The Simple Good News of John the Baptist

JohntheBaptistA sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018. The scripture readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel reading is one that almost makes me laugh. John the Baptist is preaching up a storm, really getting into it, “One is coming,” he says, “who will baptize not only with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire…” and “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.”  But then the very next sentence is, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Good news?  What’s the good news that we’re going to be baptized with fire, and one is coming whose job it will be to separate out the good stuff from the junk and will throw all the junk on a fire?  This is that kind of old-time religion many of us have spent time trying to avoid, or at the very least, don’t find it very motivating. This is enough to make us turn to the TV preachers with big smiles and good skin, who just keep things positive and don’t really talk much about Jesus.

And yet—let’s not turn away from the Gospel too fast.

In John’s message, there IS good news.  Part of the good news is that in the separation of what’s good in the world, what’s salvageable—whether we’re talking material things, jobs, perspectives, or people—it’s not our judgment to make.  God will judge, so we can leave it all up to God.  That’s a weight off, because it means I don’t have to stand in judgment of others (or myself) and don’t need to carry that burden. God’s got it.

But John’s message is also really good news because of what comes just before this section of the Gospel about baptism and judgment.

John’s message begins with the good advice to “clean house.” Throw out what’s no longer useful. Let those destructive habits die away—they’re wearing you out, anyway. Get ready for something new. Prepare. Expect. Hope.

And then John gets really practical.  The crowds ask John what I might have asked John, “Ok, so what do we do? How do we live faithfully? Especially when times are confusing and the bad seem to get more prosperous while the good are steadily losing ground.  What do we do?”

More good news from John:  Do the simple, faithful thing that’s right before you.

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John the Baptist, with all of his slightly scary talk about the end of times and the beginning of new days, of one who is coming who will sort things out and given people their due—when it comes down to it, the way we prepare for God’s coming more fully in to our world is through simply acts of kindness and mercy.

As some of you know, last week I was able to go to Mexico City for a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.   I had visited the Basilica and its sacred image of the Virgin Mary in 2015, but it’s one of those holy places that sort of stays with you. I wondered then how it might be to visit for the big feast, when millions of people from all over Mexico and around the world, come together to visit, to sing, to give thanks, and to ask God for help.

My own journey was only about a four-mile walk, while many people had taken buses, bicycles, or walked from long distances.  Some carried children, or provisions for spending the night, or images of Our Lady of Guadalupe that they hoped could be blessed by proximity to the Basilica and the special image of Mary that hangs in that space.

Though I had read of it, nothing could prepare for the atmosphere along the roads and walkway.  Everyone was helping everyone else.  It reminded me of times of crisis in New York City—9/11, or the great Blackout, or Hurricane Sandy—when people lose themselves for a minute or two and actually look around and help.

In Mexico City, all along the way, people were offering free food—pan, tortas, tomales, all kinds of things; and water, atole, coffee, or juice.  The people giving things out were clearly having fun—they were extraordinarily happy and nowhere did I see anyone pushing their way to the front of a food line or insisting that he or she get a first share.

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a photo of a 17-year-old man named, Jesús Vicuña, who had prayed that his mother might get well.  In gratitude for her healing, he walked for three days toward the Basilica.  The last stretch, he made his way forward on his knees, helped on either side by his two friends.

During my walk Tuesday night, I saw several people making their way to the Basilica on their knees, helped by family and friends, to make it along the way.

Regardless of what one might think about sacred places, holy images, or including the Virgin Mary in one’s prayers to God—there is an amazing power in getting out of oneself, “bending the knee of the heart” in humility, and moving towards God in need.

John the Baptist preaches about repentance.  But he also suggests that absolution comes not through some kind of religious prescription given by a priest, but true absolution comes through those simple acts of kindness, consideration, and humility: lending a coat, sharing food or money, working an honest day.

Even as we sometimes become overwhelmed with the great issues of the day, may we take time this Advent to make little steps of faithfulness.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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