The Gospel we just heard has for its location the wilderness, the desert, the place nobody chooses to live. John the Baptist, advance man for the kingdom of God, has drawn crowds of people out into the middle of nowhere with his demand that they start over again.
The crowd around John is a Jewish crowd. They can make for themselves impressive claims based on their lineage. They can attempt to get by as the Lord’s favored people. Yet to those gathered around John such claims sound increasingly hollow, empty of content. These people want and need something more, and so they accept at the hands of this wild-eyed prophet a baptism of repentance. And John himself is there to insist that their plunge into the river is not the end of their striving, but only the start.
You’d think that he would be happy, this John, at thousands climbing out of the river, drying themselves off, signing themselves up as new and improved People of God.
But he won’t let it rest! He doesn’t care if they have a family tree that goes back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He doesn’t care if they’ve participated with gusto in this guerrilla theater, this performance art, that he’s conducting down by the river side. What John wants is to see lives that have been transformed, lives tuned in to a different frequency than they were before.
He’s not interested in people’s roots, their membership cards, their family connections, their past. He’s interested in their fruits: what they are doing now with mercy on their minds, what they are doing now for God’s own pleasure and purpose. John doesn’t care about how they talk, whether they know the right words and can string them together. What concerns him is how they walk, whether they are moving down Repentance Road in the direction of the kingdom, whether they are striding one step at a time toward Jerusalem the Glorious.
And that’s why I love John. John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, advance man for the kingdom of God! Out there in the desert he calls us to repentance and cares enough to insist we get it right.
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John the Baptist is a holy embarrassment! During these December days all the world appears caught up in conspicuous consumption and sickening sentimentalism, marshmelllow ethics, spirituality where hearts are warmed by what may be simply indigestion. So what does John the Baptist do? He stands up and shouts that we are no better than a bunch of baby snakes! He doesn’t care who we are, where we come from, what beliefs we hold. John gets right into our faces like the best friend we ever had and demands that we repent. The guy’s for real!
This is what I love John the Baptist. He expects more from us than the world does, more than we expect of ourselves.
When we get absorbed with who’s got the best decorated holiday tree, John points to the ax lying at the roots of every tree and reminds us that fruitless ones will soon be firewood.
When we start singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, John starts shouting about our need to be wholesome wheat lest we become burning chaff on another open fire.
Those times we get impressed with ourselves, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, John is there to remind us, in no uncertain terms, that God can just as well turn stones into saints should we choose to live unfaithful lives.
Today’s Gospel is clear that the people around John hear and respond to his call that they repent. “What should we do?” That is the question they ask him.
The crowds ask that question. So do the tax collectors. So do the soldiers. “What should we do?”
He tells the crowds to share with people in need. He tells the tax collectors not to cheat, and the soldiers not to abuse their authority. These are ethical demands, building blocks for constructing the kingdom of God. What John demands is part of a vision better than anything these people have ever seen before. He tells them to do differently than they have done and thereby change the world. He does not try to make their lives easy. Instead, he invites them to make their lives holy.
And what about us? What about you and me, two thousand years later? Like his prophet John, God does not care about roots, but cares passionately about fruits. So you believe in me, God says. What are you going to do about it? Perform deeds worthy of repentant people. Look around. Find a need and fill it!
Are you spending lots of energy on your loved ones at this time of year? That’s fine as far as it goes. But caring about the people closest to you is not a radial sign of the kingdom of God. Be lavish! Show mercy to those you will never meet! Expand your gift list to include the poor, the hungry, the isolated, those who can never repay you. Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.
I know that many of you are doing just that, but I would spur you on further. The God we serve not only performs miracles, but expects miracles!
Consider some miracles, people of conspicuous fruitfulness.
One of them is William Chandler Vatavuk from Durham, NorthCarolina. William began volunteering when he was ten years old. He has contributed thousands of hours to 21 agencies, boards, and committees to help hundreds of disadvantaged youth. Through his efforts, the Bayer Corporation decided to airlift $350,000 worth of vitamins and medications to Kosovo. You’re never too young to be fruitful.
Another of them is a man past ninety, Dr. Ernst Katz. Back in 1937 he founded a youth symphony, and since then he has provided free music training to three generations. Dr. Katz continues to support his young musicians in every way, supplying music, instruments, and even concert attire for those in need. His orchestra’s motto remains “Give youth a chance to be heard.” You’re never too old to be fruitful.
Now let’s consider a big team of people, the more than two thousand attorneys and paralegals who offer their services free through the Chicago Volunteer Legal Service Foundation. This organization, which receives no federal funding, prides itself on their assistance to the working poor, people who are often turned down elsewhere simply because they are employed. The volunteers provide services in many languages and dialects–some forty of them in the Asian-American clinic alone. The situation is never too complicated for you to be fruitful.
What should you do? That is the question, and the God who places it as a question in your heart can also provide the answer. God invites each of us to live fruitful lives, and that is good news.
The Christ we serve is not simply born long ago in Bethlehem. He is present not only in the words of Scripture and in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar. Christ comes into the circumstances of each new day
—When we repent and leave ourselves open to how he would use us in the world,
—When we put aside preoccupation with roots and endeavor to bear abundant fruits,
—When for the love of God, we find a need and fill it, even as Christ did in deciding to come among us.
Christ still looks to be alive in the world. He looks to be alive and active through us. May we live lives worthy of repentant people and make every day a Christmas.
—Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).