On the third Sunday of Advent in Year C, the lectionary continues Luke’s telling of the story of John the Baptist’s ministry.
That’s right: a month into the period where every store and many a radio station plays nothing but Christmas carols, the Church steadfastly resists. No baby in Bethlehem just yet.
We wait, on Advent 3, for Jesus to begin his grown-up earthly ministry of teaching and healing, of dying and rising.
Last week we had Luke’s explanation of John’s ministry, in the measured poetic tones of a quotation of Isaiah. For me, and for many, the melodies of Handel’s Messiah accompanied it:
Shall be exal…aaaaaaal….aaaaaal…aaaalted!
Last week was all calm and reflective because it wasn’t an encounter with John the Baptist.
It was commentary, explaining John the Baptist—which is far more socially acceptable.
In Sunday’s we’re going to meet John face to face. Brace yourself.
It helps to jump first to the end of the reading where Luke gives us a little theological framework to interpret the scene:
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18 NRSV)
Keep that in mind: All that comes from John’s mouth is to be understood as “good news” — or, as we like to say, “the gospel.”
It comes as a three-act drama:
Act I: The Firehose of Reproof
If John the Baptist were a movie, Luke 3:7-9 would be the “director’s cut.”
If John the Baptist were Scotch whisky, Luke 3:7-9 would be labeled “cask strength.”
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this passage read in church in an appropriate way. We read it slowly, politely.
To get the point across, these verses need to be in a shout, a scream, a firehose-level tirade — picture your favorite heavy metal superstar, or maybe someone from the punk era, raging against society in full volume on an arena stage, light show and fireworks blazing.
That matches John the Baptist’s message:
“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 axe 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.” (Luke 3:7-9 NRSV)
John doesn’t mince his words. He even had the stage-show costume, right? Camel’s hair, leather belt… I’m just sayin’.
So I can’t dumb him down.
When John the Baptist proclaims the “good news” it totally hurts:
- he calls me insulting names
- he questions the value of my heritage
- he warns me that God is basically fed up with my bad behavior
So, as Larry Norman asked, what’s the “bad news”?
I don’t want to strive to have a ministry like John’s. It is too easy to play the internet prophet and cut down all the hypocritical straw-figures who hold views different from my own. Take on that role and one just becomes what one hates.
What I need to do is to receive John’s ministry. I need to listen with care and examine myself: Root out the viper within. Find the be behavior that better befits a snake in the grass than a child of Abraham. Take action before the axe hits my roots.
If John can get through to me, and get me to change my direction in time, then that really might be good news.
Act II: The Fine Points of Repentance
That’s what seems to have happened. Luke gives us three examples from which we can extrapolate. What, these three groups ask, would be an appropriate change of mind, heart, and action?
- The crowds: Share your clothes with the poor. While you are at it, share your food too.
- The tax collectors: Don’t gouge anybody. Be ethically upright in your work.
- The soldiers: Don’t use your position to intimidate or extort. Be content instead.
All in all it is a redirection of the heart–away from self-proclaimed greatness, toward a life of God-defined goodness.
Don’t love your neighbor in some empty theoretical way. Share, be fair, and don’t abuse your power.
Love in practical ways. Start with your character and move to help real people.
Act III: The Redirection of Focus
It was easy for the crowd to think that this deeply convincing (if somewhat edgy) preacher might be their promised savior.
But the strangely quiet climax of the drama of John the Baptist is that he turns the people’s attention elsewhere.
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.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16 NRSV)
You thought John and his firehose of accusation was something?
Wait,” he says, “until you meet my cousin.”
Overall, if you know the Gospels well, Jesus seems considerably more mellow than John. Okay, Jesus takes his turn at slinging insults and overturning tables. But most of his time is spent more quietly, healing, teaching, casting out demons, welcoming outcasts and foreigners.
But John knows something. He knows that his sign of baptism, turning from sin and being washed in a river, is only a beginning.
Jesus aims at deeper inner change. Just as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan “de-dragoned” Eustace Scrubb, Jesus action to help us can really hurt.
It burns like a refiner’s fire. Jesus brings us step by step toward the day when the metal of our lives shines purely enough that when he looks on us he sees his own reflection.
This, by the way, is the piece of John’s ministry that I can strive for in good conscience. I want to do just as he did and draw attention away from myself so that people follow the real Messiah.
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