The Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)
16 December 2019
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end.
Last Sunday Father Towner helped us confront the tectonic prophecy of John the Baptist. Be prepared: the time is coming when “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” God is coming and will move heaven and earth. God is coming and the people (and all of God’s creatures) will be swept up and we shall be one with God and God with us.
Today we address more specifically the man who brings us this prophecy and what it means for us in this moment. It is interesting that Luke’s John the Baptist was not Mark’s man “clothed with camel’s hair, [who] had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.” Although emerging from the wilderness to share the “word of God” that came to him, this John the Baptist was not some wild-man, but rather the son of Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth all grown up. At the same time, his words were dramatic and challenging for those, like Luke’s first readers and like us, who are comfortable in an age of Empire. It requires vision to believe and embrace the words of such a prophet, for his promise is an amazing promise. It is an uncomfortable promise, one filled with both foreboding and hope. It is, in fact, the promise of Advent.
Indeed, despite the upheaval John promised, people were excited about the possibilities offered by these words declaring that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” People who had the vision to respond came out to be baptised by him, to receive his words, words echoing those of earlier prophets. Yet, despite this enthusiasm, John greeted these multitudes with the invective: “You brood of vipers!” He wanted to be sure they understood that what he is offering, what he is prophesying is hard, so he challenges them with the parable that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In their new life in baptism, the people are to “bear good fruit” in the conduct of their lives.
Undaunted by these warnings, they ask him, “What then shall we do?” And rather than obfuscating, or responding with further parables or prophetic riddles, John answers them plainly. He tells them simply that they are called to give someone who needs it your second coat, give someone who needs it your extra food. In short he is telling them to love their neighbour. He is making it clear that God’s initiative to act in history has consequences for the way in which they are called to live their lives in this moment. John is insisting that notwithstanding the cosmic, transcendent scale of God’s movement in inaugurating the Kingdom, there remains the imminent demand for ethical behaviour in our personal lives and within our several vocations.
To make this point unequivocally, Luke tells us that the first to come asking further clarification were members of two professions that would not have been considered honourable, and which would in later times be prohibit” Within any sphere of human activity, it is possible to act in a way that is oriented to the carrying out of God’s commandments. Indeed, what he is asking is not unreasonable, perfectly in keeping with the status of Luke’s readers, for John the Baptist does not demand or expect apostolic poverty; rather he calls upon the people share without necessarily becoming poor themselves.(1) The main thrust of John’s argument is both a clear statement that all are included in this work of repentance and a warning against greed. If you have more than you need, share with those who have nothing. If you do a job that puts you in a position of power over other people’s lives, their money and possessions, do not take advantage of it, work for the good of the people with whom you are brought into contact.
John also wants to make it clear that there are further consequences for failing to act in this perfectly reasonable manner. John goes on to explain, “His 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. So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.” Perhaps to our ears—and even theirs—this might not have seemed like such good news. In reporting it thusly, however, Luke is making it clear that preaching before the Resurrection and Pentecost, John the Baptist is proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God. John is telling his hearers that Christ will come and hold them to account for their actions in this world. It matters what we do and how we live our lives. God is acting, God is inviting us in, we can use our free will to choose whether to act in accordance with the Kingdom or in opposition to it. God has acted, now it is time for us to act, for salvation is a mutual emterprise.(2)
John the Baptist’s vision of how to live in Advent times are as immediate to our situation as they were either to those who first heard them preached at the dawn of the Christian age, or to Luke’s worldly-wise Roman readers a generation or two later. As I have suggested before, we always seem to be living in Advent times. Humans perennially feel that we are at the edge of the abyss—be it from disease, threat of war or terror, economic uncertainly, or from the shameless racism, sexism, corruption, and political turmoil of this moment. We hear today the promise that "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and he crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth," and it fills us with hope and we, too, want to know how we can be a part of what God is achieving.
In times like these, in times like ours, Christians are called to make meaning of that feeling as we await the coming of the Kingdom of God and we bear witness to the myriad ways in which the Kingdom is, in fact, unfolding before our eyes, having been inaugurated in that Incarnation for which we also wait. We feel this as keenly as those whom John addressed as the “brood of vipers.” We ask the same question, “what then are we to do” in these days? and the answer remains the same. We are called to love our neighbour, we are called to act with the Kingdom in vew as we carry out our vocations in the world, we are called to place God in Christ at the centre of our lives and act as if that really mattered. Indeed, Advent is as much about ethics as it is about anything else, and we can never forget this.
The Advent of our Lord, the preaching of the Kingdom calls us to engage our lives and integrate our faith into our practice, our action. Christian thinking, Christian preaching, Christian praying demands Christian living. Each of us, baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire, each of us has the power and the potential to respond as John the Baptist called upon those tax collectors and soldiers right at the beginning of this movement. I see it in our lives already, let us keep living Advent lives in these Advent times.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 15 December 2012
(1) François Bovin, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, trans. By Christine M. Thomas and ed. by Helmut Koester, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 124.
(2) Bovin 2002, 126.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume