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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.
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. (Luke 3:7-8a, 10-18)
This text didn’t sound like good news earlier this week, when I first read the passage. It sounded like hellfire and brimstone, all this talk of the vengeful God of judgment and burning, the unquenchable fire burning the chaff.
Yet there was some comfort, reading these words later in this week of death, of two separate mass shootings, one in Oregon and one in Connecticut. There was comfort in the idea that those responsible would pay, would be held somehow eternally responsible. These words resonated in the last days of this week, when we ask, along with those by the Jordan, What now? What must we do? When John’s suggestions of sharing our coats, sharing our food only reminds us that such things are now unnecessary for so very many innocent people. When all of John’s exhortations to fair play and equal treatment fall so short of our grief and anger. We want to hear of justice, of punishment, that God is as angry as we are; we want to hear that God sees things as we do.
So: Good News! the bad guys will burn in hell!
I spent most of Friday, as I’d imagine many of you did, aching. Holding my kids without telling them why; wishing they’d wiggle less and let me hold them longer, while being so grateful for the life that wiggle through them. But mostly, I spent the day praying. And if all that fire, all that vengeance, is the Good News that is the response to my prayers, then I’m pretty well done with this whole thing. Because that is not the God I know. And wrath and judgment is not – and never has been – good news.
But there is good news. Did you hear who quizzed John, there by the river? What must we do? What now? said the poor. Said the tax collectors. Said the soldiers. Said the hated, the feared, the outcast, the cruel. Said the abusive tax collectors, getting rich off of money extorted from those who had nothing. Said the abusive, hated soldiers, sell-outs to Rome, working for the enemy, wielding power by threat of violence. What then should we do? said all those whom John had just called vipers – poisonous low-lives.
It is to these – the undeserving, despicable, despised wretches – that John speaks. What must we do? The one and only thing God really asks of us: Love. What must we do? Give of ourselves, out of whatever abundance we have. Without reserve, without judgment, as God gives even to us: even to tax collectors and soldiers and vipers.
Because this is the Good News: that we are children – every single one of us – of a loving God.
It’s easy to see that holy image reflected in the images of the children affected this week. That might be a part of why that incident loomed so much bigger in the public consciousness than a shooting, earlier this very week, at a mall in Oregon. That might be why some pastors called this one wrath of God; why the issue of school prayer suddenly trumped the “leave Christ in Christmas” mantra that has been so ubiquitous since Thanksgiving. Children present a much clearer glimpse of the divine that we all carry within us; their loss cuts us all the more deeply.
But God is not something we outgrow. God’s image remains within us.
We were all young and cute once, trusting and carefree. As adults, this can be hard to remember, our likeness to God is too often occluded by the scars of our human lives. I don’t think that there is one of us here who is not grateful for John’s baptism of repentance, who is not in need of ther the fresh start that it affords. I don’t think there’s one of us who doesn’t need to hear the reminder of unconditional love that this baptism implies. I don’t think there’s a one of us who doesn’t need to hear, again, the call to care for those who are cold or hungry, in body or soul. The call to give comfort and shelter to those who are ill, lonely, or in pain. The call to see all humans made in the image of God, and no one as unworthy. The call to refrain from judgment, as another voice of this season so forcibly reminds us, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas present:
“Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions…” (A Christmas Carol)
For as much momentary comfort as it brings to imagine the chaff burning; for as much delight as we take in thinking that we know who is chaff and who is not; for as easy as it is for us to ignore that there is chaff around every grain of wheat – that they are not separate – it is wise for us to remember that the young men on whom we heap our anger were children too. That they were also made in God’s own holy image.
Jesus tells a parable about the lost sheep; about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep, of which one went astray. The shepherd left the ninety-nine, searching high and low for that missing one. In the parable, the shepherd brings back the sheep alive; the sheepfold is restored in its entirety, every single one is brought home safely. But sheep are not very bright. They can wander into holes and perish; they can slip in the crags and treacherous landscape of the Judean countryside. They are easy prey for wolves and other predators. They may be truly lost. Yet the shepherd, I am certain, will not shrug off this loss with the offhand comment, “Stupid sheep… you win some, you lose some.”
To say that God does not grieve the loss of life – any life – is to reduce God to our level. Whether it is the life lost in anger, swallowed by evil and pain; whether it is the life lost in untreated illness, stigmatized and deemed unworthy. It is easier for us to grieve the lives of innocents, of children, but we are human. God sees us differently. To God, we are all children.
God does not return hate with hate. God does not respond to violence with violence. God does not separate us into worthy and unworthy, redeemable and irredeemable. God separates the wheat from its outer coating only to find within each of us that divine image, however deeply buried.
Because this too is Good News: that God’s love for each one of us is eternal, infinite. That God loves each and every one of us to the point of putting the care of a newborn, God’s own self incarnate, into our horribly clumsy human hands. That God trusts us – even us! – enough to grant us God’s own vulnerability, in that tiny body. That God has faith in us, enough to bear our joys and sorrows, our grief and compassion, even our anger and desire for vengeance; enough to heal those society has given up on, to redeem the irredeemable, to love the unlovable. That despite it all, God is willing to love as openly and trustingly as a child; to love as unconditionally as a parent. To love us without bounds, without losing hope, without ever abandoning us. To love us despite ourselves, whether or not we deserve it.
If there is comfort in anything, in this time of grief; if there is joy on this third Sunday in Advent, may it be in this love that bears our pain, that grieves without anger. May it be in this love that never loses faith, even in our brokenness; even when we lose faith with one another. May it be that God is still calling us, gathered with John by the Jordan, asking again, What must we do?
We hear the call. We know the answer. And that is Good News.