John the Baptist appears as a commanding figure twice during every Advent season. On the second Sunday of the season and here as well on the third, John appears, dressed as a prophet in his strange outfit of camel hair and leather belt.
His speaking style is gruff and blunt, even insulting. He issues a call for baptism, a baptism of repentance, insisting that his fellow Jews start over again and receive the water bath normally required only of converts. The crowds come out to be baptized, they are eager for a fresh start, and what does John call them? A viper’s brood, a bunch of baby snakes!
His point, though, is simply this. They must not rely on what their faithful ancestors did. They must not rely on his baptism of them in the river. If they are repentant, if they have undergone a change of mind, a change in how they live, then that must appear obvious in their behavior. Just as the owner of an orchard expects the trees to bear fruit, so they also are expected to produce fruit, the glorious fruits of repentance.
What John says ignites a response in those who hear him. They ask the obvious question, “What then must we do?” Three groups ask this question, and each group gets its answer.
• Let’s look first at those most deserving of suspicion: the tax collectors.
Keep in mind that tax collectors in John’s time and place not only represent an imperial occupying power, but are notorious for keeping the difference between what they shake down from the population and what Rome requires of them. Tax collecting is a lucrative racket for those with little or no conscience.
But these tax collectors have undergone a change. “What must we do?” they ask John the Baptist.
He tells them, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.”
• Next some soldiers approach him. These soldiers are Jewish men in the service of the local ruler who governs at the pleasure of imperial Rome. They are in the unenviable position of enforcing the will of an occupying power in their own homeland. Local patriots despise them as traitors.
They ask the same question as the tax collectors, “What must we do?”
Jesus tells them, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages.”
• But the bulk of the thousands cut to heart by John’s call for works of repentance are neither tax collectors nor soldiers; they are not public figures but private individuals.
They also ask about the fruit they must produce. “What must we do?”
To them John responds, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”
John the Baptist tells these tax collectors, soldiers, and private citizens that the glorious fruits of repentance include much that is ordinary. They are to cease from extortion, bullying, and grumbling about money. They are to share with the destitute their surplus clothing and food.
John does not ask for anything explicitly religious such as fasting or temple sacrifices. He does not demand the extraordinary, such as his own relocation to the wilderness. What he tells these private citizens, soldiers, and tax collectors is that opportunities to bear fruit appear right in front of them every day.
He does not set forth an exhaustive program, a complete way to live, for those who have undergone a baptism of repentance. He simply points out the first step they can take in a new direction. By their repentant behavior–by what they abstain from doing and what they choose to do–they will leave themselves open to wherever God directs them next.
John presumes that those listening to him will keep asking this question as their circumstances change: “What must we do?” Later the answers they hear may not come from the lips of a prophet, but from their own struggling hearts.
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If those newly washed in the Jordan have the opportunity and obligation to bear fruits of repentance, certainly those who have received the far greater baptism bestowed by Christ with the Spirit and fire are expected to bear such fruit as well. The opportunity and obligation to do so will appear in the place John indicated: right in front of us.
In New Testament Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia, which means literally a change of mind that determines how we live. What opportunities for metanoia appear right in front of us now? What do those opportunities ask of us? To raise the question again, this time about ourselves, “What should wedo?”
• Look at your life. Recognize the places where it is broken. With whom do you need to reconcile before the feast of Christmas comes?
• Look at how you use power. Do you use it justly, or are you part of the problem?
• Look at what you have, in your clothes closet, your refrigerator, your check book, your stock portfolio. If you own two coats, if you possess food in abundance, is it time for you to share?
Today’s gospel identifies John’s gruff and blunt demands as good news.
These demands are targeted at us. When we hear them in faith, we also recognize them as good news. They speak of the fruit we can produce.
When in this way our faith produces fruit, then the world becomes different and so do we.
This itself is good news. So too is other people’s realization that Jesus remains active in the world, a realization that comes to them, that consoles and challenges them, because they see it in our lives.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, you trouble our hearts with the question, “What should we do?”
Help us recognize how answers to that question are near at hand, right in front of our faces.
Help us to act on our faith by daily choices we make for reconciliation, for justice, for sharing, for joy.
May we never cease to ask, “What should we do?” and may we never stop trusting that you will give us an answer.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2009, 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).