Well, with Christmas nearly here, there is probably not one among us whose thoughts don't stray towards Bethlehem with real longing. Do you want to go to Bethlehem? Well, getting there hasn't always been easy.
Back in the 1980's when I first started leading groups on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, getting to Bethlehem required disembarking our tour bus at an armored check point outside the town, having our passports checked, then walking a full block under the watchful eye of heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Only after successfully navigating this pulse-quickening walk could we board a Palestinian bus to finally take us into Bethlehem. In the 1990's the process changed a bit. Our tour bus still had to stop at a checkpoint before entering the city, but then instead of requiring passengers to get off, armed soldiers got on. They walked up and down the aisles checking passports and asking questions. After a few anxiety-producing minutes, when the all clear was given, we could drive to the other side of the checkpoint, change buses, and enter Bethlehem. When we last traveled to Bethlehem, just last winter, the process of getting there had eased dramatically. There was no passport check on the way in. Nor did soldiers board the bus. We simply drove to a kiosk where our bus driver spoke to a guard for a few moments. Then we were waved on, with the greatest impediment being the speed bump that lies at the gate of the twenty-five foot cement wall which now sadly separates Israel from the West Bank. And that is how you get to Bethlehem these days, at least physically.
But let me hasten to say, that if getting to Bethlehem physically seems a bit challenging, it is nothing compared to the difficulty of getting to Bethlehem spiritually. At least that is what John the Baptist would have us understand and what the church has been reminding us of for as long as the lectionary has existed, because at Advent there is no getting to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem without first passing through the check point manned by John the Baptist. And John is certainly not merrily waving everyone in. On the contrary, as the Gospel of Luke tells it, John is taking names and checking passports. His first inhospitable greeting to the gathered throngs who have come for him to baptize them in the Jordan is, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" He seems to say, "Do you really think coming to the river for a quick baptism will save you from God's judgment? You'd better think again." Then after this unnerving opening, John launches into an interactive sermon employing three penetrating points.[i] The first is the people's need for absolute, full bore, no holds barred repentance. Judgment is on its way, after all, and anything short of thoroughgoing repentance will result in God's rejection. So what counts as thoroughgoing repentance?
Well, John can tell you what it's not! Undoubtedly along the way in response to his preaching, John must have seen many demonstrations of halfhearted repentance, the kind that we are capable of. Maybe we, like the folks of John's day, tell ourselves our halfhearted repentance for wrong-doing is adequate if we simply feel a little badly about what we have done or left undone. But John seems to say, simple sentimentality like that is insufficient. It's not a mark of full repentance. Or maybe we think, like the folks of John's day, that our halfhearted repentance for wrongdoing is adequate because of our identity as decent church folks who are part of the Christian family. Maybe we think that identity gives us extra credit points and ought to protect us from God's wrath. But John's invective proves otherwise. He says trying to depend on one's heritage doesn't demonstrate full repentance either.
Let's face it, John says, your tender feelings aren't enough. And your pedigree as children of Abraham isn't enough, either. What matters most, John says, is how your rubber hits the road. What matters is what you do, and how you live.
A number of years ago Norman Cousins wrote an editorial in The Saturday Review in which he reported a conversation he had on a trip to India. He talked at length with a Hindu priest named Satis Prasad. The man said he wanted to come to our country to work as a missionary among the Americans. Cousins assumed that he meant that he wanted to convert Americans to the Hindu religion. But when asked, Satis Prasad said, "Oh no, I would like to convert them to the Christian religion. Christianity cannot survive in the abstract. It needs not membership, but believers. Not people who talk about their faith but live their faith. The people of your country may claim they believe in Christianity; but from what I read at this distance, Christianity is more a custom than anything else. I would ask that you either accept the teachings of Jesus in your everyday life and in your affairs as a nation, or stop invoking His name as sanction for everything you do. I want to help save Christianity for the Christian."[ii]
Prasad has hit precisely upon John the Baptist's point here, I think. God needs not church members, but believers--not talkers, but doers. And when John the Baptist's little riverside congregation hears this alarming word they begin to ask him for more clarification.
