Luke 3:7–18

We’re still in this season called Advent, at least here in church. And the language is all about longing, preparation, and waiting. What is it that we’re exactly waiting for? For children, this month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is surely the longest of the year. For us grown-ups, maybe one of the reasons that Christmas always seems to come so early—in addition to unbridled consumerism—is our longing for a season of goodwill, a time of celebration and childlike magic up against so much that is dark and foreboding in our world. Indeed, as people of faith we say that with the birth of Jesus comes the light we’ve been waiting for to shine in our darkness.

I admit to my own love of this season and all that glitters. I’ve never objected to the decorations going up as soon as possible. And I suspect many of you delight in this festive time of year. But then we come to church and John the Baptist assaults us once again this week. Amid our decking of the halls and sweet silent nights we hear ourselves called a brood of vipers and told we must bear fruits worthy of repentance.

Two weeks ago we began Advent with the evangelist Luke warning us that our redemption is drawing near. Last week, John the Baptist admonished us to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. The baptizer is unswayed by our somewhat heightened sense of “good will toward others” during this season. And he certainly is not interested in what I have just admitted to, some childlike magic in the air, especially when it is an illusion.

John the Baptist is tough, particularly on us churchgoing types. “Don’t start by saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our Father.’ Don’t start by saying, ‘Look, with only eight shopping days left, we’re here in church, we know the meaning of the one who is to come, unlike our more secular neighbors who are standing in lines this very minute in shopping malls around the city.’” John warns against any smugness of guaranteed salvation. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” As if to suggest that the crowds were only coming to be baptized to escape the coming judgment. He ridicules their mere observance of the law as not enough.

Well, what is he demanding? Along with the crowds we ask, “What then should we do?” “Repent,” he cries. In the Hebrew and Aramaic of his time, to repent meant to turn, to change. It was about something that happened to the heart, the soul, and one’s vision of the world. It involved a sharpened ability to hear the cries of the world. It was much more about conversion than merely seeking forgiveness. Our dean, Sam Lloyd, talks of sin as not so much a crime to be punished but as a wound to be healed. John the Baptist is calling us to a change of heart, to a sharper vision, to a sensitized hearing, to conversion and healing if we are truly to receive Jesus as the light in our darkened world. And he offers specific directives for how we are to live, how the repentant are to view the world. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Jesus is coming not that we might simply believe in him, but rather that we might become different people, that our relationship to our neighbor and whom we understand our neighbor to be might be different. Jesus’ mantra was not, “believe in me,” but rather “follow me.” Jesus challenges us to see the face of God in all humanity, in all creation. Our faith must make a difference in our actions.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and convener of Call to Renewal writes in his book Faith Works, “The great heresy of twentieth-century American religion was to make faith a purely personal matter and a private affair. Faith was turned into an occasion for conspicuous consumption. Faith became merely another commodity: ‘I have it and you don’t,’ or worse, ‘Here’s how to get it too, our operators are standing by!’” “In the Bible, [he writes] faith is not a possession; it is something you practice. You have to put it into action or it really doesn’t mean much. Faith changes things, both for individuals and society.”

What is so annoying about John the Baptist is that he’s telling us what in the deepest recesses of our souls we know to be true. It’s really not all that complicated. That is always the problem with prophets and truth-tellers. Such honesty isn’t very comforting, especially a week away from Christmas when we’d probably rather be sipping eggnog. Or is it actually just the kind of message laden with a promise of living life more fully, more freely, with greater connection to neighbor and God? Is it a message that speaks to the deepest longings of our hearts? Is it in fact just the kind of challenge, disturbing as it may be, we hope Jesus’ advent among us is all about?

That is why on this day when annoying John the Baptist calls us to repent of our blindness and deafness to the cries of our neighbor we focus our prayers and call to action on the Millennium Development Goals. One billion members of the human family live in extreme poverty without access to food, shelter, health care, and clean water. In 2000, all 189 member states of the United Nations signed on to the eight global development goals listed in your service leaflet, all aimed at “freeing our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”

We live amid all this suffering, injustice and imbalance at the same time that the world has never seen such prosperity. We have the resources to end the most devastating global poverty. But do we have the will; do we have hearts on fire for God’s justice that will move us to action? Archbishop Ndungane, primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and a frequent visitor to this Cathedral, writes, “Poverty is the greatest scourge in our times, something we need not to have, because our God is a God who has provided for our needs and, in fact, the world is in surplus. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that everyone created in God’s image with dignity and worth has all that is essential for human living, such as accessibility to food, to clothing, clean running water, and education, health care. It is an imperative of the gospel—to bring good news to the poor is actually our marching orders as followers of Jesus Christ.”

Advent is about preparing for a light to shine in an otherwise dark place. It is about joining with God in setting things right in a way that we with our limited means will never accomplish on our own. Yet it is also about being called—limited means, vision, hearing, and all—to be co-creators in bringing about God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven. God wants our hands, our eyes, and our hearts far more than our doctrinal assent. One third of the world’s population claims faith in Jesus who took on our flesh to invite us into a new way of being in relationship with one another and God. If we would heed John the Baptist’s call to a change of heart, a sharper vision, a sensitized hearing light would indeed shine in the darkness. The world would change.

Desmond Tutu, when asked what God had in mind when creating such a seemingly contrary and pain-filled world responded, “I believe God has given us children a wonderful and challenging ministry exemplified by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is our job to make our community, our society, and our nation, our world a place where fairness and justice flourish. It is part of our responsibility as part of God’s creation to participate with God in that creation by rectifying the imbalances we see all around us.” In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Few of us, even in Washington, can really change the world. Often that is our excuse. The problems are so big, so complex, so out of our reach. What could I possibly do that would begin to put a dent in achieving any systemic change much less one of the Millennium Development Goals? But look how John the Baptist describes the repentant life. Simple acts, just like those described in Matthew 25, sharing an extra coat, offering food to someone who is hungry, not taking more than one needs, not cheating anyone in business. Jim Wallis likes to talk of the repentant life in terms of getting out of the house more often and listening to those closest to the problems. If we would start doing more of that our hearing and sight will change, our hearts will follow, and we will break with business as usual. Kofi Annan asserts we have time to reach the Millennium Development Goals worldwide and in most or even all individual countries by the year 2015—but he adds, “Only if we break with business as usual.”

Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation, “God is a consuming fire. He alone can refine us like gold and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect God’s own triune life. As long as we do not permit God’s love to consume us entirely, the gold that is in us will be hidden by the rock and dirt which keep us separate from one another.” John the Baptist is calling us to let God be that consuming fire that separates us from our selfish individualities. Then we will be prepared to receive the Messiah and we will become co-creators in bringing about God’s purposes on earth as it is in heaven. And that is just the kind of invitation and challenge, disturbing as it may be, that Jesus’ advent among us is all about.