The first Advent season John the Baptist prepared for Christ’s ministry. What does his message tell us about preparing for the Advent of our Lord today?
Let us understand that John’s message is relevant for Advent today.
We will look at Advent’s message of repentance, snakes, good capitalism, sharing and fire.
Advent’s message: repentance
When we think of fruits of repentance what comes to mind? Some churches speak about dancing, alcohol and card-playing none of which are explicitly forbidden by the Apostles and one of which Jesus even engaged in on occasion. In Luke 3:7-18 John the Baptist gave some examples which would show genuine repentance. Specifically, he mentioned donations of clothing and food to the less fortunate, not taking advantage of unjust government regulations for personal gain, not extorting money or being a false accuser. When I think of the trite rules that men make up as examples of godly principles, they are often easy outward forms, looking good externally without really needing to change our hearts. Biblical examples of what repentance looks like usually involve something deeper than a silly rule. Those examples of repentance involve real change from the heart.
Advent’s message: snakes
I have often lamented that pastors are paid by those to whom they preach. It can be blackmail. “Don’t you dare preach against my political parties’ sins, just the other guys.” “Don’t you dare tread on my toes, just the lady across the room. She needs to hear it.” Eventually, if pastors are browbeaten enough, it’s either time to move on or the congregation gets over it and grows. We never will agree on everything, but we must love each other anyway. Loving our neighbors includes our pastors, even disagreeing lovingly. If we are offended by our pastors sometimes, imagine having John the Baptist or Jesus as our local pastor. Jesus told Peter get behind me Satan and John told one of his audiences, “You brood of snakes, who told you to flee from God’s coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7-18)*
* Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Repentance old and new
The Greek word for repentance means a change of heart. The Hebrew word shub means to turn back, but the Greek meaning focuses on the mind, not mere outward actions. It highlights a major difference between the Old and New Covenants. The Greek word comes from meta meaning after and nous meaning thought, so any definition involving actions alone is not sufficient. That being said, a change of heart is only genuinely proven by relevant outward fruits (Luke 3:7-18). The end result is the same even if the way we get there is now new. The problem with an outward repentance is that we can start in the wrong place. A change of actions can be from a wrong heart. Without a change of thinking in relation to sin, we have mere outward conformity and not real lasting change.
Extortion and a just price
In Luke 3:7-18 John instructed a group of tax collectors and soldiers not to engage in extortion of money. Today, extortion is more commonly found in the price of goods and services. The question of what is a just price was proposed by early church theologians like Thomas Aquinas to combat usury, apply the Golden Rule and create fair standards in the marketplace. The argument is that an unjust price is a kind of fraud. For example, when retailers raise building material prices to profit from a disaster, that is extortion. When bankers charge poor people higher interest rates than wealthy people that is unjust. When manufacturers manipulate international politics so as to profit up to 1800 percent from wars that is legalized racketeering.* Charging a just price and treating everyone fairly is the goal of every sincere Christian.
* Butler, Smedley. Major General, USMC. War is a Racket. Speech. 1933
Advent’s message: share
Among the many messages of Advent and the Christmas season surely none can create a more joyful experience than to share. In Luke 3:7-18 John the Baptist encouraged a crowd of people to donate extra clothing. Many Christians follow John’s instructions today. The Volunteer Guide reports that in America 3.5 million homeless people need clothing, more than a third of them are children. Donating clothing helps the environment by extending their life. Many charities actually do not follow the spirit of John’s instruction. Rather than give clothing away, according to ABC News many actually resell about 10% of clothes in thrift stores and 90% to clothing manufacturers for recycling. For the Christian who wants to do more than support another charity scam, find one that actually gives to the poor without cost or give personally to the needy.
Advent’s message: fire
Among the many messages of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for Christ’s ministry was that people would be baptized by fire (Luke 3:7-18). The baptism by fire in Acts 2:1-4 is one interpretation of this passage. This is a problem for Baptists who believe that baptism must be a literal immersion, but this baptism by fire was only on people’s heads. That being said, Luke’s context reveals another side to the baptism of fire. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Hell is pictured by many metaphors, outer darkness, blackness, eternal separation from God and fire. One picture is that those whose names are not written into the book of life will be cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). This is a baptism of fire that nobody wants in their future.
Part of Advent’s message is repentance from dead works, which includes engaging in righteous business practices and sharing our wealth with the less fortunate.