7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
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.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
John the Baptist is the character in Advent who reminds us that Jesus’ coming is political.
Not Republican or Democrat political – though it certainly has implications for how we vote – but political in the sense of how we choose to construct life together, how we engage our responsibilities both as those governed and as those who do the governing, how we recognize and understand the power we have over others and the power others have over us.
John the Baptist was the ultimate outsider. His life itself was a protest against the powers of his day – the power of the Roman Empire and of local authorities, even the influence of the religious establishment. He lived a life in the wilderness – “off the grid” we might say – disentangling himself from the marketplace and the basics of everyday society like housing, clothing, and even food. He lived in the wilderness, wearing rough camel-hair garments like the ancient prophets, and eating a diet he could gather in the wild.
John was popular – crowds came out to hear him, and his message was clear and unsparing. “Get ready! The Messiah is coming, and he’s bringing God’s judgement on all of us! It’s time to repent! Things need to change!” That’s why John baptized people – as a sign that they were repenting and changing their lives.
And all kinds of people came to John to be baptized, Luke tells us: ordinary people, tax collectors, even soldiers. John was not easy on those who came – he called them a bunch of snakes and accused them of using baptism as a “get out of jail free” card. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he told them – you’ve got to show you’re actually changing your life, not just talk about it!
But apparently, these folks were serious, because they ask John what they needed to do.
He told everybody, “If you have more than you need, give it to someone who needs it.” But there was more…
The tax collectors were Jewish sell-outs to the Roman Empire, and when they collected taxes, they had the discretion to take a cut for themselves. That’s the way it worked. John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs, though. Instead, he told them not to collect any more than they were obligated to – to take the system Rome used to manipulate Jews into oppressing Jews and flip it on its head.
And even soldiers came to John, most likely Jewish soldiers working for Rome as something like a local police force. They were apparently throwing their weight around and acting like the mafia, since he told them to stop extorting money from people with threats and intimidation and false accusations. They were to be content with their rations and pay – which wouldn’t have been much for non-Roman citizens, and much like tax collectors, soldiers usually supplemented their pay by using their position. John tells them to stop.
In a system that thrives on injustice, legal and illegal, John is telling people to do something different. To act with justice and compassion towards each other.
No doubt, these people were a lot like us. No one else was going to take care of them or their families if they didn’t, so they only did what they had to do. They were trying to survive in a system they didn’t create – who could blame them for taking advantage of it? And Jewish revolts were common – the soldiers probably thought a lot of the people they harassed and accused deserved it, and that some of them might turn around and kill them if they had the chance.
The Jews were divided. Extremists planned revolts, while others did their best to make friends with Rome. The soldiers were policing people who’d probably been their neighbors, and most of them thought the soldiers and tax collectors were traitors to be working for Rome.
And here comes John, and he doesn’t fit with any of them. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors and soldiers to quit their jobs, but he does tell them to quit playing the game – working the system. And he tells everyone with even a little more than they need to be generous and share what they have.
John is telling them – and us – that repentance means seeing everything differently. Instead of looking at the world and seeing how we can take care of ourselves, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can take care of somebody else. Instead of looking at the world like the tax collectors did, and seeing a system we can use to our advantage, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can seek justice for others. And instead of looking at the world like the soldiers did, and seeing threats and enemies, he wants us to look at the world and not be afraid we won’t survive without violence.
John knows that repentance means much more than saying we’re sorry. Repentance means seeing a new way to live with each other and with the systems of power that shape our world and manipulate what we see.
For most of us, Advent is about waiting for Christmas. When we’re kids, we’re waiting to open those presents! When we get older, we’re waiting for the family to gather, for the shopping and decorating and getting ready to be done, for something that will make us feel that special Christmas feeling we remember. And maybe some of us are really just waiting for it all to be over and hoping we survive it!
But for Christians, Advent is about waiting for Jesus to come. Waiting for the day we celebrate how he came the first time, as a tiny, crying, baby in a manger; and waiting for him to come again as the King of All Creation. We are waiting, and while we wait we are making our way in the world and doing our best to get ready. It’s a little like waiting for a child to come home from college – we just want to see them and be with them!
But John’s kind of waiting is less about anticipation and more about that getting ready part. “He’s nearly here!” John yells at us. “What are you doing??? What are you waiting for???”
And that’s the part of John’s message that gets me – What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for?
I spent the first forty years of my life waiting – waiting for God to tell me what to do with my life, waiting for God to tell me it was okay to do something I wanted to do, waiting – in a way – for my life to start, for things to get going. It took me forty years to realize that’s not how God works – at least not most of the time. God’s already told us what to do – “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” is how the Prophet Micah puts it. John the Baptist says, give what you have to help others, don’t take advantage of power, and don’t hurt others to help yourself. It’s not okay to just go with the flow – look beyond the system and what it wants you to see. Jesus said, Love God with everything in you and love your neighbor as yourself.
Where we live, what job we choose, who we marry (or don’t) – all of those things are important, but they’re context, not core. It took me forty years to realize that, and then I started making choices and doing things. One of the first things I did was start going to a different church, one closer to the community I lived in. I changed jobs so I could work somewhere I was freer to stand up against the oppression of LGBTQ folk, especially in the church. I bought my first brand new car, I moved into the City, I started giving a lot more away.
I did a lot of those things because I started looking for how I could do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, how I could love God and love my neighbor better instead of being afraid of what I might get wrong. But I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have one friend, a Baptist pastor in Tennessee, who has accidentally become a one-man Facebook hotline for Christian LGBTQ kids whose families and churches can’t accept them. He gets at least one new private message every night from a kid asking him for help – often asking him to talk to their parents who might listen to a pastor.
I turn on the news and every day there are more kids fleeing for their lives from Central America and getting locked up as soon as they cross the US border. They’re scared and they need a safe place to grow up, and they don’t have lawyers or anyone to help get them through our broken immigration system.
I have another friend, a black man in his early thirties who grow up in Chicago. A few weeks ago on of his childhood friend’s big brother was shot and killed by a police officer while he was doing his job as a security guard and restraining a man with a gun who’d started shooting in the club he worked at.
There’s a sense in which Advent is less about what we are waiting for, and more about what and who is waiting on us. Waiting on us to realize what we can’t afford not to give. Waiting on us to see the justice they need from us. Waiting on us to vote for their good instead of our own. Waiting on us to do the right thing.
The world is messed up, and it can be confusing. And there’s so much more justice to do, and mercy to learn to love. I’m trying to figure out, what is it I’m waiting for? What are you waiting for?
What are we all waiting for?