By Elizabeth Baumann

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 3:7-18

7 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? 8 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. 9 Even now the axe 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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Meditation

The last line of today’s gospel reading is a gem: “with many exhortations, John preached the good news.” His message wasn’t, “You’re all fine!” or “Your institutions are responsible for all the wrong in the world, not you!” (though their institutions certainly weren’t helping), or even “God loves you!” No, no, John’s message was, “Repent! The Christ is coming, and those he finds to be chaff, he’s going to burn.” Yet it’s called “good news,” and people flock out into the desert to hear it. Not just the downtrodden poor either, but the tax collectors and soldiers come out to find out how they must change. It’s hard for us even to imagine.

The first lesson for us is an easy one: true spiritual honesty will acknowledge we are sinners who can’t transfer our guilt or correct ourselves in any fundamental way. Trying to fix yourself is itself a sin, because it doesn’t let God do his job; it is a step away from, rather than a step toward, God. Shuffling blame onto someone or something else (even when that someone or something is blamable) is a sin for the same reason. There’s no getting out of repentance and forgiveness, and when we accept it, it is good.

But then look at the advice John gives in the middle of the lesson to those soldiers and tax collectors. It’s not rocket science. Just don’t lie or steal or beat people up. It doesn’t sound like it should be so hard — but it is. It is, because he’s telling them to stop protecting and providing for themselves in a way that was culturally expected. We might also ask what we must do, what radical way we are called let go of ourselves. A friend and I recently found this advice from St. Teresa of Ávila helpful: “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”

Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.

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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Bank, N.J.
Church of the Province of Uganda