3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
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 ax 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.”
This passage is used almost exclusively as an Advent scripture but today we are using it to illuminate the discipline of confession. In the baptism of repentance, John emphasized that you have to turn toward love if you are going to find God. He challenges self satisfaction, preaches fear and gives practical advice to prepare the way of the Lord.
When John quotes Isaiah, he appealed to a long held hope and promise that the Way of the Lord would prevail and that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” But instead of offering encouragement, John sharply rebukes them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In John’s day, it was easy to rest in the knowledge that John’s listeners were the Chosen People. They were already special. They were waiting for the messiah to save them. They were passive passengers awaiting God. John calls them, and us, into account. John warns his listeners they must ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance’. We may not sit upon our laurels nor our good intentions, we must ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance.’ It is not enough to want to love, you have to live accordingly.
We may not think of ourselves as the chosen people but it is easy to talk about kindness, point to injustice and remain impotently indignant. In real life it is easy to talk about being kind to others, easy to read inspirational books, even be outraged at injustice but none of that matters if we are not mindful of each other in our daily encounters. It may seem harsh. After all we mean well but for John, none of our good intentions matter much if we do not find practical day to day ways to demonstrate that other people matter as much as us. Loving starts with the person in front of us.
John is asked repeatedly, “What should I do?” His answer is consistent. Treat other people better. This is not rocket science. Don’t take advantage of your position or power. Don’t try to get an edge or improve yourself at the expense of others. Be satisfied with what you have. These behaviors are the indicators, the fruit, of a life devoted to God. John preached and believed that loving was an activity not just an idea. There is a giant fork in the road for John. One choice leads to life and the other to a dead end. Repentance is the self conscious choice to turn toward a life of regard and mindfulness and away from a life of self centeredness. Self preservation is important but is not the sole measure of life.. John’s baptism of repentance was a public declaration of that choice. We can not claim to love God and treat other people badly.
This all seems straightforward enough. There is a practical logic to it. Our behaviors are more believable than our words. Unfortunately understanding what is good for us is very different from choosing such a life. I am convinced that advancing ourselves at the expense of others will ultimately fail. Historically, every earthly kingdom has fallen. In a life based upon position and power, we can fully expect that those who do not have such position and power will seek to gain what we have. It may take a few generations but the powerful will be displaced. Our own history teaches this. The United States was founded by displaced people who displaced indiginous people. Now we are fiercely protecting ourselves from displaced people out of the fear we will be displaced. This is a predictable cycle. But we do not seem to learn from history.
In much more ordinary ways, most of us know that diet and exercise are good for us. But in real life, these are habits that are a constant battle for most of us. It doesn’t matter what we ‘know’, it is hard to choose against what feels good (sleeping through a workout or taking an extra portion at dinner). Immediate gratification trumps long term gains. Even when we are talking about our individual selves , the concept of maximizing our lives with diet and exercise is a hard sell. If it is hard when it comes to self care, how much harder is it to extend ourselves on behalf of others. It is not easy to repent. It is not easy to live a life that requires mindfulness and a constant balancing of our needs and the needs of others.
I ask our FIRL group: What does it take to reorient our lives—to repent?” “Why do any of us do good—especially when it means giving up some of what we have? Why would anyone choose a life that will cause us personal discomfort? Our discussion suggested several possibilities. Each of these has a place and each of these is more or less likely to lead us to turn toward what actually works.
Most of need something to aspire to. We can use our aspirations to turn toward them. We have watches that tell us how good we are when we exercise. We have slogans to encourage us to “just do it.” There are books written about self affirmations. There are any number of biblical passages which promise and encourage. We need something to aim for. We may be hopelessly inadequate to the task but when we have a goal and encouragement it is more possible to change the direction of our lives.
The opposite can also be a motivator for us to reorient our lives. If what you are doing is doomed to failure, you are more likely to try something different. This is the basis of many ‘hell fire and brimstone’ sermons and was John’s approach. You will be cut down, thrown into the fire, sent to hell if you don’t change your ways. While I have an aversion to ‘scaring people straight’, it is important to see that what we’re doing doesn’t work. In therapy I frequently say that people do not change because it is a good idea, they do the work of change because they are desperate. Their ways of coping are not working, they are anxious, depressed, sleepless and often feel alienated. In such times, people are a lot more willing to try something different.
PRACTICAL SELF INTEREST
Just because something is hard does not mean it is not gratifying. Jesus promised that he came into the world so that we would have life and have it more abundantly. It turns out that loving is challenging and difficult. But it also turns out that aiming for such a life gives us a life we could not have anticipated. The only way to find that out is turn toward it.
Another reason to treat other people better is obligation. At the very least we want to know we did what was expected. Whether we seek approval or need to honor an interior code, we feel obligated to do right. Depending upon the interior motive, service out of obligation can result in resentment and or entitlement.
Finally, treating other people can originate in love. Some of the people in FIRL have cared for people long after those people could no longer recognize them. Such care no longer has any hope of reciprocity or recognition. It comes from a place deeper than any ‘should’. It is a free gift. Costly but free.
Do not judge these various motives in yourself or others. They all can lead to reorienting your life toward loving. That is the baptism of repentance. Practically speaking, whatever your reason, begin with kindness, begin with regard. Treat other people better. That was John’s simple advice. You are much more likely to experience a transformed life. You are more likely to discover God cares for you and God’s presence in the people around you. You are more likely to discover the life that gives life. It may not happen—but you have a heck of a lot better chance than if you insist upon making your self interest the measure of your life.
Prepare the way Lord. Turn towards love and be transformed. Let it be so.