Luke 3:1-6, Second Sunday of Advent, Peace.
The world around us is decorated for Christmas. Stores, communities and individual homes are beautifully covered with lights and tinsel and colors of all sort. And many of us have begun to prepare our homes and the church for the approaching holiday by adding touches of seasonal beauty; candles and greens, and nativity scenes.
But sometimes I fear we spend so much time on these preparations that we might miss the enjoyment or even the deeper meaning behind them. And before we know it, Christmas is over leaving us both tired and relieved. But at the same time, we might also wonder, “What was this all about, anyway?”
Well, all I can say to that is thank God for Advent. Advent is about preparing the way for the Christ Child to come into our homes, our community; indeed, into the whole world to, hopefully, change our hearts and lives.
And this is an important point to remember in this season; Jesus didn’t come for just you and me, but for the whole world. Luke makes that universal reach of the gospel quite clear: the good news isn’t the church’s little secret and it isn’t my private possession or privilege: it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all of us, every nation, and every age. And it’s not just good news; it’s really big news for all of us, today, just as it was two thousand years ago.
So, bearing this in mind, how do we, as a community of faith, prepare for the Advent of the Christ-child for all the world once again? Well, I would say by immersing ourselves in a different kind of beauty: a quieter, more reflective time, a time of shadows and light, one more candle on the wreath lit each week…the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” running beneath our reflections, and stories of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah, all of whom speak passionately, eloquently, of God’s salvation breaking into the world, delivering “the whole world” making us a whole and holy people.
And yet. There are no beautiful canticles from Mary or Zechariah in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, no visit from the angel Gabriel promising the birth of a Savior, not even the child leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.
No, in this second week of Advent we actually hear from Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, much later on, now a grown man bursting onto the scene from out of the wilderness, a man on a mission from God. But this time, instead of leaping for joy, John announces the time of God’s reign on earth by proclaiming a preparational message of a different sort: one that says we all had better get ready for what’s coming.[i]
In today’s text, John called “for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.” Change our hearts and lives. The more traditional theological word is repentance. We are called upon by John to repent, which literally means “to turn and move in another direction,” by asking God for forgiveness for our transgressions. But that’s not all. John continues, later in this passage, to challenge us to “bear the fruit” of our changed of hearts and lives.
But what might that look like?
Well, the crowds that were with him wondered about that too. Later in Chapter 3 they ask him, “What should we do?” And John gave them this answer: “Whoever has two shirts must share one of them with someone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. They asked, “Teacher, what should we do? John replied, “Collect no more than you’re authorized to collect.” Some soldiers were also there, and they asked, “What about us? What should we do?” The Baptist answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, be satisfied with your pay.”
So, what’s really going on here. Well, this passage is finally concerned about Justice. John is saying in essence, if you want to bear the fruit of your baptism you must engage in just practices. Share your stuff, make sure your neighbor has clothing and food. And if you want to bear good fruit as a society, don’t take more than your own share. Don’t extort money or bully someone who’s weaker. So, what John is offering us here goes much deeper than we might have first imagined.
The author of this passage, Luke, is primarily concerned about the poor, the marginalized, those on the outside looking in. In Bible Study, we call this an insider/outsider theme. And I suspect that this might be the dominate theme, the thread that connects all of Luke’s Gospel. And these early chapters and verses seem to bear out my suspicion as Luke sets the stage for what’s to come.
What do I mean? Well, consider the progression of the text. Everything moves outward like a ripple effect. You know, when you throw a stone in calm pool of water producing ripples that expand in all directions. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about the progression of this passage. John says, first change your heart, clean up what’s on the inside and then begin to look outward, changing your life, changing the way in which you interact with the world. In other words, drop the first stone in here and from here, the ripple effect of your changed heart will expand outward changing the lives of others.
How do we do that? Well again, John says, if your neighbor is without a shirt, if your neighbor is hungry, take care of them. But to bear the fruit of change doesn’t stop there. You must also challenge the systems that caused your neighbor to be hungry and shirtless. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it this way, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Maybe that’s why Luke ties John’s message in the wilderness to historical events. Remember in the beginning of this passage Luke says, “In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilot was governor” …and so on. He’s making these connections so that we will view the Baptist’s teachings as history, as real-life events and words. And thus, our response to the story should also be “real-life;” a real-life transformation of our hearts and lives, right here, in this world. Luke wants us to do a little bit of good where ever we are; because, as the Archbishop says, “it’s those little bits of good – when put together – that overwhelm the world.”
My friends, as we continue to live into this Season of Beauty and Light, may we too take the time to look for and then do those little bits of good for our neighbor; the neighbor across the road and the one across the globe. And if we do that, if we begin to change our hearts and lives, as the Baptist suggests, perhaps the world will begin to move, if just a little bit, closer to peace.
In this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Peace, my hope and prayer is that it will be so. Amen & amen.
[i] Katheryn Matthews Sound of a Promise Kept (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018