Bear Fruits Worthy of Repentance

Third Sunday of Advent

Rejoice! God comes in mercy to turn us [and the world] around.

  • Zephaniah 3:14-20
  • Isaiah 12:2-6
  • Philippians 4:4-7
  • Luke 3:7-18

God decides to become human

A pivotal point in the long sweep of what the Anabaptists called heilsgeschichte – salvation history – was God’s decision to enter into the human story in an entirely new way. God decided to become human — which is the meaning of incarnation: a divine being taking on human form. God entered human history in Jesus in an entirely new way.  

I can imagine God becoming weary of human foibles and unfaithfulness. No matter how many chances God give us we always seem to mess up. The Bible is full of stories of people choosing other gods over God. So do we.

Rather than giving up on us, God says with a weary and wary sigh, ‘Enough already. I’ll go myself.’ At least that’s how I imagine God’s response. I imagine further that God realized that humans wouldn’t heed an old man with a long white beard and robes with a George Burns voice. So God said, ‘I know, I will go as a baby.’ And God did. And does.

And here we are preparing and being prepared for God’s history-centered life-changing coming in a baby. It took a lot of preparation then as it does for us today.

Our Advent gospels offer us particular people to help us ponder and prepare for God’s coming as a baby. Last Sunday Amy introduced us to Zechariah who with his wife Elizabeth participated in preparing the way for Jesus’ coming. This Sunday we are introduced to Zechariah’s son John who prepares the way. Next Sunday it will be Mary, the mother of Jesus, who prepares the way.

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

The biblical story of John the Baptist quickly jumps from being a baby to being what God sent him to be: proclaiming God’s Word and preparing the way for Jesus. 

John the Baptist proclaimed the gospel of radical repentance. Turn your life around so that the world can be turned around. Let your life be turned around and live in a radically new direction. John did not tell hearers to believe rightly but to live rightly. Your radical repentance will bear fruit in the world. John was a prophet who spoke and lived in utter rejection of the Domination System. This is a matter of life and death, as John and Jesus said and lived and found out with their lives. [Works-Righteousness conundrum…false]
John was a totally surrendered person calling for totally surrendered people. The way into a totally surrendered life was repentance and baptism.

Listen to John in chapter 3, including the part of the story we heard last Sunday. 
Read portions of Luke 3:1-9……

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, the people who heard John the Baptist confront them with this clear strong message had a big decision to make. The easy decision was for the Domination System that exploits and oppresses. The rulers of that Domination System are boldly named at the outset of John the Baptist’s story (Luke 3:1-2). Those who are named here clearly locate John’s story in political and religious context. Following these powers-that-be will not bear fruits worthy of repentance. Bearing fruits means being turned around and living in a new way: The Way that introduces Jesus and The Way that Jesus soon introduces (Sojourners, December 2009, p. 56).

Bear fruits worthy of repentance

John is the original evangelist preaching a clear gospel that confronts everyone with a choice. And everyone makes a choice because even to ignore the choice is to choose for other gods and against God.

In one short speech John makes clear what’s at stake by framing it in a dual condemnation. First John labels them with a not-very-nice-name. “You’re all a bunch a snakes.” John is not going to win friends and influence people is he? At least not according to the done way of the Domination System. That way is what John is trying to get them to see and turn away from. John cuts through any claims they have that the Domination System will save them a message as relevant for us as for them.     

John then cuts through any claims they have to being from the right heritage, family line, or tradition. He undercuts their self-justification by being in the line of Abraham.

John hints that God’s entry into the world in Jesus is going to tear the walls of division and open up the good news to every one of every people and tribe and nation. Being Mennonite won’t save you. Having the right name won’t save you. Being American won’t save you. Being orthodox (right believing) won’t save you. Even repentance won’t save you – unless it is this radical repentance that turns us around and keeps doing so.

Having undercut all claims to being saved by the systems and traditions around us, John tells us what matters: to repent, turn around, and live your life in line with God. How will we know when we are living this way? We will, as John says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). 

Remarkably people hear and respond with a good question. They ask John, “Then what are we to do?” Notice they don’t ask, “What are we to believe?” Orthodoxy (right belief) mean nothing if orthopraxis (right living) doesn’t follow.

