Third Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:7-18
Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
The Gospel of Doing
John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes — he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.
Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venture into the Temple itself, John left the company of society. He went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. John believed, hoped, that someone else was coming, someone who would come from a world away, and maybe out there, away from the cities and the lights, it might be easier to keep watch on the horizon.
In the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. It may have been what he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use — John ‘happened’ — a way of describing the acts of a prophet) somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their familiar paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.
”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.
His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.
Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.
Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.
That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.
Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world or apart from it.
John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.
He didn’t preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.
John preached a gospel of expectation — God is coming into the world, always, perpetually. He preached a gospel of doing — feeding, clothing, sharing — and oddly enough, according to John, these are the things that make smooth the paths on which we might see God approaching. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another: he told them to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.
He’s coming, John told them. Make a way.