Luke 3:11 says, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…” And, one year, in a sweeping gesture of false piety I gave away all but one of my coats in the hope that it might help usher in the kingdom of God. You may have noticed that my grand gesture hasn’t had much effect.
It’s right up there with the time, not that long ago, that I got my tongue pierced as a reminder that though it is a small member it can set a house on fire. Except for the few weeks that my tongue was swollen and sore, it also has not had much effect. The kingdom of God is still not here.
I know that I am something of a hard case when it comes to really following God, but I suspect that I am not alone. You, too, may have made some false, even foolish, starts in your effort to “prepare a way for the Lord,” to make it possible for God to come and live with you and be a revolutionary force for change.
But, here we are. We now have three Advent lights burning in the darkness and the kingdom of God is not much closer today than it was when we gave away all our coats or had our tongues pierced, or whatever religio-foolishness you may have engaged in. I won’t ask you to tell, but I know you have. We all have. We all have hope, maybe faint, that things can be different if only we know what to do. What should we do then?
As it turns out, that is exactly the question that John’s followers asked him after what appears to be a tirade about vipers and things. It’s such an important question that the bible translators made gave it its own verse. Luke 3:10… “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. That’s the whole verse, and it is a hinge verse.
John the Baptist is a hinge character in the Bible. We don’t know a lot about him. The text tells us about his birth, his preaching, and his death. But, there aren’t any stories. His real job is to join two strands of history, like a hinge joins the door and the door frame. Like a broach holds a scarf together, the ministry of John the Baptist holds together the time of seeking and the time of fulfillment.
In the same way, this verse holds together a mixed crowd of seekers and joins them to a movement that will go on to light the world on fire. They didn’t know what to do, but they asked. This question is important. What should we do then?
The good news is that John gave them an answer. He had told them to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a smooth path. In reading this bit of prophetic poetry we realize that John is talking about preparing ourselves for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The messiah, the savior of the world, is coming. But, John says, we have to get ready.
Get ready? But, how? What does John mean? It surely can’t be about mountains and valleys. The crowd are not buying this business about being vipers, and John is being weird with this talk of trees, fruit, and fire. It’s too poetic for them. So, they ask plainly… What should we do then?
The good news is that John gives them an answer. That’s good because you might have been wondering too. I mean, it is now the third week of Advent and Jesus may not have made much of an appearance in your life. It might be a dark season. I am right there with you. I’ve heard from people all over the world this week saying that they will be glad to put this year behind them. It’s been a hard one. But, still, there is a longing, maybe a faint hope, that Jesus can somehow redeem everything that has come before. We want to do something to prepare, to make it possible. But, what?
Here is John the Baptist’s answer: Share what you have, do your job right, don’t abuse your position, be content. If you break down the poetry and just list it out, that is basically what you have. Most of us could come up with a sermon on any one of those, but maybe we shouldn’t. Like poetry itself, it might be better to let those things sit on your heart for a while unremarked upon.
This is Advent. We have time. Sit with it.
While you’re thinking on it, it’s important to remember that John the Baptist was not addressing the religious elite. John addressed the tax gathers and the soldiers. They were the very people who were colluding with the enemy! Think about that for a minute. They were not the people you would expect to usher in the kingdom of God, yet, that is exactly what John supposes they will do.
Poetically, the soldiers, tax gathers, and other colluders were a lot like us. They were looking for the messiah, hoping against hope, any maybe really trying to be faithful. But, all the while, they were serving the very institutions that impeded the reign of God. That was the reality of their world, and it is the reality of our own. Most of us are pouring our lives out so that somebody else can get rich and we can get by. And we are hoping with thin hope that it might be different someday.
Cleary, we are no more able to usher in the kingdom of God than those listening to John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River.
When I talk about the “kingdom of God,” I am not talking about some sort of social betterment campaign, I am not even talking about being more faithful and doing more good works. Sure, trying, even foolishly, is better than not trying. Working, studying, praying, and hoping are good too. But, this is not about doing good, or even being good. There’s more. John, the apocalyptic prophet, is trying to tell us that everything that is upside down – and everything is upside down — is about to be made right. This is a hinge moment in history. It joins the promise and the fulfillment. Gaudete is kind of a hinge day for us too.
We now have three Advent candles lit. That’s enough light to begin seeing more clearly. We still have the poetry to take into our hearts. Let it sit there and let it speak to you. But, we might be able to make out the outlines of how to prepare for the end of the world as we know it.
John’s instructions to the gathered crowd pretty much covers all of the bases in life: Relationships, work, power, money, happiness. The kingdom of God is not likely to come in with a bang. More likely it will come as tenderly as a little baby. But, you are the one who gives birth to it. It is born and continues to grow every time one of us creates it. Every kindness, every act of justice, even a sigh of contentment creates a little piece of God’s kingdom.
Let this harsh-sounding bit of poetry speak to you and whisper of the new world that you will create.
Linda McMillan is preparing for travel! — I’ll take a few weeks off from Speaking To The Soul to be with my family in Texas. I’ll be back in 2019. Merry Christmas. Gaudete!