Two phrases in particular stand out to me in this Gospel: What should we do? And, “Exhorting them in many ways, he preached the GOOD NEWS to the people.” Good news, Luke says??? What we’ve been hearing for the past two weeks isn’t quite what I’d term “good” news. We’ve been hearing predictions of occurrences of unimaginable proportions … taking down mountains, flattening hills, wiping out valleys; hearing voices crying in the desert, watching for signs in the sun, the moon and the stars; dismay, perplexity, roaring sounds and people dying of fright. This is GOOD news?
Well, here we are at the traditional half-way point in Advent and the theme of joy abruptly appears – you can sense it – the rose colored liturgical appointments – the vestments, the altar and advent wreath candles – they all symbolize “relax” – be joyful! In the days when it was popular to use the Introit of the Mass, we sang: “Guadete! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” The storms we had this weekend give voice to the petition of the Introit – the opening verse – asking for a gentle rain on the earth. “Drop down dew from above, and let the clouds rain down Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior.”
John’s message today is simple. He doesn’t ask the tax collectors to stop collecting, nor does he encourage the soldiers to go AWOL. He says: Share what you have, be honest, do not oppress people. What he preaches is at the same time easy and difficult; simple and challenging: How can I bring the divine into my daily ordinary actions to make my faith a living thing? So my walk echoes my talk?
It is John’s austerity and integrity that drew people’s respect and trust. He speaks to the people in words they can easily relate to. But, first he utters a direct assault to any who in any way ignores or fails to have an orientation towards others. He opens his homily with a broadside slap in the face: You brood of vipers! He goes on asking who they think they are.
One thing is certain: his audience knew where they stood with him. And, he knew clearly his place in God’s story. “I am baptizing you with water; but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Another translation says: “untie the laces of his sandals.” Why, I wonder, did he say “loosen, untie” which would leave the wearer’s shoes flapping on his feet or sliding off his feet so he is barefoot? Is this an allusion to the spirit of hospitality expected of all Christians? It brings to mind Benedict’s admonition of the ages old practice of first washing the guest’s feet for which the shoes would have been untied and removed. And look at Jesus on the cross with his bare feet exposed to the elements and on-lookers’ abuse.
And, there’s that question Luke’s text raises: “What should we do?” John’s answer is unique in Luke’s account; he responds by offering specific actions:
If you have more than you need, whether in terms of food or clothing, you must share.
Stop stealing from your neighbors.
And stop using your power to take advantage of simple citizens.
In other words, no more hoarding, no skimming, no extortion.
The question, then, to us in flashing neon lights is: “What should we do?” How shall we respond to the Advent of our Emmanuel that our prayers, our hymns and our intercessions are talking about? How can we meet the promise of the season, with real, meaningful expectation? Everywhere around us the world seems to be caught up in merrymaking. The streets and stores have been festooned with Christmas decorations since way before Thanksgiving Day. Neighbors vie with each other to have the most twinkling Christmas lights, the tallest tree and the most presents under the tree and the biggest inflatable lawn decorations. Social calendars are crammed with holiday party dates. Our attitude is quickly deteriorating into an Ebenezer Scrooge “Bah, humbug.”
Perhaps faithful John has a gift for us today, even if it is wrapped in the rough brown paper of his preaching. He jolts us out of our pessimism, our moodiness, our sour attitudes to an awareness of the sparkle in the eyes of children, the welcome look on an elder’s face, the grateful tears on the faces of the recipients of our good deeds. We see evidence of a warming heart as life-giving words fall gently on world-weary ears. And, we know our answer to the question: WHAT SHALL WE DO?