Here’s a pair of texts:
From Advent 1, year B: Isaiah 64
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. . . .
From Advent 3, year C: Luke 3
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told
14 them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
Again Advent is here: Reign of Christ, a.k.a. the last Sunday of the liturgical year is behind us, so once more we’ll search the skies and search our hearts, seeking the world’s Redeemer and our Redeemer, too. Although the first Sunday of Advent 2004 began lectionary year A, Isaiah 64 is from year B and Luke’s John the Baptist text from year C.
This past Wednesday morning the speaker at the ecumenical Advent breakfast preached on Matthew’s version of *the* John the Baptist text and said the uniqueness of Christianity was and still should be in its care for the poor and, of course, inclusive community. It seems only a little while ago (but it was an entire year ago, during Advent 2003) I suggested God-among-us truly would be an Alleluia! moment, but then I quoted Luke’s John the Baptizer’s calling the people a brood of vipers and warning them they’d better flee from the wrath to come immediately before that same John announced the approaching Sovereignty of Heaven’s overcoming the chaos, dysfunction and sometimes despair on earth! As they awaited baptism, John’s riverside congregation asked, “The coming wrath? Fruits of repentance? God in our very midst? What then should we be doing?!?!?!?!” Hmmmm...the God Who covenants and Who spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Who later sojourned with the people, faithfully leading them through the Exodus desert, bestowing gifts of water from the rock and sustenance from the sky, the Mighty One Who shepherded the people to the border and across the River into the land of milk and honey, to the Land of the Promise of the completeness of the Reign of God, that very same God soon will be arriving here, into our midst, and instead of shouting “Hallelujah!” the people ask what how they can escape from the wrath to come?! God is ready to honor the people’s plea of, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” but when they hear John the Baptist’s description of that day of the Holy One’s arrival and the nature of those “awesome deeds” they “did not expect,” they want to escape!
In response to the people’s asking what on earth they should be doing preceding God’s potential wrathful judgment, John says, “If you have two coats—share. If you have food—share.” The Greek word translated share means “gift giving” at its root. To religious types (like us?), this is astounding! John, foretelling God’s fiery arrival, did not say, “run and hide” or “go and pray,” nor did he remotely suggest, “make costly sacrifices to atone for your sins.” John the cousin of Jesus the forthcoming Messiah said, “Share, give a gift.” Go beyond yourself and get beyond yourselves! If you have, whatever you have, share it with the have-nots. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has no coat and needs one. If you have food, give food to the hungry. Because when you share, if you give gifts, you prepare for the coming of God, our Judge and Redeemer by being the person God created you in His image to be, by being a bearer of gracious gifts. When by sharing what you have you help create a kindred community of equals, you become a big part of making God’s reign happen here in this place.
Caring for the poor among us and community are two essential aspects of being Christian, necessary facets of claiming the name of Jesus Christ who lived to embrace and to reconcile all creation to its Creator and to itself. Remember that Spirit-saturated, radical communitarian church we read about in Acts 2?
God’s advent into the midst of our human condition, God’s arrival in human history will be a time of wrath but also a Day of Grace: the text from 3rd Isaiah reminds the Sovereign Lord we are the people of His creation and cites our obligation to wait, to do righteousness, to remember God’s ways . . . According to 3rd Isaiah, God meets “those who gladly do right, those who remember God in His ways.” Remembering the ways of God means doing those ways and works of God, performing justice and gifting others by sharing our clothing and food, welcoming the strangers and the sojourners into our community, into our commonality, because when we do so we realize both our humanity and the essence of the Divine image in which God created us; when we welcomingly embrace and gift our neighbors with our substance we become more and more like those early Christians who daily had walked with Jesus of Nazareth and who then finally recognized the Risen Christ among them when he broke bread with them, when he broke bread to share his life within their gathered community.
This Advent, as you anticipate God’s imminent arrival, become who you are baptized to be, become the people of God, and be the people of God, live in the image of God’s justice God created you in: sharing what you have, opening your eyes and your hearts to those right around you, to those next door and down the street from you, to those who have less than you; in the Spirit assume your part in creating the Reign of God on this earth and right here in our midst. The righteous, the just are those people who live in the image of the God of Righteousness and Justice . . . because when God comes, God arrives with winnowing fork in hand, thrashing the wheat and chaff. All gets thrashed; the chaff blows away and gets burnt up, the wheat remains in God’s divine presence. The just, the “righteous” remain with God. Luke’s text describes this as John’s preaching “Good News,” preaching Gospel to the people! God is coming—what then are we going to do?