John the Baptist, like all the prophets, is an unreasonable man. He has some strong opinions on how life should be lived and how God’s many gifts should be shared. You could call it an “economic plan” for the kingdom of God. And for John, one coat will do.
Third Sunday of Advent (Year C) – December 13, 2015 – Luke 3:7-18
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
One Coat Will Do – Pastor Evan Davis
Who really needs more than one coat? It’s an intriguing question.
I mean – winter and summer coats, I suppose. But good luck arguing with John the Baptist. In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s a kind of an intense guy. Lives in the desert, wears a camel’s hair suit, preacher’s kid (remember Zechariah & Elizabeth?), eats locusts with wild honey. John is not normal. And he has an opinion on this subject. One coat will do.
He has some thoughts about food as well. Here’s what he thinks: if you have some, that’s enough. Indeed it’s enough to share with the one who has none. Period. Even the tiniest loaf of bread can be cut in two. Even the thinnest stew can be poured in two bowls.
And business, yes, John makes his feelings known on this also. You see, tax collecting and soldiering were both, in that day, something like a small business. Tax collectors, essentially, leased territory from Caesar in which they could collect the tax, and they always made sure to collect enough to pay Caesar and make a nice living on the side. Soldiers too – part of the benefits package was terrorizing or extorting the people whose land they occupied. John’s not having it. Be satisfied with your wages.
There’s a rather economic theme going here, which shouldn’t surprise us because that was the favorite preaching topic of all the prophets, and John is really the last one of those – the last great Old Testament prophet, even though he shows up in the New. John preaches a vision of repentance that is far more than feeling sorry that we often pass up chances to help the poor. He wants us to do something about it. He’s giving it to us straight: that our actions have consequences, particularly for our neighbors. He has a vision of God’s community of shalom in which those who have more share with those who have less. We could call that social responsibility. But he also emphasizes honest dealing, personal integrity and hard work. We could call that personal responsibility. Did you catch that? John just made space for the political left and right in his vision of God’s preferred society. But back to the point – John equates the coming kingdom of God with economic justice, and he’s a bit intense about it.
Last week he was talking about building highways for God, but now he’s swinging his ax and lighting his fires. Can you picture him? In his camel hair with a look of righteous anger on his gnarled face, his eyes aflame… You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? In other words, do you think showing up here is going to save you? Have you prepared your speeches about how sorry you are? Or are you going to fall back on your righteous heritage as Abraham’s children? God doesn’t need you – God can raise up from these stones children for Abraham. Even 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. There’s a reason this guy’s not in your Nativity scene.
And yet…at the very end of the passage, Luke tells us “so, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” This ax-and-fire business is supposed to be good news. How can it be?
Well, it’s only bad news if we believe some people are all wheat and some are all chaff. Is anyone here bold enough to believe you are all wheat, or that you even could be? A commentator this week quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident from Soviet times, who speaks well about our desire to easily be able to separate the bad and the good:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.1
We do not need to fear the threshing floor nor the fire. Because we need to be threshed out. John tells us, the One more powerful than he is on his way, and we need the purifying fire of his powerful Word. Our act of repentance doesn’t sort all the chaff out of our hearts. Christ sorts you into his kingdom in your Baptism. Even so, in this life the chaff hangs on until the day of the Resurrection. Every Sunday, every day, he brings us to our knees and cleans us out again. And because Christ does that, maybe we can keep listening to John, and even take him seriously.
John offers the people, and us, a loving challenge. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Notice, however, what’s being cut down with his swingin’ ax. It’s not people themselves but specific behaviors. This is threshing going on here! The wealthy owner of two coats (who could need more than one?) is not cut down, but his hoarding of wealth is. Tax collectors are not thrown into the fire. Quite the contrary – they‘re getting baptized! And learning to deal fairly. Even the soldiers are brought into the new repentant community as they turn away from terrorizing the people.
John gives us all a chance. He gives us something to do with our freedom in Christ. And it seems too simple. We’ve known we’re supposed to share and be honest and not steal since we were in preschool. But what if we actually did it? What if we actually took him seriously? One coat. Here’s an Advent activity – open your coat closet, pick the one you like the most, put it on, and go take the rest to somebody who’s cold. Here’s another – invite a real hungry person to come share dinner when you know there’s going to be plenty enough on that table for one more. You know, the earliest Christians generally did take John seriously. They did share what they owned. They did feed the hungry and clothe the shivering because it was what following Jesus was all about. And the world took notice. Those Christians intrigued the Roman Empire. Thousands and thousands came to see what captivated these followers of Christ. Do you think that was only because of their preaching?
Who really needs more than one coat? It’s a radical question, especially this time of year. Many Christians around the world are embracing John’s message by participating in something called the Advent Conspiracy. Instead of buying more stuff they don’t need, they give money to a project to provide clean water sources to the millions who still don’t enjoy this privilege. We have so many ways to do the same thing – to purchase an honorary gift through our ELCA Good Gifts program, to give to the ministry of this congregation, which is passed on to so many worthy causes in our community and then to support the ministry of the Church across the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.
What do we really need? It’s a question I can’t answer for you. But maybe John the Baptist can help you answer that question for yourself, knowing that whatever the answer is, you remain in Christ’s love. Maybe together John can help us captivate the world, one coat, one person at a time. Amen.
1Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as quoted by Judith Jones, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2711 (accessed December 9, 2015).