John was baptizing. And when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him to be baptized, the implication is that he did baptize them as well. But what he had to say to them was pretty harsh. He offered baptism for repentance, but then declared that this was just a beginning… just a prelude to what Jesus would bring. He himself declared that the baptism he was offering was, in a sense, “easy”. It was gentle. He said, come to me and let me baptize you and your sins will be cleaned. But John also warned that Jesus’ coming would not be so simple. Making amends, repenting, is not just the easy task of saying to God, “I messed up.” Not that saying this is easy, either. Even admitting to God our mistakes can be hard. We like our general prayers of confession – our general prayers that don’t get into the “specifics” but just state in very general terms the errors of our ways. Sitting down with God and really taking a moral inventory is much harder. Saying to God, admitting to ourselves that we have passed up those in need, that we have hurt people around us, that we judge too quickly and live out that judgment in unhealthy ways….the specifics of our errors are harder to admit. But John takes this a step further. He says, yes, he baptizes with water for repentance. But when Jesus comes, he will be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. What does that mean? We understand that it has to do with repentance, but what exactly is John saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to us as well?
At some level, I think the Pharisees and Sadducees did get that they had things they needed to repent of. They would not have come to John otherwise. But they did come to John for baptism. So I think it is helpful to take a step back and look at who the Pharisees and Sadducees really were. Apparently, the more research that is done on who the Pharisees and Sadducees are, the less that is actually known about them. Everyone has a different guess - but more and more scholars admit that’s all they have: guesses. Our greatest information about them, then, must come from the gospel stories themselves. When reading Biblical passages that talk about Pharisees and Sadducees, it becomes apparent that the one characteristic that is constantly being confronted in their strict dedication to the law to the point that they would sometimes hurt others just so they would be following that law. They follow the Biblical law to a tee. They would never touch someone who was “unclean,” ie bleeding, or somehow broken, they would never work on the Sabbath, and that included healing or allowing for others to be healed. They are trying to follow God’s law in all that they do: and apparently, they are very good at it.
But they do it so rigidly that people end up hurt. They fail to live the deeper law of LOVE because they are so focused on the specifics of the laws that they feel make them “clean” or right. The problem has to do with their fruit, as John the Baptist tells it in this passage. In their efforts to uphold and live out the law, the Pharisees and Sadducees passed up many opportunities to really care for and serve people, God’s children, others, those around them. John the Baptist tells them that it is by their fruits that they are known, not by their legal goodness, not by their righteousness, not by the laws they so strictly follow and obey. What God cares about is that we live lives of love - loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, loving all you encounter, in the same way that you would love yourself. It is by the care that a person provides, the lives each person touches and changes, it is by how much good we do in the world, not by righteously following the laws, but by how we live lives of love, that we will find ourselves judged.
The Pharisees and Sadducees come to John for repentance. But they are repenting breaking laws. They are repenting wearing clothing of mixed cloth or eating something unclean, or feeding an animal on the Sabbath, or whatever law they happened to feel they may have broken. What they are failing to repent of is their failure to live lives of love.
It is easy for us to stand with John the Baptist in condemnation. It is easy for me to say, “in today’s world, these Pharisees and Sadducees are the equivalent of people who are so set on following some laws that they are willing to kill people by blowing up Planned Parenthood clinics, supporting hate crimes, telling the homeless that they will be helped only if they convert first, telling those who are sick that if they only had enough faith they would be healed.” We don’t do that. We aren’t like that. This passage doesn’t seem to really apply to us. We strive hard to live lives of service and love and I believe we do a good job of that here at Clayton Valley.
But during this Advent time, and at a time when we are looking at repentance, we are called to go even deeper. It means taking things the next step, the much harder step, of actually repenting, of turning around, taking a different path, a different road, fixing what we have done wrong or failed to do that was good. We don’t fix these things by simply asking God for forgiveness, or being baptized for forgiveness. We fix these things by looking at how we have hurt others and making the choice, the decision, to turn another direction, go a different way, make amends to those we have injured, and choose different behavior that will not injure again in the same way.
