The Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2018
The season of Advent is a time when we prepare for the arrival of company. Bonnie and I are looking forward with eager anticipation for the arrival of all of our children and grandkids. Many fix up their front yards and homes with lights, garland and other decorations. We attend church, share gifts to attend to what some call “the true spirit of the season.” Some of us actually clean the house awaiting company, but others are more inclined to hide things, pulling that extra bedroom door shut hoping they will not be seen. Knowing human beings as I do and for that matter my own humanity, I suspect that in preparing for Christ to come we lean a bit toward the latter. There are circumstances of our life we try to hide, hoping they won’t be found out.
Then, just as we are coming down the stretch to Christmas with the sense of celebration intensifying all around us, John the Baptist appears right in the middle of our preparations and tells us what perhaps is the last thing we want to hear: “Repent!” He walks in the front door and finds everything we so carefully tried to hide. He feels like a type of scrooge and throws water on the parade. The ax is wielded to cut down all that is not bearing the fruit of God’s Kingdom. The chaff and the wheat will be separated. The appearance of this prophet/truth teller is inconvenient to say the least.
Look at today’s Gospel for reference. After hearing his dire warnings the crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask what they should do in response. The crowd is told: If you have two coats (or four or five), share them with those who have none. The same direction is given concerning food and in one fell swoop of the ax John the Baptist’s unsettling words reject accumulation and the acquiring of private property as markers of success.
The tax collectors get a word too. Collect no more than the amount prescribed and with that swipe of the ax says personal esteem and respect no longer are measured by the amount of one’s acquisitions or control and power over others. Then the soldiers are exhorted not to extort by threat or false accusation, but to be satisfied with their wages. The ax is chopping away any notion that power or domination or threat of violence can bring real peace and has no place in God’s vision for the world.
Whew! It takes one’s breath away. The Baptist’s words are meant to be a wakeup call, an alarm sounding, then and now. What is also amazing is that St. Luke dares to say, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, “So with many other exhortations he dares to proclaim the Good News to the people.” Is that some kind of joke? Where’s the good news in that? It sounds like surgery to me.
So why is it that year after year, in this Advent time leading up to Christmas and the celebration of our Savior’s birth, we invite John the Baptist back into our midst, to cry out the call to repent, to change, to be different, to challenge our pretensions and achievements? Maybe it’s like a good news bad news joke. It may feel like surgery, the bad news. But often it leads to healing and wholeness and a deeper more faithful discipleship, good news.
On some level we all know this. I think that is why at Christmas most of us are willing to do a little extra and focus more on others than ourselves. Yet we must also be aware that discipleship in Christ is more than turning over a new leaf, making a resolution, or giving a little more to the Salvation Army pot, as good as that is. The needs of humanity are too great, the suffering and pain of our world too extensive, the world’s enticements anesthetizing our own deep longings for love, acceptance, freedom and yes, even God, just too seductive. John the Baptist is calling us into a conversion of our life patterns in joyful response to the One born in Bethlehem. It is to make a difference in the way we live life, setting us free from all that would detain us from doing the radical work of the Gospel.
Of course the other thing that biblical axes do is offend, especially when Gospel truth challenges our preconceptions and misperceptions. And the notion that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor shakes us to our core. Surely all those good deeds and kind thoughts must count for something! We want to earn God’s favor and love even as we know we could never do enough. The real “spirit of the season” is that being reconciled to God by the Babe of Bethlehem is pure gift, but we often become a part of a frenzied attempt to “make the grade” and in our flurry of busyness the sense of gift along with a full and grateful heart can get lost. As Lily Tomlin has said, “The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The heart of Advent and the imploring words of John the Baptist are for us to take stock and examine our life motives. Although the falling of the ax may feel at first like bad news, it is to be sure, good news. For in the coming of Christ we are assured of God’s love for us, knowing that our efforts are not about earning that love, but a way to respond with joyful hearts to prepare a way for Christ to be born in all, including ourselves. Even as we await his arrival, we discover he is already here among us, in you, and in me. So “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Throw open your arms and let the company come.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.