It is a time of preparation.
After all, in case any of you are counting the days, there are now only 9 days left until Christmas.
It is a time of preparation in so many of our lives – preparations to see friends and family members, preparations for grocery lists and plans for meals with loved ones, preparations for gifts and presents that we want to give to those whose presence in our lives is a source of joy and blessing, preparations to get Christmas cards into the mail now that the postal strike is over.
And, even in the church, there are preparations underway – preparations for services over these final weeks of Advent and into Christmas Eve.
But the preparations go beyond Christmas itself. Soon, a New Year will be upon us, with all of the year-end things to finish off before 2018 enters the history books. Some of us look to the New year, and prepare lists of things that we would like to accomplish, or lists of resolutions that we would like to honour as 2019 begins.
It is a time of preparation.
It is therefore interesting that today’s suggested reading, from the Gospel of Luke, reflects this sense of preparation, albeit in a seemingly different context.
The narrative focuses on something that happened years – decades, in fact – after the events that we will remember on Christmas. The author of Luke paints, for us, a picture of a strange individual who appeared in the wilderness in the area of the Jordan River. John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, relative of Jesus. As the son of a priest, John would have inherited a priestly vocation, but his garments and activities were not exactly in line with priestly protocol. Rather, the author of Luke roots John’s identity and authority in the ancient prophecies of one who would come to announce the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord.
But his words were not all sweetness and light.
Rather, he called out the very people who came to see what he was doing and to hear what he had to say.
“You brood of vipers!” – clearly, John the Baptist had not spent a great deal of time trying to learn how to win friends and influence people. And yet, they still came to him, looking for guidance about how they should prepare for the coming of the One whose coming John was announcing.
He told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” which is actually an interesting concept. That is, he was not simply calling them to repentance – that is, to confess and to turn away from their sins – but also to conduct themselves differently, to behave differently. They were not to rely on some inherited spiritual identity, but rather to live the lives that they had been given in a new and different way, to relate differently to others, to conduct themselves in a different way than they had been acting.
“What then should we do?” asked the crowds.
And it is John’s replies to that question that I would invite us to pay particular attention to, not only in this season of preparation for the celebrations of Christmas, but also in this Advent season of preparation for Christ’s coming and the fulfillment of the ancient visions of a time when the kingdom would be revealed in completeness, and heaven and earth will be as one.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
John’s words were not simply about disrobing. Rather, his words were an encouragement to live equitably, generously, with a demonstrated willingness to share with those in need so that need and hunger would be no more.
To the tax collectors, he stated, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” – in other words, in the systems of power, of commerce, of business, act with ethical integrity and do not seek to use your power simply for your own gain and enrichment.
To the soldiers, he said, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, do not use the power that is entrusted to you for coercive or exploitative purposes. Do not lie about others, or threaten others, but be content with what you have.
And finally, John met their questions with a statement of great humility about his own sense of expectation, his own sense of preparation. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” John knew that his role was to point beyond himself, to direct people’s attention not to himself, but to humbly acknowledge that there was one who was greater who was about to be revealed – and compared to the One who was to come, he was not worth paying much attention to.
In some ways, John’s words seem harsh, but it is possible to read them in a different way, and a way that is relevant to each and every one of our lives. Consider, after all, the kinds of qualities, and attributes, and characteristics that would be demonstrated – both in our own lives, and in the world – if we took John’s words to heart.
We would not depend on some inherited spiritual or cultural legacy in order to prove our decency – in the case of those to whom John spoke, there were those who were trying to claim that they had inherited an important spiritual and cultural legacy in light of the fact that they were biological descendants of Abraham. But John wasn’t impressed, any more than he would be if any of us tried to justify our actions by relying on being Presbyterian, or being “Canadian”, or being from a good family, or even being able to claim that we are Christian. It was in their actions, not some inherited identity, that would reveal that they were prepared to welcome the Messiah.
It was in those qualities of being that the sincerity of their repentance and preparation would be revealed. Consider, again, the qualities that would be revealed if they took John’s advice. Generosity towards those in need. An equitable distribution of food and resources, in which people freely shared what they had. Relationships in the workplace and in the affairs of the world that were marked by ethical integrity. A restraint on the unchecked and exploitative use of force and threat by those entrusted with power. Contentment with one’s resouces and finances. Humility about one’s own place and power, especially in relation to the place and power of Jesus Christ. It’s quite a list that John lay before them – and that John lays before us. Generosity towards those in need; living equitably; sharing what we have; practicing ethical integrity; keeping a proper restraint on the use of power; conducting oneself with contentment and humility.
It’s a challenging list of qualities and attributes; but it is one that is worth pondering, especially in this season of preparation.
Because, after all, Jesus did not come to this earth merely so that we could celebrate his birth. Rather, he came to show us the way to live, and to invite us to follow him so that we might discover the truth and beauty of God’s saving love.
So, just as John the Baptist’s words were a starting point for those who listened to him, so long ago, perhaps we might embrace them as a starting point for all of us who seek to prepare for the coming of Christ. To rededicate our lives to the ways of generosity, of care for those in need, of sharing, of ethical integrity, of contentment, of humility.
To do so will not save us – but it might just help to us, and our world, to be a little bit more prepared to recognize, to respond, and to be transformed when we hear the truly good news of the coming of the One who John foretold, the One who is the Saviour of the world.