When I was in high school I went through a period of time when I began to feel this nagging at my heart every time I passed up a homeless person begging. I began to feel that God was calling me through Jesus’ example and Jesus’ call to feed the poor that my abundance in the face of their poverty was in itself sin. This feeling grew in me when I went to Berkeley for college and found I had to pass these poor and broken people every day on my way to and from classes. But shortly after I arrived, one of my new Christian friends told me, “Oh, well, I don’t give them money because I’d just be supporting their addictions and paying for their alcohol.” I cannot tell you the relief for me in those words. Here was an excuse that I could stand on. Of course God didn’t want me to support their addictions, so God must not have meant for me to give money to these people. And I found this belief to be supported, quoted, worn almost like a badge by the Christians around me. Here was our excuse for not caring for these people. Interestingly, most of the time an alternative, such as giving them food instead of money when they asked, was never offered. Instead, we all clung to our Christian righteousness and excused our neglect of Jesus’ command to feed the “least of these” in this simple, straightforward way.
But then I began to volunteer with the local soup kitchen and the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless. There I met two pastors who had different things to say on the subject. Pastor Alexia asked me, “Do you know for sure they will spend the money on alcohol? Maybe the one who asks you is Jesus in disguise. How will you know?” Lucy was even more confrontational in her thinking, “Do most of the people you know refuse alcohol to their friends at a party, even when they know their friends to be alcoholics? They don’t see it as their place to decide for someone they see as an equal whether or not they can drink. They might suggest AA, they might intervene, but not without knowing them well, not without caring deeply and making sure their alcoholic friend has the resources to stand against their addictions with help and love. You do not withhold from your friend, even though he may be an alcoholic. Yet, you feel it is your place to determine how a person struggling with incredible poverty survives in that situation? Have you ever been the poor person without family, a shower, a home, any resources for their own comfort except maybe an occasional drink? Who are you to judge that? Who are you to take away even the false comfort they turn to in their hours of despair and desolation? If you take the time to know them and then from a place of loving support offer alternatives to alcohol, good for you. But until you are willing to stand in that place of knowing them, loving them, caring for them materially and emotionally, you cannot judge them or make yourself judge and jury over whether they are worthy of the time, the money, God’s money that has been entrusted to you. You cannot decide for them how they will spend God’s money that they beg off of you. You are not God. But if giving money makes you that uneasy, then what is stopping you from loading up on peanut butter sandwiches to pass out? The excuses are numerous, but the solutions are also numerous if you are willing to take the risk of caring.”
In her words, I heard truth. A truth that was hard because it threw me back into guilt. Actually, while I think guilt is a God-given emotion at times, I don’t think guilt usually motivates us to change. The real change has to come from a place of gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has given us. The real change has to come from a place of understanding the other person - their needs, their motivations, their situations. To love our neighbor we must spend time with them, come to know them. But most of us don’t find it easy to take the time to get to know our poor, our destitute neighbors. And even in our abundance, we can also find gratitude hard to grasp for very long.
The reasons we give ourselves for not caring, whatever they are, can stop us from loving others. But there are other things that prevent us from caring for others in concrete tangible ways.
I think about Nelson Mandela, the amazing man that he was and how he was foundational in changing a nation. But as I reflect on his great life, I also find myself wondering about all the people who were part of what he did whose names just aren’t recognized. Rarely will any of us be a Nelson Mandela. But we can be those people who act with love, compassion, grace and peace in the world.
John tell us to prepare by changing our lives. By repentance. Repentance does not mean saying you are sorry. It means turning around, walking the other direction, it means a complete change in your life. It involves change. It also involves making amends, which is hard. Making up for those things we have done and have failed to do. So I ask you, if you knew that God was coming here in three weeks - and that God’s coming would involve judging between those who produce good fruit and those who don’t; if you knew that you would meet God in three weeks - face to face - and that God would see everything you are, everything you’ve done, everything you have left undone, how would you prepare? What would you do differently? How would that change your life? Well, in the season of Advent, this is what we are being told. In three weeks comes Christmas: God’s appearance in this world as one of us.
Advent is not a time of remembering those who waited for the birth of the Christ. It is an invitation to us to wait for the coming of God with us. It is a time of preparation to meet God, face to face. It is a time of reviewing our own lives, changing what needs to be changed to meet God with hope and peace, it is a time of repentance in the truest sense of that word.
I invite you during this Advent time to do more than be in the business of the season. I invite you to take some time to be with the reality that God is coming into this world as one of us. What will that mean for you? What will God’s message bring to you? How will you prepare? How will you repent? Amen.