Advent 3 – Year C
Betsy and I recently went to Jordan. Before going, I knew that I would be preaching today, and what the Gospel reading would be. Great, I thought, I will be going to the very site where today’s story occurs, and, maybe, I’ll get inspiration for the sermon. But no. We went to the site, but no inspiration came.
Instead, I got unexpected insights at two other stops on the trip. One came in the form of a rekindled memory, and one as a new learning.
On our way to Jordan, we stayed two nights in Holland where we previously lived. We bought a pair of “IAmsterdam” passes, giving us free access to 45 different museums. We met a friend for lunch and then went to our first museum. With 44 other museums to choose from, we found ourselves too tired for even one more. A leisurely canal boat tour seemed the better option.
The canal boats are set up with two rows of booths, each having a sliding glass window. As we sit down, I am instantly transported back about 15 years to a canal boat ride with my children and two of their friends one damp, chilly March evening. Joris, one of my son’s Dutch friends, is sitting next to the window, and opens it. From my aisle seat, I can see the Spanish speakers in the next booth, who are not dressed well for this time of year in Northern Europe, shivering with teeth chattering. “Joris,” I say, “We should close our window. The people in the next booth look pretty cold.” Unmoved, even indignant, Joris replies, “They have their own window.” They have their own window. What that has to do with anything I do not know, since their window is shut tight and it is ours that is making them cold. Reliving the incident now, what sticks with me is how absolutely antithetical Joris’s attitude is to what John teaches in today’s Gospel reading, most poignantly in its failure to recognize our interconnectedness, how what we do matters to those around us.
Near the end of our trip, we visited Petra, Jordan’s top tourist attraction, with remains of successive ancient civilizations, including its famous Treasury built into one of Petra’s sandstone cliffs. To get to the Treasury, one has to walk more than a mile down through a winding narrow gorge with 100-foot tall outcroppings on either side. From the Treasury, there is another mile and a half or so of walkway lined by ancient structures carved into the rock formations. And amidst it all, there are donkeys -lots and lots of donkeys – and camels, and horses. And Bedouins tending them. The road in is all downhill, and the only way out is back the way you came. Some people ride animals down, but more typically, if they ride them at all, it is to ride them back up.
Less than half-way down, a young Bedouin man asks if we want to ride his donkeys. “Not down,” I say, “but maybe back up.” “You want to reserve?” “No, let’s see how I feel when it’s time to head back.” With that, he continues to shadow us as we make our way down, reappearing from time to time between our tour guide’s interpretative talks. “Ready to ride?” “No, not yet.”
Near the end of the road, there are ruins of a Roman temple that you need to climb dozens of steps to reach. Most of our group want to see it, but about four are not up to the steps and stay at the bottom. I go up to the temple ruins, and as our tour guide is finishing up, I go back down to tell the others that the rest would be on their way soon. A Bedouin woman, whose English is surprisingly good, is there selling jewelry and trinkets. “There’s no charge for looking, you know!” she says. When no one moves, she continues “You realize that this is how we make our living, right?” I guess I did, but when she says it, something dawns on me. We are in a national park with one entrance. And the place is full of Bedouins. Surely these people do not buy $50 entry tickets to get in each day. No, this is where they live. These are not actors. This is their life.
“The Germans never stop”, she says, “And I ask myself, ‘If you’re not going to have anything to do with the locals, why even come? Why not just stay home and look at pictures on the internet?’” “But the Americans,” she continues, “sometimes they buy something. And they buy donkey rides so that our young men can make a living.”
As soon as she says that, I know that no matter how energetic we feel when it is time to head back up, Betsy and I are going to ride those donkeys back. She may have been a master manipulator and her patter well-rehearsed. But still, what I hear is John the Baptist saying “Whoever has two coats must share…”
At the and of the road, we have a sumptuous lunch, and as we leave the restaurant, sure enough, our young man is there, waiting for us. “You want donkey rides back?” “How much?” I ask, as if the answer would matter. “Twenty dollars each,” he says. “Deal,” I reply.
In today’s Gospel, we find John with the crowds who had come to him on the shores of the Jordan River. Having called upon them to repent, the tax collectors ask what they should do. John tells them to collect no more than is due. The soldiers ask what they should do, and he tells them not to extort from anyone. To the crowd as a whole, he says “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”
So, the advice John gives them boils down to play fair, don’t be a bully, and share.
That’s it? Play fair, don’t be a bully, and share? The face of repentance is …. Kindergarten stuff?
Well, yeah, John says, sort of.
I say “sort of” because it is important to keep in mind that what John prescribes are not formulas, but applications of a broader principle. Repentance, he teaches, is not about feeling sorry or regretful. It is about changing our ways. Repentance is not something that happens just on the inside but has to be visible on the outside in the fruit we bear. It must be seen in how we treat our fellow children of God.
The specifics that John gives in today’s Gospel then are not the end-all, but examples of how his exhortation to bear fruit will show up. But even as examples, John makes an important point: The opportunity to bear fruit worthy of repentance is available to us wherever we are. We do not have to move to the wilderness and live on locusts and wild honey, but we can do what we are called to do right where we are. OK, I agree that if our career is as a Mafia hitman or running a drug cartel, we may need to change jobs. But assuming we have lawful occupations, we can carry them out in a way that bears heavenly fruit.
And even though playing fair, not being a bully and sharing are just examples, they are nothing to scoff at. Imagine if we could go through our days never worrying about whether anyone will be treated unfairly. Imagine if we could be sure that no one in a position of authority would ever bully anyone. Imagine if enough people shared their blessings so that no one had to worry about whether they would have enough to eat, or clothes to keep them warm or a safe place to sleep. Imagine. This is not Kindergarten stuff. It is the stuff of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, that we can participate in bringing one step closer.
Still, it’s not all that easy to do, and very easy to fail at. It took Joris just five simple words to betray attitudes that were at once unfair, uncharitable, and bullying. John’s exhortations are countercultural. The tax collectors and soldiers were surely facing both strong temptation and significant peer pressure to conform to the corrupt ways of their professions. And, for the rest of the crowd, having two coats did not mean you had a surplus: in cool temperatures, you would want to wear both. However simple his advice may seem, it is not easy.
Fortunately, we have help. As John foretells, the one coming after him -- Jesus -- baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. Immediately after referring to Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit, John adds: “His winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, … gather the wheat into his granary [and burn the chaff] with unquenchable fire.” Although one might be inclined to interpret that as a warning about Jesus coming to sort the good people from the bad and to send the latter into eternal damnation, I read it differently. It is not a matter of Jesus sorting good people from bad people, as if we were one or the other. We’re all a mix. And even if our relative proportions of good and bad vary, no one is so bad as to be beyond redemption, and none of us so good as to have no need for it. When Jesus takes his winnowing fork in hand, it is not to sort good people from bad, but to sort the good and bad found in each of us, strengthening the good to help us live as John exhorts while freeing us of the stronghold the bad may otherwise have on us.
That is the door that Christian baptism opens for us. And to accomplish it, Jesus works through the community of believers, the Church. That is why our baptisms are done not as private affairs, but as part of our public worship, so that we the baptized, with the power of the Holy Spirit, can support each other as well as the newly baptized in the ongoing process of growing into the full stature of Christ and bringing the love of Jesus into our world. We do it together.
Yes, the people in the boat with us on our earthy journey have their own windows. Let’s therefore do all that we can, with God’s help, to make it be that what they see through those windows are glimpses of God’s Kingdom.