December 5, 2021
SCRIPTURE READING: Isaiah 40:25-31
This morning the lectionary reading for the day is from Luke 3. The lectionary readings begin with the preliminary things before the birth of Jesus. They are meant to prepare us for the coming of the Christ child. They are like waiting music, but not so stale as elevator music.
So in a way, it is no surprise that we might think about including John the Baptist in the Advent selections. John’s ministry is not precisely situated BEFORE Jesus was born, but he did come before Jesus’ ministry. I guess you could say that he was like the opening act – the warm-up group, if you please, to Jesus’s appearance on the stage of life.
But compared to any performance of a world-class act of our time, this one is simply shocking and almost offensive. The opening act – John’s appearance on the scene offends our eyes. He’s poorly dressed, dusty from being in the wilderness, rugged. Maybe homeless looking, and frankly, a bit scary.
He is standing in the Jordan River – not the most sanitary or attractive of waterways. His call? “Come on in! The water is just right for a baptism! A baptism of transformation and change.” His message? “REPENT! Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight!” And, would you believe it? He’s attracting a crowd!
This is not a publicity stunt. He’s not out for attention. In fact he’s very clear: “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!”
What do you make of this? What is this crazy man doing? What is his job? It is to pave the way for a radically new paradigm on how to change the world. This paradigm, this pattern or model has been around since the beginning of time, but few have paid much attention to it. And it seems true that few pursue it even yet. BUT, it was about to be lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus.
John was a transition man. A true Advent man. Helping us wait for Jesus! Warning us that things are about to change and we need to prepare. He had two themes: REPENT and BE BAPTIZED!
So the only way for us to get to this new pattern, model or paradigm is to repent and baptism is the sign that you have done just that. You see, the word repentance in its original form and in the form John the Baptist used it does not mean exactly what we have made it mean these days. To repent is NOT a feeling. Essentially it is not simply feeling sorry for some gross misbehavior we have done. Its meaning is this: To repent is to TURN AROUND AND GO THE OTHER WAY! This is a behavior word and action!
These words lead us to the next word that encompasses the first two: CONVERSION. Luke in the Book of Acts puts the words together: “Repent and be Converted!” Conversion is a word meaning transformation, change, become new.
John was the opening act for Jesus and his job was to convince the people that to be ready for the coming of the One whose shoelaces he was unworthy to tie, you must go a different direction from what you have been going! And he made it crystal clear that he was not talking to THOSE PEOPLE but to THESE PEOPLE listening to him that day. These were the religious people of the day – not the outsiders! In effect, he was saying: Religion needs a shake-up – a 180 degree turn around!
What kind of turn around?
For one thing, (John is SO CLEAR HERE), true religion is not about buildings, power, and self-gain. It is about DOING THE RIGHT THING and doing it in THE RIGHT WAY. It is about no longer focusing on ourselves but on how we are treating the most vulnerable among us.
Here’s the 180 turn. Don’t look at how well you are doing – or how well the church is doing. Look at how the poor, the powerless, and the weak are doing. Don’t look at whether you have your theology correct or even a pet list of moral rules being kept. Look at whether you are practicing justice and fairness. Listen to John the Baptist a little further on in Luke than what was read for you earlier.
New International Version
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
And how do we do that? What is the prescribed method of this new paradigm? What do we become when we repent (turn around) and are converted (transformed)? What is God’s way? Of course, that is a very big topic, but a quick look at the Christ event at Bethlehem tells us that God is not out to change the world by force or violence!
We can’t believe it! Here is God trying to change the world and usher in a new era and THE SCENE is an unsanitary stable, two unknowns (Joseph and Mary) and their newborn, and a tiny cadre of field shepherds all in a nothing place like Bethlehem!
The whole gospel of Luke is addressed to a people who are in a jam. The Romans have become an occupying army. The oppressed have lived without their freedom for years and years and they are tired. They are the ones who feel the strong arm of the enemy and many can see no way out except by violence and destruction.
And what is God’s plan? Luke says it was announced from the heavens. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The new paradigm that is being offered by John and by Jesus is a way of peace and not violence. Peace and love are critical parts of the 180 degree turn around. The way of peace continues to be God’s design for the oppressed to be set free.
It is God’s call on the church to not be consumed with the mode of operation so typical of our society. The violence of war, of being consumed with power OVER people.
The diminishing of those unlike ourselves.
The method of God is the message and the practice of peace. It is so easy to light the Advent Candle of Peace. It takes a lifetime to understand how to adopt and embrace God’s new paradigm of being people who think like peacemakers