Third Sunday of Advent
“You brood of vipers!” If you are someone who preaches or in other ways leads a church community, I’m sure you have been tempted to begin a sermon or a church meeting with this line. So satisfying; so true; probably not helpful; guaranteed to cause more problems than it solves. It does, however, seem to work for John the Baptist. We read in this Sunday’s gospel that John’s warning of God’s immanent judgement provokes all types of people to ask, “What then should we do?” John offers his hearers a variety of concrete ways of demonstrating their repentance. Luke concludes this passage by calling John’s message “good news.”
With all the imagery of chopping down of unfruitful trees, separating wheat from chaff, and unquenchable fire, one might well be excused for thinking, “Where is the good news in this?” The first part of the answer to this quite reasonable question lies in the closing verses of this passage when John promises that someone greater than he is soon to come. The one who is coming is both more powerful than John; of much higher status; and will baptize with the Spirit and fire. John’s expectations for this person are clear. This coming one will bring the judgment of God that John has been warning will come. This judgment will be clear, decisive, and we should do what we can to repent and prepare. Knowing this in advance is good news.
Luke has already made it clear to us that Jesus is the coming one whom John anticipates. This is also good news. This good news, however, raises some issues for John. Fairly quickly after our gospel reading ends, we learn that Herod imprisons John. Herod will later order John’s murder. While he is in prison, it becomes clear that John is keeping tabs on Jesus. He receives regular updates on what Jesus is doing and saying. It becomes evident that what John hears causes some level of frustration. By the time we reach Luke 7:18 John sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Clearly, Jesus is not acting the way John expected. There seems to be little chopping, little winnowing, and no fire. Jesus is not doing any of the things John anticipated.
Instead of answering John’s question directly, Jesus points to the things he is doing: “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 and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (7:22). Although these are not the activities John anticipated, they do resonate with the reading from Zephaniah 3,
“I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you. . .”
Jesus’ words and deeds point to the arrival of God’s redemption of Israel. Jesus has come to incarnate the reign of God, to display to all of us what God’s deepest longings for us might look like. No doubt, there is room within that time for God’s judgment. Even so Jesus’ accounts of God’s rule would indicate that God’s judgment is designed less to punish us than it is to restore us and render us fit to live as citizens of God’s reign.
This is not the first time that Jesus has failed to meet the expectations of his Jewish contemporaries. Neither will it be the last time. The challenge that he lays before John the Baptist and before us is this: will we change our expectations to conform to Jesus or will we keep our expectations intact, and fail to recognize who Jesus is?
Yes, it is true that Jesus did and does meet us where we are. It is not the case, however, that in meeting us where we are, Jesus will conform himself to our hopes and desires. Rather, he will invite us to follow him and have our desires transformed and reordered as the Spirit works in us. I have no doubt this transformation and reordering will be difficult, even painful, at times. This may be what John means by being baptized with fire. The result of this will render us more truly and deeply ourselves.
By the third Sunday in Advent, the time is getting short. Jesus is coming, soon. Will our expectations of him frustrate his working in our lives or will be open to receiving him as he is, even if he does not come as we expect?