Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

I was baptized when I was about six months old. I became God’s daughter, a member of the household of God. I was saved from sin and death. Of course, I don’t remember any of it, but I do know that my parents were committed to seeing that I grew up with Christian values. I was the oldest, so I was the first one to learn to share. Since I had a sister and then a brother within three years, sharing was an important value. I am sure it was hard for me to share, as it is for most young children. What was mine was mine, and I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted to play with all my toys at once, even though there were plenty to go around. But I learned to share, and I got pretty good at it.

I also learned that though many things were mine, some things were not. The change on my father’s desk. The makeup on my mother’s dressing table. The extra goodies in the refrigerator from a special meal where my mother actually cooked dessert.

As I grew older, I learned that sometimes I could resist temptation and sometimes I could not. Time outs were not a popular thing when I was a girl, but I expect I was sent to my room to learn a lesson. From this punishment, learned that I was basically good, but I had some bad moments that mom and dad tried to get rid of. And they gave me all these lessons about attitudes and doing good and sweeping away the bad parts because I had been baptized and they had promised to raise me in the faith. 

John the Baptist has the same message for us as my parents did for me. He was much harsher on the people in the story, using the prophets’ style of speech to promote radical action. He even called them a brood of vipers, but still they came, still they rushed to be baptized. John warned of terrible things if they were not baptized. But baptism alone would not save them, just as in that community, being children of Abraham would not save them. They had to have a complete change in attitudes. They had to repent, to turn around and see God in their lives, if they were to avoid God’s wrath. And they had to be cleansed in baptism soon because God’s ax was at the root of the trees and God would cut down any tree that did not bear good fruit. Baptism was necessary to change the attitudes of the people who came to John, to change one from thinking they were self-sufficient to being dependent on God (Mariam J. Kamell). They had to change from being inward focused to being outward focused to serve their neighbor.

 

But a change in attitude was not enough either. Baptism for repentance meant action that demonstrated the repentance they had professed. And what does John tell them? He tells them what my parents told me. Share and don’t take things that don’t belong to you. It was all about how you dealt with your possessions and with those of others. Share your coat, share your food. This should have been basic knowledge for the people of Israel because it was part of the 10 Commandments, but they seem to be so far off God’s path that they had forgotten them. Or they knew what they were, but didn’t really want to do them. Sharing food and clothing with those who had none would bring them into contact with the poor and the outcast and they probably gulped at receiving those instructions. But there was no excuse, John said, for people to be needy. There was plenty to go around if people would share.

For the tax collectors, he had instructions about taking only the money that they were due, and soldiers were not to extort money with threats but be satisfied with their wages. These things would part them from some of their possessions too, but the money they took didn’t belong to them. The soldiers and tax collectors were a great source of oppression for the Jews, who were mostly poor, and that was not the way repentant sinners acted.

John’s baptism also meant that a more powerful one than he was coming and would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. That baptism meant that the parts of you that still sinned would be burned off by the fire so you would be purified. Nobody is all good or all bad, and the wheat and the chaff are the parts of us that are noble and the parts that are not (Rebecca Abts Wright). Jesus wants us to be good and to do good and he wants to help us do that by purifying us in a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

Baptism is the key to John’s instructions. Baptism is designed to bring a change in attitudes, a change in behavior and a willingness to have the sinful parts of us cleansed by the purifying fire of Jesus’ love for us. Jesus is not harsh, as John pictured him, but he is judge. If there were no judge, there would be no reason to abandon our unhealthy, selfish ways. But Jesus is one whose judgment is tempered with mercy. He does his best to find the wheat in us and give us room to produce more wheat by separating our chaff and destroying it in unquenchable fire.

When we were baptized, we became children of God, but that does not give us special privileges, just as being children of Abraham did not exempt anyone from judgment (Judith Jones). Abraham acted faithfully and the children of Abraham needed to do the same (Mariam J. Kamell). They could be helped by God to be faithful through this baptism of repentance for forgiveness. They could turn their lives around. We can turn our lives around too and in doing so see God ready and willing to help us be faithful to our baptismal vows. We don’t get baptized more than once, but we can reaffirm our vows and we can confess our sins and ask Jesus to forgive us and make us new people – people that are faithful to who God calls them to be.

Sharing food is one of the things John the Baptist told us to do. And there is now a database to do just that. Forty-five million Americans don’t have enough to eat, but the country wastes 40% of its food. Maria Rose Belding, a volunteer at a food bank, saw her organization throw out hundreds of boxes of expired macaroni and cheese in front of people who were lined up to receive food. According to the Washington Post, Belding and a friend have now developed a database that connects thousands of food pantries in 24 states, helping them share surplus food that might otherwise go to waste. Pantries post their excess food to the program and someone else in the network picks it up and puts it to use, says writer Terence McCoy. Truly faith in action.

We are all here today because we have been baptized into Jesus Christ, into his death and resurrection. We believe that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life and Lord of us all. He preached what John preached: baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. Baptism for turning around and looking at where God is in our midst and what God is doing. I don’t think Jesus has an ax at the foot of the tree, but he does want us to bear good fruit (remember he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit and it withered and died). His means of persuasion are different than John’s but they are no less vigorous. The Holy Spirit will not be stopped as it pushes us to be the people God wants us to be. And our instructions are really very simple about our possessions, which give us security and often the illusion of self-sufficiency. They are easy enough to be understood by a child – share what you have and don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. When we mess up, as children often do, Jesus is there to purify us, to burn away the parts that are not bearing fruit to make it possible for more fruit to grow.

Baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins requires a change in our attitudes and our actions to be real, to be complete. The ritual itself brings very little unless we act on it. This Advent, act on your baptism. Feed the hungry, share your goods, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. And expect the coming of Jesus, who Jesus will cheer you on, ready to help anytime we repent and return to him.

AMEN

     - Rev Ann Barker

Works cited:
Mariam J. Kamell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p.73
Rebecca Abts Wright, Tuesday Morning, vol. 17, no. 4, October-December 2015, p. 19
Judith Jones, Working Preacher, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18, blog post
Mariam J. Kamell, ibid. p.71