Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
I’ve got good news for you and bad news. We’ll start with the good news: God loves you and welcomes you into his kingdom. That’s the best news. God welcomes us with open arms. The Lord is waiting to pardon our sin, to throw out all the garbage that stands between us and God. God is ready to set the past aside and welcome us into a future free from judgment and shame and guilt. God is ready to do that right now for you; for everyone. That’s a fact.
The bad news is that you need to change. I need to change too. We need to repent, which means to turn around. We need a fundamental change in the way we approach life, the future, God and everything else. Repentance and forgiveness go together, but not always in the way we expect.
Often we have this image of God like a strict father. He stands over us and makes us say we’re sorry with the threat of punishment in the background. A lot of people go to church because they are worried they will go to hell if they don’t. Behind door number 1 is saying we’re sorry, forgiveness, following the rules, going to church, and finally, going to heaven. Behind door number 2 is having fun, not following the rules, not going to church and finally, hell.
That’s a theology of punishments and rewards. There are some pretty huge problems with this theology. There’s some truth to it, but it’s not the freeing, joyful, transformative life God calls us to. Thinking about our relationship with God that way leads to questions like: what’s the least I can believe and still go to heaven? Can I repent at the last minute before I die? Why does God let people who repent at the last minute into heaven the same way as those of us who have been going to church for years? What do we get for following God for our whole life.
There are definitely times the Bible talks in terms of rewards and punishments. Our passage from Luke is one of them. John paints our choices in stark terms: God comes to judge, to gather the wheat into the granary and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John calls the audience to choose between blessing and curse, life or death, wheat or chaff.
It sounds like a simple choice, and in some ways it is, but there’s more to it than that. We can only repent because God opens the door for us. God’s grace comes first: before our first confession, before our repentance, before our first breath. God’s grace, God’s amazing love for us paves the way for us to realize our mistakes and turn around.
Even the call to confession is grace filled; that’s part of why Luke says John is preaching good news to the people. Even in John’s challenging words and his call to repent and change their lives the people recognized something important. His message touched them, so people came from all over to be baptized. They recognized that they were not right with God, and they felt John had a way to come back home.
When people come to John to get right with God he tells them that repentance isn’t about feeling guilty and it’s definitely not about claiming our right to be forgiven. True repentance changes us in visible ways, it has to bear fruit.
John has a special warning for people like us, for people who are already connected to God through their religion. He tells his audience not to rely on being Abraham’s children. Sometimes we think that being part of the church means we’ve already repented, that we are already on God’s good side. John is expecting the same excuse from the religious people in the crowd: “We’re Abraham’s descendants; we follow the rules.” The truth is that God doesn’t need more people waving God’s flag to prove their righteousness; God doesn’t need more people wearing Christian T shirts. God doesn’t care what kind of label we wear; God cares whether belonging to him makes a difference in the way we live.
The other surprising thing in John’s message is how he talks about getting right with God. The people hear John’s warnings about the ax at the root of the tree. They hear that they can’t escape God’s judgment by showing their membership card, so they ask what they should do. John doesn’t tell them to quit drinking or smoking. He doesn’t tell them to go to church or stop eating junk food. He doesn’t talk about sex or any of the pop-culture ideas about what the church thinks is most important. Instead he tells them to do justice for their neighbor. He tells them to share radically, to give up the things that separate them from each other and keep some people hungry and cold.
John makes it clear that God’s forgiveness and welcome are for everyone. Tax collectors were widely hated in John’s time. That was not just because nobody likes paying taxes. The issue was that the taxes were imposed by the Roman Empire on its Jewish subjects. Jews who collected these taxes for Rome were seen as partners in an unjust occupation. They were also seen as greedy because they did well financially by collecting and adding to a heavy tax that kept many people in poverty.
When the tax collectors come to be baptized, John receives them. It sounds like he’s letting them off easy by telling them to collect only the assigned amount. In those days, almost all the money the tax collectors made was by raising the tax rate a little and keeping the difference between the official rate and what they collected. John isn’t telling them to leave their job, but he is telling them that they need to stop participating in an unjust system, even though that means giving up a large part of their income. His message to the soldiers is similar: don’t take advantage of your authority. Repentance in these jobs means giving up the main sources of profit to live the right way.
John welcomes everyone into God’s kingdom. John even accepts those with jobs that others might consider incompatible with faith. At the same time he makes it clear that God’s calling to justice comes first. It’s no excuse that our job forces us to do such and such that compromises our conscience. Following Jesus means choosing his calling over self-interest even when it hurts our bottom line. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is called to follow God’s justice and love.
That’s not a calling to dry and joyless duty. It’s not a call to deny pleasure with a martyr complex and a self-righteous scowl. Instead it’s a calling to live in freedom from fear and selfishness. A calling to serve others joyfully and to find deep community by breaking down the walls that separate us. It’s about giving up privilege and finding true fellowship.
John’s message speaks to us clearly today, like it did two thousand years ago. This year’s Presbyterian General Assembly discussed adopting a statement that condemned unbridled greed as a moral sin and called on the church to stand with the oppressed. One commissioner got up to ask how we defined “unbridled greed.” I think he was looking for someone to give him an income level that would be called “too high” so we could argue about that. John’s words came to my mind, because they get right at the heart of what it means to have too much: Having too much is having more than we need when others don’t have enough.
These words remind me that I’m never through repenting, that I am still part of the problem even when I’m also a part of the solution. I love this passage because it is so clear about God’s invitation to a new start. I also fear this passage for the same reason. John’s clarity makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that I’m not ready to repent all the way. I still have a long way to go.
Repentance is something we have to do again and again. God’s grace allows us to begin repenting, to turn around and turn towards God for the first time, and God’s grace keeps us turning back to God when we mess up or get caught up in ourselves. Usually, the more we grow in faith, the more we see how much further we have to go and how much we still need to repent and change our lives. God is never finished with us.
Even though the journey of repentance is never finished, even though we never arrive at purity, God’s always welcomes us. God welcomes us with forgiveness before we repent, and God keeps loving, forgiving and welcoming us every stage of the journey. You are forgiven, set free and welcomed to a new life of service and community.
We need to hear John’s challenging message of good news. We need to hear the welcome of God, the forgiveness of sin and the proclamation of Christ’s coming. We need to hear it when we feel unsure about ourselves, we need to hear that good news when we feel unworthy or ashamed or afraid. We also need to hear the challenging call to repentance. We especially need to hear it when we feel complacent, when we feel like we’re already doing everything right, when we feel like other people are getting a better deal than we are. We need to hear that we still have a long way to go, until we give away our last extra coat and our last extra meal.
Challenge and acceptance, repentance and forgiveness: that’s the message of this last Sunday in Advent. I pray we would be able to embrace this message deep in our hearts today, tomorrow, and beyond. Let John’s haunting message sink into your heart and change you. Let that message bring down the mountains and hills of pride and defiance and lift up the valleys of despair. Let John’s message smooth the wilderness of self-concern and fear into a highway for our God. Repent and be forgiven to prepare the way for the Lord who comes as a baby.
O Come, o come, Emmanuel.