This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Advent. The gospel lection was Luke 3:7-18.
John gives some surprisingly practical advice in today’s gospel. It’s surprising to me, anyway. I mean, John is out there in the desert, shouting at those who come to him, calling them children of snakes, and asking them, “What are you doing here?” He tells them to produce fruit that shows that they have changed their hearts and lives. He tells them they’d better shape up. But then he tells them how. He sounds angry, sounds serious, sounds like he’s going to tell them all to sell all their possessions and live in the wilderness with him or something. But no.
“What should we do?” the crowd asks.
“You should share with people who have less than you,” John said.
Tax collectors said, “What about us?”
“You should be fair, and not cheat people,” John said.
Soldiers said, “What about us?”
“Don’t harass people, and be satisfied with your pay,” John said.
That’s it? Share, play fair, and don’t be a bully. That’s John’s advice. The Messiah is coming, and John tells everyone to prepare a way for him. And how do they do that? John doesn’t recommend worship, or prayer, or proper belief, or anything like that. He says: share, play fair, and don’t be a bully.
It can’t be that simple. This is the coming of God, after all. It must be more complicated, more spiritual, more meaningful than that. We learned all that in kindergarten! Kids know how to do that! Ohhhh. Jesus did say something about needing to enter the kingdom of God as a little child, didn’t he?
And besides, even if we did learn this in kindergarten, have we truly practiced it ever since? Don’t we continue to forget? Don’t we sometimes forget to share? To play fair? To not be a bully? Well, here’s our reminder.
Jesus is coming. He’s coming to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He’s coming to change our lives and change our hearts and save us from sin and death. Do you want to be ready for him? Do you want to be ready when he comes? Do you want to be ready for when he burns away your sin? Do you want to be ready to stand before the Son of Man, the Son of God, in all his glory? Heck, do you just want to be ready for Christmas? The answer is this. This is how you get ready for Jesus.
Share. Play fair. Don’t be a bully.
And I wonder. I wonder if the reason this surprises us so much is because we think we have to get ourselves ready for salvation. Like, we have to get our act together first, and only then can Jesus come in and save us. Like it’s our job to make Jesus’ job easier. Like whenever I have a dentist appointment, I make sure to brush and floss really well that morning, to make sure I go there with a clean mouth, to make their job easier. But that’s not how Jesus works. He’s coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and honestly, he doesn’t need our help. He can save us just fine on his own. As John says, the ax is already at the root of the tree. So why prepare at all?
Well, maybe because when Jesus comes, he will make us into people who want to share, who want to play fair, who don’t want to be bullies. And maybe this is practice. Or maybe, it’s because when the kingdom comes all around us, this world will be a world of sharing, and of fair play, without bullies. And maybe this is a way of getting the world more ready for that. Or maybe it’s a way to help remind us that what’s most important is taking care of one another, building a safe and trusting community.
I don’t know why John suggests this. But he does. So it’s probably wise advice, and it applies to us every day of the week.
It reminds me of something attributed to Martin Luther:
“A Christian cobbler makes good shoes, not shoes with crosses on them.”
Being a Christian isn’t about proclaiming your faith with words and symbols. It’s about living your faith with actions. Are you a cobbler? Make good shoes, sell them for a fair price, and give a few of them away to the poor. That’s it. That’s how you prepare for Christ.
Are you a tax collector? Good, then go and be a good one. Are you a soldier? Good, then go and be a good one. A good one who shares, plays fair, and isn’t a bully.
So who are you? Are you a teacher? A machinist? A nurse? A mother? A brother? Are you a caregiver? Or a gardener? A reader? How would you describe yourself? How do you identify yourself? Whatever it is, here’s John the Baptist’s message to you: Go and be a good one. Be a good teacher or machinist or nurse or mother or brother or whoever you are. And share. Play fair. And don’t be a bully. And you’ll be ready for Jesus when he comes. And he’s coming.