I had a good friend where I worked a number of years ago, named Ela. She would always tell me exactly what she thought about anything--no holds barred. At times, this could be painful. But I always knew where I stood and I came to value not only her friendship, but her advice.
Have you ever had a friend like Ela, one who does not mince their words and always tells it like it is? It isn't always easy to have such a friend because there are times when the truth they tell you is painful. But you always know where you stand and you can trust that person to tell you exactly what they think whether you ask them or not.
John the Baptist is a friend who is telling us exactly what he thinks and how he feels. He called a spade a spade, a viper a viper, and a hypocrite a hypocrite and did not care who was offended. John called his audience to a moment of truth--abandoning all that was used to keep the illusion of innocence.
How would you like to be greeted with these words, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you?" That's very disturbing imagery. It conjures up an image of the crowds scurrying to be baptized so they can escape judgment. They are likened to snakes slithering in flight, to escape the fire.
John did not mince his words when it came to God's judgment on how people were living their lives. John's call to repentance didn't mean merely being sorry, but it meant a reorientation of the way one thinks about the world and life. It means a revolution in our thinking that causes a change of direction in our lives.
It is one's life and deeds, not one's ancestry that count before God. Just as being physical descendants of Abraham did not let the people of Israel off the hook, so being long time church members does not give us a get out of jail free card. We can be in the pews week after week and somehow avoid encountering the living God. The sin of omission that is, of not doing anything is just as bad as the sin of doing something wrong. We need a relationship with God through his Messiah, Jesus. Everything else flows from that. Being comes before doing. Bearing good fruit is not just doing good things, but doing them for the right reasons.
John's message was a call to repentance with actions that demonstrated new life.In spite of the harsh words of John, people were eager for his teaching and responded by asking, "What then should we do?" They keep asking questions even when the answers call them to higher expectations of moral and selfless living. John tells each group: the crowd, tax collectors, and the soldiers something different. In essence, John told them that their faith would be demonstrated by their actions.
To the crowd, John said they are to be kind and share with those in need.
To tax collectors, John said that taxes shouldn't be collected on the basis of greed or power.
To the soldiers, John said that they should work hard, not victimizing the public by threat or intimidation. Their interaction with the public was not an opportunity to supplement their income.
Sometimes God calls us to share out of our own needs. Rather than hold on for dear life to our possessions and food, God calls us to believe in his abundant supply, having a theology of abundance rather than one of scarcity.
God wants us to be honest in the way we perform our jobs. The way some of our politicians on the local, state and federal levels who cheat, extort and lie, are not living the Christian life and are not extolling Christian virtues.
Did you notice that John did not ask the tax collectors or soldiers (both of whom are employed by the Roman government) to abandon their jobs or to overthrow a corrupt system? Instead, they were to continue doing their jobs, but now to do them with justice and compassion.
John's responses to the crowd's questions boil down to addressing the inequities and injustices of the society in Israel. This was what people expected from the Messiah--good news that business as usual is on the way out and something new is coming. The power of the status quo of greed, selfishness and complacency is broken. The new day of sharing and mercy and justice has nearly arrived. The ax at the root of the tree means a clearing out of the old habits and fears to make way for something new. John not only called the people to turn away from their old life, but to turn toward new life in God.
When it seems too hard to live the way God is calling us to live, remember, we are not expected to do this on our own. It is too hard and that's good because the more powerful One has come and lives his life through us. In our own day of hateful speech, labeling of entire groups of people and rejecting all because of only a few, we have our work cut out for us. We have to remember that all lives matter. Jesus reached out to the outcasts of society, to the marginalized who no one cared about and made them his own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something that speaks profoundly to our day, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
This is the message of Advent as we get closer to Christmas. There is a star in the East that is looming on the horizon that symbolizes change is coming and the change will be like a whirlwind. That whirlwind is going to be the beating of a million angel wings, proclaiming the birth of the Messiah. All we have to do is watch, wait and listen.
M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary.
Image from Agnus Day.