It seems clear to me. It seems clear to me that the instructions of the Lord in this passage are not in any conceivable way ambiguous. Bear fruit worthy of repentance seems a little abstract but whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none does not leave a whole lot of room for nuanced interpretation. We who are rich are to share with they who are poor, food and clothing alike.
Those who have power and impunity to act the way they wish with little or no chance of getting caught should not abuse that privilege, should be straight and upright, not cheating those who have less power, less privilege.
Those who are strong are not to push around those who are weak. The language used there is about physical strength but I think we could rationally expect that those who have power of any sort are not to push around, extort or abuse any who are weak.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Be post-repentance in your life, not in the sense that you are all done with that stuff, but in the sense of once having been brought upright by the grace of God in confession and forgiveness, see how long you can stay upright.
It doesn’t actually sound that hard, does it? But how are you doing with that? How’s it going with the not taking advantage when advantage presents itself? How’s it going, owning only half of your warm clothing for the sake of the poor?
This is the thong of his sandals Sunday, a fixture in the firmament of the Advent <slash> Christmas season and it is the day when our expectations meet the solid brick wall that is God’s expectations and we realize exactly how far we are from the truth, how far we are from holy.
The bar is high. Make no mistake, for the people of Judea; steeped in the law as they were; the bar was a clear and obvious barrier to righteousness. It was just too high and so it was impenetrable. The task was too impossible and so what is the hope of ever earning God’s favor?
Have you ever had a boss that was impossible to please, a choir director who always led with criticism or a director who constantly berated? Some coaches think of this as a coaching “style” but it always seemed abusive to me, always seemed like a bad bet because after a while, after a good length of time being told that you will never make it, being shown again and again the gap between your abilities and the coach’s expectations, don’t you ask yourself what the point is? Don’t you start to wonder whether or not it is worth even trying?
Now think about the Ten Commandments, God’s top ten list if you will. It isn’t the whole of the law, but it’s decent shorthand for the whole of the law. With that as our guide we are all lost, if that is the standard of righteousness and only those who keep the commandments without blemish will make it to heaven then we’d better get comfortable right here because this is about as far as we are going.
That is the temptation, to understand the impossibility of the task and to not even venture out into the world to take the task on because it is too hard. If you only see heaven as a place of reward for all of your good deeds then you’d better hope that the standard for good deeds has been relaxed since the day when the crowds gathered around John in this morning’s gospel. Because the standards that these people are using, you can tell by the questions that they ask, they understand that the standard of heaven is perfection and they are trying to find a way in anyway, even though they know it is impossible.
We’re all trying to do that most of the time aren’t we? Finding out how much we can get away with so that the game is worth playing at all?
I notice it most when I am driving. We had a little discussion about the evils of society at the breakfast at Ihop this past Tuesday and the thing that was irking me that morning was people’s driving. Now statistically speaking, I am talking to some of you sitting here but since I don’t know which ones specifically, I will generalize.
Too many little things are no longer, it would seem, rising to the level of a ticketable offense in the city of Santa Rosa. I think you could probably fund the entire city’s budget for a month simply by posting cops at every intersection and just handing out tickets to those who run red lights right there at the end of every cycle. Green used to mean go but now it means wait a second, see who will run the light this time, then go.
Turn signals are not for informing the people around you of what you are already doing, they are to indicate your future plans, about 100 feet ahead of time so that the rest of us can plan accordingly. Nowadays, it seems that when they are used at all it is usually about halfway around the turn that is being indicated.
In the case of the traffic offenses it is the exact opposite problem, the law is not strict enough, but the symptom is the same.
“What can I get away with?” is the question seeking an answer, not “what is right?” or “what is wrong?”
“How can we be spared the axe?” asks the crowd gathered around John this morning as he spins his tale about the final days of God, when the sheep and the goats are all gathered as one and an accounting will take place for the life you have lived.
