3rd Sunday of Advent Zepheniah 3:14–18; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18
Street preacher Advent is a time of decision about whether we are going to commit ourselves to Christ.
Anumber of years ago the dean of American psychiatry, Dr. Karl Menninger, surprised a lot of people by writing a book called Whatever Became of Sin? He began it with a humorous but thought-provoking story.
One sunny day in September 1972, a street preacher appeared on a busy corner in downtown Chicago. As office workers hurried by on their way to lunch, the street preacher would suddenly raise his right arm, point a bony finger at an office worker, and shout, “Guilty!’’
Then he would stiffen up, pause a few seconds, and start over again. He’d raise he right arm, point his finger at an office worker, and shout, “Guilty!’’
“The effect on the pedestrians was almost eerie,’’ said Dr.Menninger. They would glance at the preacher, look away, glance back, and then hurry on.
No doubt, John the Baptist had a similar effect on people when he showed up on the banks of the Jordan. Some people, undoubtedly, ridiculed him. Some were angered by him. But others knew deep down in their hearts that they were indeed guilty of wrongdoing. For example, as we read in today’s gospel, tax collectors knew they were guilty of overcharging people. Soldiers knew they were guilty of bullying people. And all the people knew they were guilty of not sharing their surplus with those who didn’t even possess the necessities of life.
That’s Dr.Menninger’s point in his book. Many people today are guilty of wrongdoing.
But that’s not what bothers Dr.Menninger. That’s not what alarms him. What bothers him and alarms him is that so many people today refuse to admit they’re guilty of wrongdoing.
That’s why the street preacher’s single word “Guilty!’’ had such an eerie effect on the Chicago office workers.
John the Baptist, like the street preacher, confronted people where they were most vulnerable in their hearts.
John challenged people to look into their hearts and to acknowledge their sinfulness.He did more. He challenged them to look into their hearts and to do something about what they saw. He challenged them to turn away from their sins and to turn back to God.
Avivid illustration of what John was challenging people to dois found in Catherine Marshall’s book Something More.
One day her daughter Linda was about to take a shower. Linda had one foot in the shower stall and the other foot on the bathroom rug. As she stood there in this awkward position, it suddenly occurred to her that this was a good picture of her life.
Linda had always wanted to commit her life to God, but she could never quite do it. She always kept one foot in and one foot out.
Now, it seemed the moment had finally come when she must decide for God or against him.
Standing there, Linda thought about what choosing the Lord would cost her. The price would be high. But she was tired of living in two worlds and enjoying neither.
Linda paused for a long time, took a deep breath, and said aloud, “Lord, I choose you!’’
With that, she stepped into the shower. It was for her a true baptism.
It’s this kind of a change of heart that John was calling upon people to make.
How does all of this apply in a practical way to our lives?
For the answer to that important question, we go back to Dr.Menninger’s story of the street preacher.
All of us are guilty of wrongdoing in our lives. If there is any doubt in our minds about this, we need only read the First Letter of John. There the Apostle says with uncharacteristic bluntness:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.If we say that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8, 10
I’m awfully glad John spoke out about our sinfulness. I’m awfully glad that he spoke out so bluntly.
The reason I’m glad is that it makes it easier for us to admit what Dr.Menninger says we must admit for our own psychological and spiritual health. We must admit that we are sinners.
In other words, we are all beautiful people. We are all lovable people, but we are also vulnerable people.
All of us have areas in our lives that need to be presented to Jesus for healing and forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
And so Advent is a time when we admit that we are sinners.
It’s a time for repenting our sins, confessing them, and opening our hearts to Jesus our savior.
It’s a time for doing what Linda Marshall did.
It’s a time for deciding not to go on living in two worlds and enjoying neither.
It’s a time for taking a deep breath and saying to God, “Lord, I choose you!’’
Let’s close by paraphrasing a prayer. It was written over 1,600 years ago by an early Christian named Origen:
“Jesus,my feet are dirty. . . .Pour water into your basin and come and wash my feet.