This central question, “What shall we do?” is asked three times by three groups:
The crowds ask, “What then shall we do?”
John tells them to share clothes and food with anyone in need.
The tax collectors ask, “Teacher, what should we do?”
John tells them to stop exploiting tax payers.
The soldiers ask, “What shall we do?”   
John tells them to stop oppressing people.

Running through this key question and John the Baptist’s response is the hard truth that
wealth and possessions, power and prestige turns our lives away from God and from receiving and living the radical hospitality of God (Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, p. 40).

John the Baptist didn’t just preach this, he lived it. John was totally surrendered to God. He gave his life to and for fruits worthy of repentance. John challenges us to do the same. There is no half-way in John’s way to the Jesus Way.

John the Baptist embodied what Flannery O’Connor meant in paraphrasing Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” I see John as an oddball, one that startles and yet one you have to respect.

Seeing John in Story

It helps me to “see” biblical characters in their day by imagining “seeing” them in our day. I have “seen” two key characters that prepare the way for Jesus: John and Mary. I will let Mary for the Sunday after Christmas. I may have told of seeing John the Baptist in the past but let me tell it again because the John I “saw” changed my life.

In the early 80s I was on the staff of Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Office working to stop the arms race before the arms race stopped the human race. Much of this peace ministry was with Sojourners and other peace groups. One weekend in the midst of this work in the other Washington, I went on retreat at Saint Anselm’s monastery near the Sojourner’s office in Washington DC. That Sunday morning just as worship was ending in the monastery and the final chant was dying down, the church door burst open and in strode a tall gangly gaunt man in a shabby white T-shirt and pale blue shorts. Startled I watched him stride past us at the back of the monastery church and on up toward the monks in their choir stalls. Suddenly he turned and went out the side door into the cloister walk reserved only for monks and disappeared.

Immediately I two vivid images came to me. First, I thought this is a homeless man who wandered into our midst. I wondered what the monks would do with a homeless man in their midst? Second, I was sure that I was seeing John the Baptist in the flesh. And I wondered what the monks would do with John the Baptist in their midst? With long scraggly hair and flowing beard, this John the Baptist exuded a sense of absolute resolve to do and say what needed to be said and done.  

That day I experienced one of my two most compelling conversions that changed my life. I can’t tell the whole story here but it turned out this homeless John the Baptist was a visiting monk Father Theophane. Father Theophane left a lasting impression on me as I got to know him later that transforming Sunday. I enjoyed the gift of meeting Father Theophane again before he died at Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado, in October 1997, when I went there for a Centering Prayer retreat.

How and why that first meeting of John the Baptist in the guise of Father Theophane became a conversion for me I will leave for adult study hour because a couple of days ago I realized that it connects with the meaning of Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread

Seeing John in Song

In addition to “seeing” John in story we can also see John in Song. The song that runs through my head this week has been “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”, especially the spellbinding version that begins Godspell.

Also last week a pastoral friend reminded me of the song, “People Get Ready” which Curtis Mayfield wrote for the Impressions back in the day — 1965! “People Get Ready” is on Rolling Stones Magazine’s top 500 hits of all time. It is a gospel inspired song that Curtis Mayfield and others have sung as Rhythm &Blues. Aretha Franklin sang “People Get Ready” as soul. Ronnie Millsap sang it as country. U2 sang it as rock. I listened to “People Get Ready” on You-Tube sung by U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan sang it as only Bob Dylan can. Bob Marley sang it as reggae. “People Get Ready” has also been sung in churches as an Advent reminder of John the Baptist’s message to us.  

The first verse is:

People get ready
There’s a train a comin’.
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel hummin’.
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord

This John the Baptist song was birthed “in the wilderness of segregation, in the wake of Martin [Luther] King’s ground-shifting dream, when people were being called to a new way of thinking, where a new reality challenging the unchangeable order of racial hierarchy was being born. It’s a song that heralds good news to the outcasts…” (Karl Shelly sermon preached at Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, 12/6/09).

Do you hear John the Baptist cry, “People get ready?” The Jesus trains a comin! Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…who turns your life around. Today in our lives and life together we can “bear fruits worthy of repentance. Thanks be to God.