Third Sunday in Advent (16 December 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to 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.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
“Were we wrong?” I’ve had this same conversation with my older sister a hundred times. We had it again Friday morning. “Were we wrong?”
Perhaps you recall that my Mom has not been well. In addition to advanced old age, her grief over my father’s death—now more than a year ago—is nearly debilitating. In the last few days, she has developed new symptoms, new sadnesses. She hardly eats or drinks anymore. She doesn’t want to leave her room. She has little to say.
My sister and I have memories of a Mom who was kind and gentle, quick with a smile, clever with Scrabble, tireless and generous. But now?
Many of you have walked this road with people you love. Whether it is illness or age or some sort of trauma, people can change. Sometimes they change so much we don’t even know them anymore. And we wonder if maybe we were wrong about them all along.
Years ago, I skimmed a book called “Being Wrong” for a class I was taking. (“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” Kathryn Schulz, Ecco, 2011) I remember little about it, except for this intriguing proposition: the more wrong we are, the more we insist we are right. Why? Because, on some level, we worry that if we are wrong about one thing (a person, a memory, an idea), we might be wrong about other things. And then, where would it end, this being wrong?
Which leads me back to my sister’s question and the fear that lies beneath it: “Were we wrong?”
I imagine John the Baptizer’s audience facing the same dilemma. Last week, Luke introduced us to John by first placing him in his historical context. “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius . . .” (Luke 3.1ff) Then Luke reminded us that John was “son of Zechariah,” a memory tickler of John’s miraculous birth to very old parents. (Luke 1.5ff)
What would this John have to say? Standing as he did in the shadow of some of the most vicious rulers in human history, identified by his old man’s name? Will he challenge the ruling authorities? Will he spin sappy memories about growing up with geriatric parents? No. He told them they were wrong.
“Don’t start with me about being descendants of Abraham,” he mocked. “If God wanted more descendants of Abraham, these rocks would grow legs.”
“And don’t go on about being of David’s line. That storied lineage, that tree is being chopped down even as we speak.”
Well, he was speaking. They were speechless.
There is no corollary for us with regard to the offense John caused. No lewd Martin Luther joke comes close to cutting this deep. His audience was filled with observant Jews, come to the river to be baptized for repentance—a ritual as ancient as Abraham himself. For centuries, they had taken courage in the promise made to their ancestor Abraham, that they would be given a land, that they would be a blessing. For centuries, they had waited for the “branch of Jesse” to be restored, for a king like David to take the throne.
And John? With two swift kicks, he had them on the ground.
“Children of Abraham?” Don’t even.
The restoration of David’s line? As if.
John assured them they had been, most certainly and completely, wrong. Wrong about the two most important things in their lives, in their world.
But rather than shake their fists or stamp their feet, as I would do, they believed him. They believed this poorly-dressed, foul-mouthed, disrespectful son of an octogenarian. They believed they were wrong. And they welcomed the news.
I honestly don’t understand their reaction. This story has baffled me for decades. It would be like getting your “23andMe” DNA results back and discovering you were the daughter of a Golden Retriever and a Scottish bagpipe. What? Not possible.
To destroy their connection to Abraham, to chop down the tree that was David’s line was. . . Well, as I said, there is no corollary.
But they were fully willing to be wrong. Their question was not, “How dare you,” but “What then shall we do?”
In their wrong-ness, in this new reality, in this unsettling moment. What then should they do?
And he invited them to be wrong again. He invited the rich to stop being rich, the tax collectors to stop being sneaky, the soldiers to stop extorting. Why? Because someone, something better was on the horizon. And all the things they had clung to before would no longer matter.
“One is coming who is more powerful than I,” he promised. And they were willing to be wrong, to drop everything to receive this Promised One?
Were we wrong?
You may remember I told you last week about my 4-year-old neighbor’s Advent/Hanukah gift to me? That he appeared at the door last Saturday afternoon dwarfed by a poinsettia as red as his rosy cheeks. It was a lovely multi-generational interfaith moment that makes me smile every time I think about it.
So, imagine my delight Thursday evening, just after I had finished dinner dishes, when there was a knock on the door. Expecting to see the UPS truck parked in the driveway, instead I was presented with an enormous winter bouquet—red roses and green boughs and sparkling tinsel. I thought, “How is this possible? Flowers again? What are the odds?”
And as quickly as I reached for it, the woman presenting the bouquet, peered over the top, gasped and snatched it back. “These aren’t for you! We must have the wrong house! I’m so sorry!” And she scurried toward the car idling in the driveway, shouting “Wrong house! Wrong woman!”
I have no idea who they were looking for, or if she ever received that lovely bouquet. But they were so wrong. And so ashamed.
We can be so wrong about so many things. People. Beliefs. Addresses. And, if we discover we are wrong, that the person we loved is no longer the same, that our faith had been misplaced, that we are lost, what then shall we do?
John, storied son of Zechariah, encourages us to rest in our wrong-ness. To let go any ideas we had about what is important or what is sure or what is safe. To his wildly-wrong audience at the river he advised, “Be generous, be honest, be content.”
And us? What if we are wrong?
Were my sister and I wrong about our mother’s true nature? I don’t think so. Though she is not the mother we once knew, she’s still our Mom—a sadder, older, more tired edition.
But we will not always be wrong. The world will not always be wrong. One who is more powerful is coming to set things right. One who is more powerful than our wealth, more powerful than our confidence, more powerful than our fear. We would be wrong to underestimate the power of this One who is coming. This One named Jesus. He will lift us. And love us. And free us. And right us.
“Were we wrong?” Possibly.
Will he make it right? Absolutely.