“The axe is lying at the root of the trees,” he warns. Judgment is not coming someday but it is a present reality and you need to account for it, you need to know that the standard set is still the standard expected. You need to know that even when redemption comes, God will still seek out what is right, still demand what is good and will still judge according to the law.
There will be no “getting away with something” so stop asking, stop looking for the loophole, the law is not going away, will never go away.
Maybe if they gave tickets out for little things the general level of driving around here would improve, or at least we could hope that it would, if the standards were as high as God’s, that is.
But it says right there at the end of the Gospel that John, with many exhortations was proclaiming the good news to the people but if you read this, it all sounds like exactly what they had been living with their entire lives, no change, God is just and God is demanding and there is still a standard of behavior and those who violate that standard will be burned along with the chaff.
It doesn’t sound like good news.
That’s because it isn’t. John is not the good news, John is the one called upon for the happy task of letting people know that the bearer of glad tidings is coming, that God is making good on the promises given to their ancestors and delivering a messiah, but also that the playing field is not changed, widows and orphans still matter, sin still matters, evil still matters; it’s just that our team has a new coach.
Or maybe we have the same coach as all along, but now we’ve got a new game plan.
You see, what ruins our vision of what God truly expects of us is the horizon. If the horizon is too harsh, as it seems under the law of God, then it is easy to give up, to throw one’s hands up to the sky and forget about it all as a bad piece of business. If the horizon is too soft, as it seems to be on the streets of Santa Rosa these days, then you don’t take the law seriously and again, you forget all about it.
How do you keep the Law real and still draw people into the relationship with God that God so clearly desires? How do you get the very best out of people without either pandering to them, lowering expectations and letting them off the hook completely or, on the other hand, being so strict that they leave you and your expectations and go their own way, the way you know will damn them to meaninglessness and despair?
When Jesus comes as an infant in the manger, when the skies are filled with the heavenly host and the angels sing Glory be to God on high and all the rest; when our eyes are drawn downward, away from the horizon and the punishments of God’s righteous anger and all the rest; when we hear that all of that punishment, all of that pain, all of that anguish over the sins we cannot help but commit will be borne for us by this tiny little child; when we hear at last the depth of God’s love for us, its full measure, then we finally are ready to hear the good news proclaimed.
The answer is not someday, sometime far off and remote from our regular lives. It is not some moment at the ending of time that matters, when judgment will come and punishment will be meted out.
That is not the crucial day, the good news proclaims. Get your eyes off of the horizon.
Today is the crucial day.
If that far off day were taken care of. If you knew the cost of that day and that it had been lifted from you, taken away for no better reason than for love, how would you live today?
Christ coming in the clouds is saved for later, for the coming again because, if we are faithful and true, then it will come to us as a surprise because our eyes will not be on the horizon, either in fear of judgment or in confident anticipation of heaven; they will be on our brothers and sisters, both those we have in Christ and those we only come to know because Christ’s love sends us out into the world.
It seems so clear that following the law is the only way to earn heaven, to merit the love and attention of God.
It also seems clear that this is not what Christ has in mind, not what God has in mind and not what John has in mind. It is, as the author of Ecclesiastes might say, a grasping after wind, a futile endeavor.
When Zephaniah says that the Lord will exult over us on the last day, on the day of the lord, it is not because we are so great, so adept at keeping he law. We do not have our eyes on the horizon but instead live this day, and then tomorrow we live the next one, our eyes fixed upon those around us, seeing them through the eyes of the child in the manger, who draws our eyes down from heaven into the dust of the street.
That is where we live, and minister and reach out in His name and that is where we sin and repent and sin again never forgetting that our sin is real but still never looking over our shoulder to see if our righteous God is waiting to pounce on us for our transgressions.
God is waiting, to be sure, and watching, and judging, all of those things and that is not the good news.
God is waiting, to be sure, and smiling and occasionally frowning and laughing and always, always forgiving us as we live our lives, not in the shadow of the law but in the light of God’s grace. Eye to eye, hand in hand, together as one. Now that is good news, the kind we need in the cold and the wet this advent.