Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century December 8, 1982, p. 1246. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In John’s time, Israel practiced proselyte baptism — that is, gentile converts had to be bathed as a sign of radical change, purity in the new faith and birth into the people of Israel. John makes the shocking assertion that even Israel must be washed. Remember, our Lord comes not only to save us but also to change us.
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” Luke 3:10-11.
The strange story of Jesus begins with the even stranger figure of John the Baptist. This odd “voice in the wilderness” appears “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). John is not the Messiah; rather, he is here to get people ready for the Messiah. He stands between the old and the new ages, the last of the great Old Testament prophets: dressed in a cloak of camel hair, fasting and living in the wilderness, preaching words of threat and judgment. John’s message is simple: “Get washed up and ready because Messiah is coming.”
To the multitudes he cries, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In the coming conflagration, no one will be safe. Time is short. False hope and security must give way to repentance and righteousness. John warns those who seek safety in the old order, in the comfort of conventional standards and institutions, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” Even the chosen people, the insiders, must repent.
At this time in its history, Israel practiced proselyte baptism — that is, gentile converts had to be bathed as a sign of radical change, purity in the new faith and birth into the people of Israel. John makes the shocking assertion that even Israel must be washed. If the chosen will not respond, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” We can imagine how such preaching angered those who felt that they were already pure, mature and secure and had no need of repentance.
The repentance John calls us to is no mere change of mind and heart. It is a total metanoia, a complete turning around from self to God. More than an emotional “feeling sorry for my sins,” repentance is the fitting response to the presence of the Kingdom, the only way left now that our God has come, the necessary choice between self-salvation and God’s salvation. Here is a costly Kingdom. John pays for his preaching with his head; we may come to the river singing “Just as I Am,” but we will not leave these waters without having participated in a painful, deadly, costly work.
“What then shall we do?” they asked John. The Baptist’s response is decidedly ethical. “He who has two coats, let him share. . . . He who has food, let him do likewise.’’
And so, on this third Sunday of Advent, we gather and ask one another, “What must we do to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom?” Unfortunately, we often respond by urging people to sit quietly in lavender churches, reflect upon the state of their souls and feel sad about their peccadilloes. But John will have none of this. He knows that when one is faced with so great and different a kingdom as this, one must repent. One must turn around, through deeds as costly, specific and particular as sharing clothing and food.
Unfortunately, we have psychologized the gospel, turned it into a feeling, transformed the Kingdom of God into a mood. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the Messiah whom we await is the great cosmic affirmer of everything we hold dear and of all our illusions. But Hans Küng reminds us:
We are to preach metanoia. We must entice people from the world to God. We are not to shut ourselves off from the world in a spirit of asceticism, but to live in the everyday world inspired by the radical obedience that is demanded by the love of God. The Church must be reformed again and again, converted again and again in each day in order that it may fulfill its task.
So this Sunday, in the midst of our growing joy at the advent of God into our world, let us pause to listen to this harsh prophet standing knee-deep in cold Jordan water. Hear his judging words, no matter where they strike and hurt. Remember — our Lord comes not only to save us but also to change us, to convert these stones into children. This Lord comes as the one who will turn everything upside-down, even us, until all creation is under his rule.
Let us not flee his judgment with sweet platitudes. Let us heed the words of the prophet and bear fruits that befit repentance, giving up our alibis and false hopes and repenting through work that corresponds to God’s advent among us..