Turning our lives toward the warmth and light of God’s gut-level love is joy and hope and in this turning the Spirit creates fruits in us that spread this dawning love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday of Advent, year C
Texts: Luke 3:7-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Zephaniah 3:14-20
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What do you think these people expected as they came down to the river?
Were they looking for spectacle, a wild prophet from the desert? Did they hope to hear from God, as with prophets of old? Did they think they would be changed?
John’s baptism was for repentance. It was repeatable, it symbolized cleansing, and it showed a desire to return to God’s path, to repent.
John’s preaching about this leaves something to be desired, though. These people willingly come to hear him, to be baptized, even confess, and he calls them a family of snakes. If you really want to turn someone around, insults don’t usually do it. They either raise defenses or crush with shame.
But his point is valid: if you’ve come to the Jordan to be baptized, washed ritually clean, as a sign of your turning toward God and away from your sin, there should be something different in you.
You’re going to be dry in a couple hours, John basically says. After that, will there be any other signs of what happened to you in the river today that people can see? Any visible fruits of this turning around?
What’s lovely about Luke’s telling is here the people ask for help with this.
Three times someone asks, “What should we do?” They’re willing to be changed. They want to live in God’s ways.
Last week Zechariah promised that God’s dawn will break on the world, a dawn of the gut-level mercy and love of the Triune God. John would prepare people for that. So, the people said, “John, give us some ideas. How can we walk in this new way, prepared for the dawn of God’s love? What will we look like?”
What would happen if every morning you awoke and asked yourself the same question? “What can I do today as a visible sign that God walks with me, that I’m seeking God’s path?” How would your life change if that was your morning routine along with bathing?
Here’s another lovely thing: John’s answer isn’t fiery or harsh.
It’s beautifully simple. To the crowds, John says, “Look, if you’ve got two coats, can you wear both? No? Give one to someone who doesn’t have one. And if you’re storing up food, please stop. Share what you can’t eat with those who are hungry.”
To the tax collectors, hated collaborators with the Romans, John doesn’t tell them to quit. He says, “If you want to show fruits of repentance, how about you stop cheating people when you collect the emperor’s taxes? Just collect what’s due.”
To the soldiers, ever-present signs of oppression, John doesn’t offer rebuke or tell them to leave Israel. He says, “How about you stop knocking people over the head to get money? If you want to show fruits of repentance, stop extorting. Maybe stop making up charges against innocent people. Oh, and quit whining about your pay.”
These aren’t earth-shattering acts. He’s just saying, “could you be kind, share what you have, be gracious to people? Be decent people.” Jesus would later say, “Love God and love neighbor.” Simple. Easy to remember.
And even though such fruits seem simple, they will change the world. God is counting on it.
But there are two questions you and I still need to answer.
First, do you want to change?
Can you even consider asking every morning, “What can I do to visibly walk in God’s way today?”
We long for God’s grace and love, and last week we heard that repentance is turning into the warmth and light of God’s gut-level love for us and the cosmos. But John reminds, such a turning away from sin into God’s way means changes.
Some are general changes, that apply to most of us. This fall, we heard much from Jesus about letting go of everything. John’s call to the whole crowd to give one of your two coats away and share your food is more general wisdom like that. It’s for all of us, we who hoard so much, who cling to our wealth and possessions, this exhortation to let go of things we don’t need.
But some of these changes will be concrete and specific, different for you perhaps than for me. Like these two specific professions John speaks to, we each will have our own specific fruits to show, actions that reveal we are turning toward God.
But the question is, do you want to change?
And second, if you are willing to be changed, how on earth can you do this?
That’s the grace John’s preaching reaches in the end. He says One is coming after him – the One we know as Christ Jesus – with a different baptism, of water and the Holy Spirit, and fire.
Fire, because there is chaff and waste on the kernel of goodness God has made in us. As you turn, there are things in your life and heart that aren’t compatible with bearing God’s gut-level love in the world. God will gladly burn those away. It will sting; but it will clean.
The Holy Spirit is the other gift. The premise of Luke’s Gospel is simple. Jesus, as God’s Son, is obviously filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves in the Son even as he lives as a human being. Luke claims this empowers Jesus to bring good news to those who are poor, healing to those in pain, freedom to those captive.
But in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke promises the same gift of the Holy Spirit to you and me. What the Spirit empowers in Jesus, the Spirit we received in baptism empowers in us. Your fruits, the writers of the New Testament also joyfully proclaim, flow out of the life of the Spirit in you. Luke also takes the time to remind us that with the Spirit it’s not all about axes on fruitless trees. Jesus told a parable about this, Luke says in chapter 13. The owner wants to cut down a fruitless tree, just as John said would happen, and the gardener says, no, let me dig around it and manure it for a few years and see what I can nurture. That’s the Spirit’s work: digging in your heart, putting in the manure that will feed your soul and bring out visible fruits that show you’re turned toward God. If you want to turn to God, the Spirit will gladly make the changes happen in you.
And that’s the source of all the joy this Third Sunday of Advent always sings about.
Luke concludes today with, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” That’s what these fruits are, this life of the Spirit in you. Good news. They aren’t complicated: be kind, be generous, be gracious, share, love. But Luke’s right: this dawning of God’s love in you is Good News. Gospel. Salvation itself, for you and the world.
And Zephaniah today, with Paul, urges you to rejoice and exult in this healing and salvation. But did you hear? The prophet says that God, too, rejoices and exults in you! When you turn from sin into God’s love, and the Spirit bears fruit in you of that gut-level love, flowing that love into the world, it not only heals the world. It brings God joy and delight!
So rejoice. God is with you. What love of God does the Spirit empower you to show in your life today to bring you joy? And what kind of joy will you give the Triune God by doing that?
In the name of Jesus. Amen