“I am overbold, I know, in asking this, but I dread the consequence of your warning, when you said:
“ ‘If I do not wash your feet, you can have no companionship with me.’ Wash my feet, then, because I do want to be your companion.
Series II 3rd Sunday of Advent Zepheniah 3:14–18; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18
Take the next step Advent is a time for taking the next step in our spiritual journey.
Every motorist knows that a flashing red light on the right rear bumper of a car means that the car is going to turn right.
Every motorist also knows that the flashing light doesn’t turn the car. The driver does that. The light is merely a signal nothing more.
In other words, if the car is to turn right, the driver must turn it.
That illustration helps us understand what John the Baptist is talking about in today’s gospel.
John tells the people to come into the river and be baptized as a sign that they wish to turn their lives in the right direction.
He makes it clear, however, that their baptism is only a sign nothing more. They must take a second step and produce the fruits of repentance. (Luke 3:8)
In other words, the baptism doesn’t turn their lives in the right direction. It is merely a sign that they intend to do this. They must do the turning themselves. After John tells his listeners this, three groups of people step forward. And each group asks him the same question: “What are we to do, then?” In other words, “What must we do to turn our lives in the right direction?’’
John’s reply to each group is revealing. Let’s take the groups in reverse order and look more closely at what John tells them.
The third group was made up of soldiers. They were obviously Roman soldiers, that is, non Jews who were moved by John’s preaching.
To them John said, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely.”
What was John’s point?
John wasn’t telling them to do something unreasonable or extraordinary, like fasting and spending nights in prayer. He was telling them to do their ordinary jobs the way they should be done with honesty and integrity.
For men and women not used to doing their jobs this way, this was a tall order. It meant taking a big step forward and approaching life in a spiritual way.
The second group was made up of tax collectors. They were a step up from pagan soldiers at least they were supposed to be.
They were Jews but in name only. They were Jews who for all practical purposes were living as pagans. They were Jews who were living by the world’s standards, not by God’s.
John gave them much the same advice that he gave the soldiers: “Don’t collect more than is legal.”
Again, John wasn’t telling them to do something unreasonable or extraordinary. He wasn’t telling them to change employment and get jobs that were less materialistic. He wasn’t telling them to leave their families, go into the desert, and do penance.
John was telling them to start living their lives in a way that was in harmony with who they were: God’s Chosen People.
For people who were Jews in name only, this was a tall order. It meant taking a big step forward and becoming Jews in fact, not just in name.
The first group was made up of Jews who were living fairly faithful lives, but who could be doing much more. To them John said:
“Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”
In other words, John was telling them what the prophets had been saying for years. They should treat one another as brothers and sisters. They should treat one another as they themselves would like to be treated if their situations were reversed.
For people not used to doing this, again, this was a tall order. It meant taking a giant step forward in their relationship with God and one another.
John’s response to each group follows a pattern. It comes down to this: Take the next step in the journey of becoming who God called you to be.
How does all this apply to us? Or to put it another way, what would John say to us if we asked him, “What should we do during Advent to prepare for the coming of Jesus?’’
I think John would say to us, “That depends on what group you are in. Before I can tell you what you ought to do, I need to know where you are.’’
Are you in the same category the soldiers were in? Are you treating people in an un-Christian way?
Then you must take a big step forward and begin treating people in a Christian way.
Are you in the same category the tax collectors were in? Are you Christian in name only? Is your Christianity mostly show, with relatively little substance?
Then you must take a big step forward and become who you profess to be and who God called you to be.
Are you in the same category the “good’’ Jews were in? Are you a good Christian, but capable of doing a lot more? Do you follow Jesus, but not as closely as you should? Then you must take a big step forward and begin to live more as Jesus lived. You must begin to share with those in need and to help them as Jesus did.
To sum up, John would answer our question, “What should we do during Advent to prepare for the coming of Jesus?’’ this way:
“Where are you in your Christian life? Where does God want you to be? Now take the next step in the direction that God wants you to go.’’
This is what Advent is all about. It’s not doing something impossible or unreasonable. It’s doing something very possible and very reasonable. It’s simply taking the next step on the journey that leads to your Father’s home in heaven.
