For what or for whom were they to be expectantly waiting, then? The question presses hard.
The end to which they were to wait is not all that clear at first hearing. The word was given without a directly identifiable object by John. Just wait! They would see in due time what God was doing when God did it! He will surprise them, for he will do what they least expect . . . or even what they least thought possible . . . perhaps even what they are not particularly interested in getting, for that matter! He would do what he would do even apart from what they would have said that they wanted if they had been permitted to tell what they wanted. Their expectations were, I suspect, really quite nebulous.
Yet they “were in expectation!” The object for which they were to wait was not immediately apparent. One thing, however, was quite clear: They were to wait for what God would do, not what they would accomplish!
And there, in a nutshell, the whole of John’s mission and message is laid bare. Wait! Wait for what God is going to do! They, like we, were living in an Advent time . . . a “waiting time.” It is not a “going toward” time. It is a “waiting for One who is to come” time. When he comes, God will do a great thing! Wait and see! Expect God to do what you cannot imagine. Only he knows what he will do, but what he will do will exceed any and all human expectations.
We are very good at busying ourselves with “going toward” something or somewhere or someone. As long as we are “going toward” something or somewhere or someone we are “in charge.” Then we, ourselves, establish the goal, the direction, the end to which we are going. We are unable, however, to get beyond “going toward” things or events or people that we understand, that are recognizable to us, that meet the poverty-stricken expectations of our humanly focused existence. We cannot “go toward” things that are beyond our normal range of experiences or anticipations since, by definition, they are not things we can envision. We are bound by our own limitations of existence in terms of how we can direct our lives toward the future. We can “go toward” a family, a job, a better wage, a secure retirement. But we cannot “go toward” God. At that point we can only wait, for it is God who comes to us with things we would never expect or could never describe if we were left to portray them for ourselves.
John does not speak of the people (or himself) going anywhere, though! “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? . . . . He who is mightier than I is coming,” said John. Both the wrath and the One mightier whom they could expect are coming to the people. John’s listeners are not headed in the direction of the wrath or the Helper. Both the wrath, if it is to be exercised, and the Mighty One with his winnowing fork are coming to those who are waiting, as though they were in a stationary position . . . waiting to see what the future would bring when it came. The only thing they can do in the waiting is to “share with him who has none . . . collect no more than is appointed . . . rob no one by violence . . . and be content with your wages.” Live your lives as God wants you to live your lives, and when he comes he will surprise you in the midst of your everyday lives with blessings unimaginable!
The winnowing fork and the fire were coming with him who followed John, to be sure. John’s expectations were to be fulfilled. But the “clearing of the threshing floor and the gathering of the wheat into his granary” was not accomplished by the great and mighty acts of terrorizing Rome or through the use of earthly conflict such as the nations of the earth speak when they come to save people. The people of this earth are more prone to “destroy the village in order to save it,” as the assertion was made in Viet Nam. Earthly means can never accomplish that which the winnowing fork and the cleansing fire of God were to accomplish through this One who would come after John.
It came in the quiet mercy of One who “made the blind receive their sight, the lame to walk, cleansed lepers, gave hearing to the deaf, raised up the dead” as he pointed out in his answer to the imprisoned John. God’s ways come with good will toward those on earth, as the Christmas angels put it . . .
But they also come with a fierce judgment upon and condemnation of sin, to which the cross of Jesus testifies. “The poor have good news preached to them, and blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” Jesus concludes in his response to John. On that cross the fierce fire of heaven was hurled down as a punishment for humanity’s sinfulness, consuming that sinfulness with divine judgment. The winnowing fork of God’s wrath was visited upon his innocent Son who took up the terribleness of that wrath into his own body and being. None of this could be seen with any clarity whatever when John first pointed to Jesus as the One to come.
Yet there must have been a ripple of it running through the awareness of those who gathered around John, for on the one hand we read, “the people were in expectation,” and when all was said and done “with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” The words of wrath and judgment were clearly spoken, but melded into them was the sense that this wrath and judgment was to be dealt with, overcome, contained, confined, constrained by the One who was to come . . . and that promise was understood by them as “good news” indeed! How it would be done remained to be seen . . . but that it would be done was the clear message of John who raised high the expectations of those who came out to hear him. This is what they heard and believed!
It would be done, however, by One who was coming to them . . . not by their going somewhere or to someplace or to someone to do whatever they thought ought to be done if their expectations were to be met. There is an astonishing difference between the expectations that are raised when we set our own goals and press toward our own ends and the expectations that will have surprising fulfillments when we wait for him who is coming to us with the gentle power that forgives sin, raises eyes to new horizons, gives hope in the midst of situations that, to the human experience, can only lead to despair.
Our world today is a threatening world. Perhaps the threats only seem the greater because we have means of communication that make us more aware than previous generations of how many and how terrible threats there are in so many corners of the world. Or perhaps the threats actually are greater because we have so many more means of destruction and ways by which we can create confusion and chaos among the nations of the earth than times previous to our own. Whatever the situation, we live in a time marked by threats on every side.
That does not absolve us of attempting to deal with those threats by every means at our disposal. Feeding the hungry, caring for the oppressed, warming the homeless, attempting to suppress those who have evil in mind while raising up those who intend good are all part and parcel of our task as a waiting people. They are all forms of ordering the world in the way God would like it to be when the One who is mightier than John appears again.
But we dare never think that in so doing we are the saviors of the world. He who saved has come, and he who saved is coming again. He whose rule over the world once terrified the powers of darkness will come again to terrify those who petrify the world. He is also the One who will open his arms and gently enfold those who are feeding the hungry, caring for the oppressed, warming the homeless, attempting to suppress those who have evil in mind while raising up those who intend to do good as though in all of these actions we have eyes toward the future where we see him who comes to us, who moves out of the darkness of a future clouded to our eyes but that is open-ended to his love and mercy as well as to his power and might.
It is Advent! He who comes will surprise us with what he has done and is doing and will yet do among us. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion, shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Those are the words of one who was waiting with the confidence that God’s word, given to him to speak in the midst of an earlier dark moment of judgment as trustworthy words, assuring his hearers that the redemption of the Lord would work its way through that terrible time. God’s word is sure! His coming will bring with it the full salvation of the world even though the world appears almost unsaveable to our eyes.
This is the “Joyful Sunday,” the Sunday of Advent when the central theme is the certainty that God’s coming will bring full release from all that binds us and holds us fast in the clutches of things that appear terrifying to us. We can live with high expectations, for God comes, acting in our behalf! With Paul, in the midst of all this, we cry out, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand!” (Second Lesson)
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor