Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
Things about John the Baptist both draw me to him and push me away. “You brood of vipers.” Those words leave a bad taste in my mouth. “You are children of the snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.” If John was a teenager in our house, and he said that to me, John would be grounded forever.
At the same time, there is an almost visceral attraction to John. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Why? Because John knows that the world in which we live is a hard place – sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, death. People who are homeless and hungry. Kids that talk back. The stocks you so carefully set aside for your old age lose value every month. Indiana manufacturing plants close and leave people out of work. In Iraq yesterday, the seventeenth Hoosier was killed. I have not personally been connected to the networks of anyone killed there, but before this war is over, I expect to be. And just a few hours ago, Saddam Hussein was captured.
John believes that God is bringing a new world. A world of forgiveness, justice, community, love, peace, and life. John is in the wilderness to bring a word of hope. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus Christ is God’s agent bringing the new age.
But between the present world and the new world is a great judgment. “Even 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.” Run your finger down the blade of the axe. Feel how razor-sharp it is? Can you hear the roar of the flames? Smell the smoke? Feel its heat?
John, of course, is using figures of speech to alert the crowd to the coming of the last great judgment. A moment in life when the evil that people in the world do catches up with them, and they suffer the consequences. Not everyone today, myself included, believe that there will be such a single, dramatic moment of judgment. Nor does everyone today believe in a punishment of unquenchable fire. But buried deep at the center of John’s preaching is a conviction that is as true today as when John spoke it: Our attitudes and behaviors bear consequences. If we go along with dishonesty, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death, we can expect our personal lives, and our social worlds to be stained by dishonesty, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death.
The crowds in the wilderness want to avoid this judgment and to live towards the new realm of peace, justice, and love. So do I. When they ask John a question, it is my question, also. And if you have felt the pain of brokenness in this life, and the longing for a better life in a better world, I’ll bet it is your question, too. “What then should we do? How do we bear fruit worthy of repentance? How do we repent?”
I used to think of repentance as feeling bad, feeling sorry and remorseful. While repentance in Judaism included feeling sorry, it involved much more. Repentance is the act of turning away from collusion with the old age and of turning towards the new world that God is bringing. Even more, an act of repentance is a sign of commitment to living in God’s ways and it is an act of preparation for the new age.
In those days, tax collectors could force people to pay not only the basic tax, but a surcharge that went into the tax collectors’ pockets. Soldiers could extort protection money from people by threat or even false accusations. We expect tax collectors to repent by not gouging people and collecting only the amount required. We expect soldiers to repent by not extorting people, threatening them, or falsely accusing them.
But John also gives repentance an unexpected spin. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” If you have two coats, giving one to a person who has none can be an act of repentance. How? Coats and food represent things that are necessary for a secure and blessed life. A common human propensity is to stock up stuff to provide for our own security in the future. Luke, however, believes that the new world is coming soon. When you pass along your second coat, you turn away from protecting yourself and turn towards the new world in which God cares for all. You show a sign of trust that this new world is coming and that God will provide for you as you provide for others.
John preached in a time of poverty, financial anxiety, and social stress. Many people felt the chill of having little clothing. Many people felt their stomachs growl with hunger. Many people, living from day to day, put their hands in their pockets, and had no change to rattle.
If you have clothing, John says, two coats, repent by giving one to the person who does not have a coat. If you have food, repent by giving some food to the hungry. If you have sufficient financial resources, John says, repent by not accumulating more than you need and by sharing with those who are in need.
Think of what such actions would mean to the child who will wait for the bus on a dark corner in the snow and the cold tomorrow morning, wearing only a sweatshirt because there is no coat. Think of what this would mean to the person rummaging in a dumpster behind a nearby restaurant early on a Sunday morning, looking for food.
Repentance is one of the fundamental themes of Advent. How do we prepare for Christmas? By turning away from the things that deny blessing to ourselves and others, and by taking the positive, dynamic action of turning toward things that create abundance and justice for all.
Now a remarkable thing is that repentance works two ways. It helps other people and it helps you. It helps other people by making the world more like the place God wants it to be. It helps you by releasing you from fear and self-centeredness, and grasping after stuff that you hope will make you secure, only to realize you will never have enough.
There is a catch, of course, and I feel it myself. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring, how do you know you won’t need your second coat? Your food? Your money? It’s so hard. But here is where the Episcopal Church points a way forward in the form of the collect for the day, the one that begins, “Stir up your power, O God.” This prayer is a source of considerable humor among other Christians because the first words “Stir up” sound like a part of a saddle on a horse. I’m a little surprised, in fact, that your pastor did not instruct me to wear a cowboy hat. (Of course, then you might have mistaken me for the bishop.)
Stir up your power, O God, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.
We can repent not because we make ourselves repent, but because God’s power and grace are among us. Such a great God: giving us the very thing we need to do what we need to do.
Now if we had time this morning, we could follow Luke’s story into the book of Acts where we would learn that in the early church, God provides for all by means of sharing in the community. That’s the point of that famous phrase, “had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44) If I give up my second coat, and then find next year, that the one I kept has worn out, the community will provide another. Instead of trying to hoard for my own security all by myself, the life of the community is our security.
One of the wonderful things about this time of year is that there are so many opportunities to express John’s kind of repentance. Some things simple and easy to do – like the Salvation Army kettles, or bringing food for the families the congregation is sponsoring, or adding to the Angel Tree, or returning your house-shaped box filled with money. And with a little more effort, you can donate a pint of blood, or take a turn working at Gleaners Food Bank or at the Dayspring Shelter.
Simple, yes. To be sure, such things can be little more than donations to charity. But if we act from Luke’s perspective on repentance, then turning over some of our money, time, and blood can be the first step turning away from hanging on to our own lives, and turning towards the divine realm with its better life for all. Indeed, something as ordinary as putting money in the Salvation Army kettle can become a pattern for things we do all year. If you can turn over a little bit to the good of the community now, you can make it a way of life.
Some things are more complicated and require a bigger stretch and more imagination. If God does not want financial security to gloat with the value of stocks rising and falling like the temperature in Indiana at this time of the year, or to see manufacturing plants closing across town, we can turn away from thinking that such events are just the way things are, and ask the question, “What can we do to help develop a world economy in which there are good jobs for all?” I do not myself have the details of a plan for a way towards greater peace in Iraq, but I can join groups, such as “Move On” who call into question the idea that we should just assume that the killing will go on and who are looking at alternatives. From John’s point of view, these things are acts of repentance that help prepare us for the coming of Christ, and for the new world of abundance for all that Christ wants for all.
Repentance does not have to be a big, dramatic act. Not long ago, I visited an upper-middle-class congregation located downtown in a conservative part of southern California. Their minister humorously called them First Church of the Hard Line. Beautiful old Mission-style building with polished brass, carved wood and stained glass that comes alive in the sunlight. Wednesday night dinners followed by a youth program and classes for adults. One night a couple of scruffy looking grade-school-age Hispanic children looked in the open door while they were eating and wandered in.
Kids looking longingly at food. What do you do? The kids came back and gradually their story came out. They had come from Mexico, had been abandoned by their father, and now lived with their four siblings and single-parenting mother, who had a minimum wage job and no prospects of getting a better one because they were in this country illegally. Someone from the congregation took some clothes to the home. They didn’t have much food, clothing, or school supplies because so much of their money went to the rent. The mother said if they went back to their part of Mexico, prospects weren’t any better. Tedious low-paying work. Poor schools. Limited futures. At least here they had the long-term possibility of working for a better life..
The congregation talked informally about what to do. Report them for deportation? Hard lines are hard to hold when people have names and faces and stories and hearts. You know how these things happen – a bag of clothing turns into a box of food every week and trips to the optometrist and summer camp, and help with school. It also turned into legal advice, and to several members of the congregation coming to think that there are inconsistencies and inequities in U.S. policies regarding persons who are in this country in situations similar to that of the kids who looked in the door of the church that night, and writing letters to Washington to point out these things.
It’s not a whole new world. But it’s a step away from hanging onto what we’ve got and a step towards a better one. The minister, a friend of mine, says, “I don’t know whether it’s the kids or not, but we laugh more now than we used to.”
From across the centuries, John the Baptist puts a question to us. If we have two coats, what do we need to do?