It’s not merely signaling that you intend to turn your life in the right direction. It’s taking the next step and doing it.
Series III 3rd Sunday of Advent Zephaniah 3:14–18a, Philippians 4:4–7, Luke 3:10–18
Conversion Advent invites us to repent and begin new lives.
Crowds of people came out to John to be baptized by him. . . . The people asked him, “What are we to do?” Luke 3:7, 10
Afew years back, Jorge Valdes was invited to give an Advent talk to the students of Cristo Rey High School in Chicago’s inner city.
He had been a cofounder of the Medellin drug cartel, one of the largest crime organizations in the world. His salary had been $1 million a month.
Eventually he was caught, arrested, and imprisoned for 11 years.
In prison he began to take a long hard look at his life. He was overwhelmed by guilt and remorse at what he saw inside him. He considered suicide.
It was at this point that he repented his past and turned to God. Suddenly a new life opened before him a life he never dreamed existed.
It eventually led him to return to college. At the time he spoke at Cristo Rey, he was working toward a doctorate in New Testament studies at Chicago’s Loyola University.
The dramatic turnaround in the life of Jorge Valdes illustrates the kind of conversion John the Baptist was calling upon the people of his time to make to prepare for the coming of Jesus.
He was calling for them to repent their sins and begin new lives.
Three groups of people asked John what they must do: Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and the Jewish crowds.
John told Roman soldiers not to bully anyone.
He told tax collectors not to cheat people.
He told ordinary Jews to share their food and clothing with their needy brothers and sisters.
John’s advice to each group follows a similar pattern.
He did not tell them to go on long fasts or spend a half-hour each day in prayer.
He told them to prepare for the coming of Jesus by living their ordinary lives in a way that they should.
To put it another way, John told them to prepare by sincerely trying to treat others especially those they didn’t particularly like in the same way that they would want others to treat them. Jesus would one day put it this way:
“[L]ove one another, just as I love you. . . . [I]f you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners do that!” John 15:12, Luke 6:33
This is what Advent is all about. It’s about taking seriously Jesus’ teaching to reach out lovingly to all our brothers and sisters, not just those we like.
It’s about taking an important step on our spiritual journey of becoming what God made us to be.
In the process of taking that step, we will discover something amazing. We will discover the joy that comes with taking that important step.
We will also discover something else. We will discover that the way we interface with the world is the same way it will interface with us.
In other words, if we approach life and people in a hostile way, they will respond to us in a hostile way.
On the other hand, if we approach them in a loving way, they will respond to us in a loving way.
Consider an illustration of what we are talking about. One day a dog strayed into a room whose walls were filled with large mirrors. Suddenly he saw himself surrounded by many dogs.
Instinctively he bared his teeth and began to snarl at them, thinking this would frighten them. And all the dogs in the mirrors did the same thing. They bared their teeth and snarled back.
When the dog saw this, he grew terrified and raced frantically around the room. And all the dogs in the mirrors began racing around after him.
When the dog saw this, he trembled, staggered, and died of fright. What a terrible tragedy! Had the dog just once wagged his tail, the images in the mirrors would have done the same thing.
It is the same with us. The way we approach others is the way they will approach us.
That brings us back to John the Baptist’s call for the people of his day to prepare for the Messiah’s coming.
Specifically, it brings us back to the story of how Jorge Valdes applied John’s call to his modern life.
The story of Valdes illustrates how God does more than welcome back repentant sinners.
God does far more.
God invites them to use their broken lives of sin to advance the work of salvation. An unknown poet describes it this way:
God has need of broken things and broken people.
Take broken things!It takes broken soil to produce a bountiful crop of wheat. It takes broken clouds to produce a refreshing shower of rain.
It takes broken grain to make a nourishing loaf of bread. It takes a broken jar of perfume to fill the air with sweetness.
And take broken people! It took a Saint Peter, broken and repentant after having betrayed Jesus, to return with the kind compassion and understanding needed to shepherd the flock Jesus entrusted to him.
If you think your life is too broken by sin for Jesus to use, think again.
You may be the very person Jesus is looking for, right now at this moment, to do a very important job.