There comes a time when we realize change is needed. Things don’t work out. Something happens. Someone says something. The tried and true ways become tired and trite. It may happen suddenly or slowly over time. Either way, we realize we can’t go on like we have. We must not only do things differently we must be different.
That’s what happened to the people who heard John’s peaching. Something about his message of change, preparation, and repentance has taken root in them. It is the Church’s Advent message that in the coming of Christ we, our lives, and our world cannot continue on in the same old ways. That message was enough to draw the crowds out to John and it is John’s message to us today.
The crowds have heard a word in the wilderness of their life. It is a prophetic word, a word of deep insight, by which they recognize that all is not well in their life and world. It is also a word of hope and rejoicing, a word of God, that says all can be well. It is a word that joins the wilderness and paradise and makes them two sides of the same reality.
St. John seems to know that real change, transformation, does not begin with the world around us but the world within us. One of the things that often makes change difficult is our propensity for self-justification. This happens in lots of different ways. We blame others. We list how hard we’ve worked and what we deserve. We claim place and position by virtue of our length of membership or our giving of time and money. We deny our need for others. We refuse to accept responsibility for ourselves. We play the victim. We choose to live as blind persons. John understands this about us. He expresses his understanding directly and bluntly:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John is saying that if we are going to be in we need to be in all the way. He has no patience for self-justification. He will not settle for only good intentions or only nice behavior. There must be congruence between who we are and what we do. Repentance, changing the direction of our lives, means that inner change, a change in our way of being, must be manifested by corresponding behaviors. Likewise, our words and actions must point to and arise from a different way of being.
“What then should we do?” The crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask the same question. I suspect many of us have asked that question. John’s answer is simple and practical. Go do the right thing. Share with those in need. Do not take advantage of or defraud others. Don’t manipulate, use, or coerce others.
His answers sound reasonable. They make sense. Underneath them, however, lie the deeper issue and the real change that must take place. The reason we can deny or be indifferent to the needs of others, the reason we can lie to or take advantage of another, the reason we can use, manipulate, harm, and even kill another is because we see them as something other and something less than our selves. We see them as objects to be used or overcome and not as persons.
John is demanding behavior that arises from and is grounded in a new way of being, one that sees the other as a person with needs, hopes, fears, dreams, and a life as real and as valid as our own. That is the ultimate act of repentance; to see others as persons, as holy, as created and loved by the same God who created and loves us. It means we must turn away from doing or being anything that dehumanizes another or our selves. That changes everything about how we see the world and relate to others. It is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is “a gospel of shared life” (Richard Rohr), one life shared with other persons and shared with God.
That shared life is why the events of this past week, the shootings in Oregon and Connecticut, have broken our hearts and left us with tears, sorrow, fear, and questions. In some way the lack of or failure to recognize our shared life is why such events can happen. Those events tell us once again that something has to change. They echo with the words of St. John. We cannot go on like this. Every moment of every day we choose our way of being, how we will speak, and how we will act. Amidst the many voices that will offer analysis, explanations, answers, and opinions of these events we must continue to hear the voice of John the Baptist. We must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
Repentance opens our minds, softens our hearts, and turns our life in a Godward direction. It’s how we participate in and cooperate with God’s bringing us home and restoring our fortunes. Through repentance we recover our original and ancient beauty. It fills us with expectation and hope. At the deepest level repentance makes us more human and becoming more human is how we prepare the way of the Lord. That is our Advent work and it is important work. For the God who comes, the Christ, the one who is more powerful, is coming to humanity.
This sermon was based on Luke 3:7-18. The collect and readings for the day, Advent 3C, may be found here. Other Advent sermons for this year are as follows: