December 13, 2015 – Advent 3C
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When I was growing up, this week of the year always felt stressful. There was an urgency in our house to get ready that left all of us in fear. We weren’t worried about decorations or shopping or the big family meal, nor were we anxious about the predicted second-coming of Jesus and the end of the world that we heard about in church every Sunday during Advent. No, we were worried about an arrival of a different sort: the advent of my grandparents who might show up at any minute.
Days before their predicted arrival were busy enough. Rooms had to be cleaned. Floors had to be swept and mopped. Toys had to be put away. But, on the morning when they were supposed to show up, my mother’s commands rose to a feverish pitch, and I remember scurrying around the house, picking up stray items left out of place, while she screamed, “They’ll be here any minute! They’ll be here any minute!”
You see, my father’s father liked to wake up early—very early. If they were not in the car and on the road from Birmingham before 6:00 a.m., he would be sorely disappointed. So around 9:00, things got really hectic at our house. Mom would bark out one order after another, “Go put your dirty clothes in the laundry room! Quick, wipe down the kitchen counter!” My dad retreated to the relative tranquility of the lawn mower, while the kids pretended to look busy in case mom walked into the room where the television was on. Eventually, of course, the grandparents would pull into the driveway and one chaos would be replaced by another. We were never completely ready, but, for that last hour or two, we gave it a pretty good go.
There’s a similar tenor in John the Baptist’s preaching, which we hear in today’s gospel lesson. “Even now,” he proclaimed, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees. If you don’t bear good fruit, you’ll be cut down and thrown into the fire.” That was two-thousand years ago, and his words have lost some of their urgency, but we haven’t forgotten them. And, this season of Advent, when we prepare not only for the season of Christmas but also for the day when Christ will return and judge the world, I wonder what it might look like if we took John’s words just as seriously as the crowd who gathered on the banks of the Jordan River. What would it mean for us to believe as fully as we proclaim that one day soon Jesus will come back? What might become of us if we took repentance seriously?
Repentance is a curious thing. Most of the preachers who cry out, “Repent!” are the same ones who are likely to shake a bible in your face and try to scare the hell right out of you. I think it’s a good thing that our tradition has, for the most part, left the scariness of religion to the fundamentalists. But some of us, who preach in the Episcopal Church, are so worried that we might be compared with a fire-and-brimstone preacher that we’ve forgotten how important repentance is. You can’t get to heaven without it. You can’t be a part of what God is doing in the world unless you repent. We cannot hear the good news of Jesus Christ unless we embrace the message of John the Baptist, the forerunner. And that leaves me asking the same question that the crowd asked the great prophet: “What should I do?”
As someone who has dedicated his life to the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ but who also believes that the gospel cannot be a message of fear, what should I do? How can I call upon this congregation to repent without turning them away with a harsh message that no one wants to hear? How can I get you to listen long enough to hear me say that repentance is actually good news? How can all of us understand that the invitation to repentance isn’t threatening or fear-mongering but actually an invitation to peace and security?
Well, thanks be to God that Luke takes care of that for me. All four gospel accounts start out with John the Baptist and his message of repentance. And two of them—Matthew and Luke—portray this exact moment when the crowds come out to be baptized by John in the Jordan. But only Luke tells us what the Baptizer said to the crowds when they asked him what they should do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to the soldiers, he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Share. Don’t steal or extort. Be satisfied. Do that and you will be ready when the Lord comes. That doesn’t sound very threatening, does it?
That’s because repentance isn’t about perfection. It’s about living a life that reflects God’s priorities for the world. Think about the people to whom John the Baptist was speaking. Among them were tax collectors and soldiers—the most hated people in society. Their occupations represented everything that stood in the way of God’s kingdom, but John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs and become religious zealots. He merely asked them to do their jobs with dignity and honesty. We don’t have very many prostitutes, drug dealers, and loan sharks in our parish, but God’s message to them is the same as it is to the rest of us: you don’t have to be perfect; just stop living for yourself and start living for God’s kingdom.
Jesus Christ is coming. And, when he comes, he will judge the earth. And it’s up to us to be ready. But getting ready doesn’t mean being perfect. If perfection were what God requires, we’d be lost and without hope, and this message would be one of fear and desperation. We prepare for the coming of Christ through repentance. And repentance is as easy—and as challenging—as living a life that belongs in God’s kingdom. It’s as simple as sharing your coat and your food and conducting yourself honorably, and it’s as difficult as letting God’s ways become your ways.
Repent! Hear the good news! The kingdom of God is near. And, because of God’s mercies, it is within your reach. You don’t have to become Mother Teresa in order to partake in God’s kingdom, but you must yearn for a life that belongs to God as thoroughly as hers did. As John the Baptist declared, we cannot afford to wait. We must live that kingdom life now. And we do so not because we are afraid that Jesus could show up at any moment and catch us unprepared. We live that kingdom life because we know that Jesus will come back and the only way we can get ready to embrace his coming is to live as if he were already here.