This Advent season I’m writing reflections on the lectionary Gospel readings for Light Reflections and reposting them here. Please feel free to borrow and steal anything from these that might be helpful in your own Advent sermon, teaching, etc., work.
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,* 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people!
This image of Christ with a winnowing fork, clearing the threshing floor and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire doesn’t immediately ring of Good News to me. It doesn’t quite match up to the vision I too often have of Jesus as my happy buddy. And it’s a far cry from the humble babe in the manger whose birth we anticipate joyfully this season.
This image of Jesus is terrifying, even violent, threatening to undo the world in which we live.
Luke proclaims a constant leveling, an evening out of the types of privilege some of us in this world have and some of us don’t. The cultural advantages afforded by birthright, wealth, status or any other imaginable identity marker are non-transferable in the Kingdom of God. God creates all things new – converting stones into beloved children while hacking back trees that produce no fruit, forcing them to begin from scratch. We all are told to collect no more than our fair share.
It’s easy to see how this is good news for those of us who are disadvantaged by the social structures of this world. It’s often more difficult to see how this is Good News for those of us whose birthright, wealth, racialized, gendered, sexual and other identity markers keep us close to the centres of power, however.
Those of us who were born into the citizenship of the country in which we live, whose parents could afford to send us to university or college, who are White, straight, or who never feel excluded by having to check the box of either male or female on a survey form – those of us whose identity is stable and valued by the culture in which we live – might have a harder time seeing how this passage is Good News for us.
But it is.
But there’s strange grace in John’s question, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It’s tough to hear – even tougher to do – but I need to face the judgment that will call me into penitence. It’s only in humble repentance that I am able to face and give up or use well the privilege accrued from being born and raised and bodied according to this world’s broken parameters of success. If I flee the wrath, John warns, then I am unable to experience its liberating impulse – the promise that I can be set free from what drives this world along, and live instead somehow, even fragmentarily, in God’s promised realm.
This is the season when I dare to believe this might be possible – when I dare to believe Christ might come and call me out of my ordinary into his extraordinary, so that the heartbeat of each day might become the lifeblood of the Spirit. This is the season when I anticipate something revolutionary, hoping beyond hope for the Spirit’s baptism, for the chance to pass through that unquenchable fire, into the darkness of the longest night, and be born again on the other side as the days grow long once again.