Last Sunday, Anne preached a sermon on anticipation and preparation for the coming of God, and she talked about confessing sin during the Advent season. As I’ve thought about what it means to “keep” Advent this week, I realized that those three things—anticipation (hope/joy), preparation, and confession of sin—don’t typically form a nice unity for me during the Advent season. I tend to associate anticipation and preparation with one side of Advent, the memory of God’s coming to dwell among us through Mary’s baby, and confessing sin with the other side of Advent, the future second coming of God when Jesus “will judge the living and the dead.” I don’t know how to bring together these two sides of Advent because it feels like they pull me in opposite directions. The preparations and pressures of the arrival of Christmas can easily push the future side of Advent out of my mind, while the work of acknowledging and confessing sin in the face of imminent judgment can easily transform hope into fear. So how do I—how do we—keep all of Advent?
Today’s gospel reading from Luke 3:7-18 provides some helpful direction here. We see and hear the prophet John the Baptist proclaiming the word of the Lord to the people who have come down to the river for baptism. Like many prophets before him, his message is scathing, dubbing these crowds “progeny of vipers.” In true prophetic form, he paints a picture of what the people can expect with “the coming wrath” and exhorts them to “produce fruits worthy of repentance.” At first glance, this whole scene seems fear-inducing; after all, an ax ready to uproot trees and a fire waiting to consume them are not images that immediately incline us to hope. For all its charged rhetoric, though, this provocative passage actually opens my imagination to envision and prepare for the coming of God and the coming judgment differently.
First, it challenges some of the ways I’ve thought about The End and Judgment Day. In the past, I’ve imagined a scene like the TV show Survivor, in which God opens the book of my life, weighs the good and the bad that I’ve done, and decides whether to vote me off the island or let me stay. John’s words in the gospel story do not point to a balancing of the scales, though. Instead, he uses the metaphor of a tree, which either bears good fruit or doesn’t. The tree can’t work harder to produce good fruit to make up for all the bad; it will either exhibit “fruits worthy of repentance”—that is, fruit that demonstrates that a turning around, or transformation, has taken place—or it will not. If we are supposed to identify with the tree in this prophecy, then John’s words suggest a contrasting Judgment Day scenario, in which the turning around, the transformation of one’s life as the source of good fruit, becomes the crucial factor.
John’s prophecy also unsettles my focus on my own individual salvation or damnation. As a prophet, John is not speaking just to individuals and telling each one of them to get their own individual lives in order before the wrath of God comes. His prophecy is for Israel, for the people of God as a whole, and his instructions concern the entire social and political fabric of their lives. He calls those “who have two coats” to “share with the one who does not have” any, and those “who have food” to “do likewise” and share food with those who hunger. He tells tax collectors to “collect nothing more than what has been commanded” for them to take from the people, and he exhorts soldiers not to “harass” or “oppress” civilians or to “slander” but to “be satisfied” with the wages they receive.
What strikes me about these instructions is that they expose the disparity, the corruption, and the violence that far too often are both the fruits and roots of communities and societies. Through these specific commands, I think John is inviting the people to recognize that they are all in this together. The people gathered around him at the riverbank are not just individual trees. As a people whose lives are bound up with one another, they form a single tree together, too. The sinful acts of one person are not just between that person and God; they affect other people as well. In the same way, one person cannot prepare for the coming of God alone, because the whole social fabric is what needs transformation. In contrast to the current disparate, socially harmful structuring of life, John’s prophecy announces that there is indeed a completely different way to live life together, a way of sustaining relationships through sharing and receiving, a way freed from unjust divisions, greed, violence, and terror. And this other way of knitting the social fabric is what God desires for God’s people.
If I replace my Survivor image of Judgment Day with the picture outlined by John’s prophecy in Luke, new possibilities for inhabiting Advent begin to emerge. Instead of worrying about whether I’ve done enough good to outweigh the bad, I am invited to open my eyes and recognize that we are in this together. And instead of seeing our overwhelming need for social transformation as cause for despair, I—we—are invited to confess our sins together and place our hope in God, the only one with the life-giving power to knit our lives together differently. And instead of associating preparation and anticipation only with the arrival of Jesus’ first coming, we are invited to hope for his second coming right in the middle of this Christmas season by embodying the transformation that God is already working in our everyday life together through the Spirit and by joyfully anticipating God’s completion of this work.
Written by Jodi Belcher