For the life of me I can’t figure out why “crowds” of people went out into wilderness to listen to John. Beyond being a difficult walk, beyond the lack of amenities (think no Starbucks), and beyond the insufferable heat, who wants to be told off by a crazy man? What would the response be at announcement time if I said, “OK folks, we have scheduled a twenty mile hike into the Dismal Swamp so that we can meet a religious fanatic who will tell us we are sinners, call us names, and let us know our time on top is just about up”? My hunch is there would not be a long wait at the sign-up sheet in the Parish Hall.
Every Advent we get not one, but two – TWO! – Sundays to focus on John. One commentator calls him “an irritant in the midst of Advent”. Another remarks, “If this is his idea of good news, I’m not sure I want to hear the bad news”. I tend to think of him as being the harbinger of fruitcakes and ugly ties. Just as you can count on getting a couple of unwanted presents at Christmas, so too you can count of John in Advent.
I think his appeal is this: John preached a message of hope. He promised something new and good and restorative was about to happen. Back in Jerusalem, back in the Temple, back in the halls of privilege and power, the message was “Everything is fine just the way it is. The system is working for us, so let’s not mess with it.” The problem was for most people everything was not fine. Everywhere they turned someone was putting the screws to them – politicians, religious leaders, bankers, Roman mercenaries. The “crowd” believed deeply in God’s promise for a better world and they yearned for it happen. John was a lone voice saying this world is broken and God is about to send someone to fix it. At its core, it is a message of hope and it was gladly received by everyday people like you and me.
But here is the rub: along with his message of hope John said something else, “God is about to do a new thing, but you are not ready for it.” Why weren’t they ready? Did they need to improve their technology and infrastructure? Did the streets need swept and storefronts given a fresh coat of paint? Did someone need to compose coronation music? What was the holdup? Here is what John said: “You have got to change yourself before God will change the world.”
As you might imagine, each person responded with a question: “What do I have to change? Think of all the things John said:
· You must go to church every Sunday.
· You must tithe 10% of your income.
· You must pray for an hour a day.
· You must convert four heathens.
· You must memorize the names of the books of the bible in order.
· You must become a fan of the Cleveland Browns.
The list of arduous possibilities is endless.
Instead of any of these, John tells them their lives must bear good fruit. Plain and simple, each person must lead a good, decent life. He tells the crowd specifically, “If you have two coats, share with a person who has none. The same goes for food. If you have food, share with a person who does not.” He told tax collectors, who were notorious for over-charging and keeping the difference, to take no more than the prescribed amount. He told soldiers, who were not at all like our professional military but more like hired thugs, to stop taking advantage of people and pushing them around.
One commenter says John’s message boils down to “share, be fair, and don’t bully.” It sounds a lot like lessons we were taught from the first day of kindergarten. Eric Barreto, a New Testament scholar, describes John’s message as “a call to ordinary acts of grace.” They are things we can do without the supernatural assistance of God’s Holy Spirit. If we could do it in kindergarten we can do it today. God is about to do something new, but you are not ready for it. To get ready you must become what you once were – a decent human being who in every day, ordinary ways thinks about others and cares for others.
The 19th Century Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper is remembered for saying “No single piece of our… world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” He contends that Jesus is as concerned with presidential decisions as a student’s PowerPoint presentation, as concerned with an investment firm’s policy as with what we purchase at a department store, as concerned with the movement of planets as with how wide we open our hearts and our hands to a person in need. If you think like this you will understand that the decisions you make matter, that your words matter, that your actions matter, that your life matters. The quality of fruit you bear matters. It is as true for the most important and influential person in the room as it is for the least significant person here: John says your life matters and what you do with your life matters.
There is a sentiment held in some Evangelical circles that says Jesus still would have died on the Cross even if I was the only sinner in the world. What if we turned that around a little bit and gave it a dose of John the Baptist: “God is about to do a new thing, but it won’t happen until I am ready for it, until my life starts to bear good fruit.” If you believed this then you would believe that everything you do in life matters. Your every very action either is moving you toward being ready for God’s new and restorative thing or it is not. Either it is helping the world to be ready for God’s new, restorative thing, or it is not. What you do matters.
I like this picture of a mother and toddler on the beach. I have sat with it for some time and continue to reflect on its richness. It is such a common experience. I think most people can relate to a moment like this. It occurs to me the child will not remember this particular event, save for the picture. Still, it matters because the mother is building a bond of love and trust and joy and happiness. The relationship develops around thousands upon thousands of experiences like this one. Each is an instant of bearing good fruit. It reminds me how much every big and every small decision and action matters.
John’s message of hope electrified his listeners. Through his words, they began to realize God was not going to break into the human world before God broke into the human heart.
So, continuing our three-word Advent, here is where we are: On the first Sunday we said, “Take Advent Slowly.” Last week we said, “Change Your Clothes.” Today we hear, “Your Life Matters.”