Date: Decmber 9th
Preacher: Pastor Ashley Rosa-Ruggieri
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6
Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
This week's Gospel lesson picks up right where last weeks ended. As a reminder, last week we heard about the call that came to John in the wilderness, and the refining that would happen because of his words as a prophet preparing the way for the Lord. So this week, we continue on right after the quote from Isaiah and go into the beginnings of John's ministry. Sometimes as a Christian there are times when we want to ask the big questions, and we want answers. We want to know exactly what to believe, what to do in the world, or how to act. These same feelings have been echoed for centuries by people of many faiths who are trying to be the best they can in the world. In today's Gospel, we see some of those around John asking some of these very questions. It does not specify if these people are Jewish or Gentile, but it does give us a few different people with power that are asking these questions. Remember that the start of this chapter names political, economic, and religious leaders in order to set the scene for the story to come.
The first question to John comes from a general crowd, about what to do. And John tells them to share what they have with those who do not have, with the example of a coat or food. Then, a question comes from tax collectors. At the time, tax collectors were known for taking advantage of power and using corrupt systems to help themselves and others in power while continually harming the poor. John's response is simply, only collect what you are supposed to. Then soldiers approach him to ask what they should do. Again, soldiers were in positions of power because they worked for the Roman empire. There is a manner of occupation happening in these areas, and these soldiers are key to its continuation. But John replies to them in a similar fashion, they should not extort people for money or with threats of accusation if they do not do what the soldiers want. John, as a prophet preparing for the Lord, is already beginning to tell people how the coming changes will come about. Those who have been oppressed and taken advantage of will no longer be poor, fearful, cold, and hungry, but will be held in community. Part of that preparation starts with individuals, and the practices that they have held onto and learned will now change to make way for the way of the Lord, which is full of justice and peace but is so different from the world around them and around us today.
All of these words from John make people question his identity. They do not question him or his words, but they question whether he might be the messiah that they are awaiting. However, John, who was raised from birth to know he would prepare the way of the Lord and who has now heard his call in the wilderness wants to set the record straight so that there is no confusion. He is NOT the coming messiah, he is merely a prophet preparing the way. John has been going around and preaching about a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. He has baptized many people who came to him in these crowds and asked what they were supposed to be doing. But when it comes to the questions about if he is the messiah, he must explain to the people that no, he is not the messiah, he is just preparing the way. The people must understand that the things he proclaims about, the changes he is calling for are only a foretaste of the Gospel of the coming messiah.
To make this point abundantly clear, John explains that the one who is coming is so much greater than John that he could not even take off his sandals. During this time in history, sandals were a common footwear for most people in the region. Because of this, people would have dusty and dirty feet by the end of the day. Many might take off their shoes and wash their feet upon entering their own home, but some who were rich would have servants, the lowliest of servants, remove their sandals for them and make the servant wash their feet. John is explaining that in comparison to the messiah he is the lowliest of servants, lower than even those who remove the sandals of the rich and powerful, even though he is a prophet of God who has been called to prepare the way of the Lord. Such an important person in the way of the Lord still feels like he is so lowly in comparison. Lucky for us, we know the rest of the Gospel and we know that the one we call messiah was the one to wash the feet of his disciples. Our savior teaches us to serve our neighbor, the the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But in this time, when John is proclaiming among these people, he wants them to understand the greatness of the God that will walk among them in human form. That he cannot truly compare.
The other part of this is that John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. This relates to the message of last week as well, when we talk about the way that fire refines things and that in our preparation for the Lord, we go through a refining. John is preaching to these people that though he baptizes with water for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the baptism that will be offered in the messiah changes the person from the inside out. This baptism comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit, and also the promise of a fire that destroys the things in the way of preparing for the Lord. Then this passage ends with saying, “so with many exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” These messages that John is preaching are part of the Gospel, part of the Good News. The changes in how the powerful treat others, the lowliness of John himself in comparison to the messiah who we know will be servant of all, and the promise of a baptism that refines by fire and the Holy Spirit are all part of the Good News. These pieces of Good News encourage and guide us here and now in this season of Advent, as we prepare the way of the Lord, just as John prepared for the messiah those many years ago. We point out exploitation and call for change, we remember the greatness John assigns to Jesus and follow Jesus' example of serving others, and we weather the fire of baptism and the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit, while we too help prepare the way of the Lord. Thanks be to God.