Some in the crowd asked, "What then should we do?" And John responds in effect, "Share with one another. If you have two coats give one to someone who has none. If you have more food than you need give some away to someone who is hungry." In other words, demonstrating repentance in one's life will involve generosity. Be generous, John says.
But the tax collectors in the crowd were apparently still not clear and they shouted, "Teacher, what should we do?" Now, the tax collectors in John's day paid the Roman overlords for the privilege of collecting tolls and tariffs and customs fees. Then they extorted as much money as possible from the populace to recoup their initial outlay and make a profit. And John says to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed." In other words, a demonstration of repentance will be absolute honesty and dependability, John says.
And maybe these questions and answers were beginning to make the soldiers in the crowd that day a little worried because they asked, "And what should we do?" These soldiers certainly did have a right to be nervous, because their compensation as local mercenaries working for the Romans was not lavish. Their pay was small, but custom allowed that they might extort a bit of money from the population while the authorities turned a blind eye. And to the soldiers John responds, "Be satisfied with your wages." In other words, a demonstration of repentance will be an end of grasping greediness and the adoption of contentment.[iii]
Generosity, integrity, contentment: signs of a life that has undergone thoroughgoing repentance...proof that faith is more than talk. No one in those crowds at the Jordan River who had come for John's baptism seemed to escape John's demand for a better life. No easy outs, no short cuts, no excuses. No matter who came, John could see in their lives potential for improvement. I wonder if that is why John drew such crowds. It can't have been his charm, his polish, or his winning smile. It must have been something else. People must have kept coming to John because he asked something significant of them. He asked them to see themselves and their lives' potential in a new way.
The story has been told of Abraham Lincoln who worshiped each and every Wednesday when in Washington D.C. at New York Presbyterian Church near the White House.
One Wednesday evening as Lincoln was leaving the service, one of his assistants asked him: "Mr. President, what did you think of the sermon tonight?"
Lincoln responded, "The content was excellent, and Dr. Gurley spoke with great eloquence. It was obvious that he put a great deal of work into that sermon."
"Then you thought it was a great sermon, Mr. President?" the assistant asked.
"No, I did not say that."
"But Sir, you said it was excellent sermon."
Lincoln replied, "No, I said that content was excellent and that the preacher spoke with eloquence. But Dr. Gurley, on this night, forgot one important matter. He forgot to ask us to do something great."[iv]
John the Baptist was never shy about asking his listeners to do something great. He asked them to repent of all wrong-doing and live new lives clearly marked by generosity, integrity and contentment. And why aspire to this greatness? Not for some personal ennoblement, but in order to be ready for the coming Messiah.
And have no doubt, John says, the Messiah is definitely on the way. John is awed by the majesty and mystery of the One coming. He claims he is not even worthy to untie the thongs of the Messiah's sandals, a task which a common servant would be asked to do. Presumably all that John has prepared for himself and all he asks of his listeners, including us, is for the sake of readiness for the Messiah's coming. All John's exhortations to the crowds and to us are just his way of helping us be ready to step into the presence of greatness, the greatness found in Bethlehem, without the self-consciousness of any misdeeds and wrong-doings clinging to us. Let the past go, John says, be rid of it, repent of it, lay it down. Take up new lives, worthy of the one whose presence you seek.
And that my friends, that is the identity you want on your passport when you make for that gate to Bethlehem and ask it to open for you.
Let us pray. Create in us clean hearts, O God, so our lives may reflect the generosity, integrity, and contentment worthy of Christ's followers. As we journey to Bethlehem in this season, we pray the gates may open wide for us and for the many others who wish to love and welcome your Son and stream into his presence. Amen.
[i] Culpepper, R. Alan, "The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX, p. 86.
[ii] B. Clayton Bell, in Preaching, May-June, 1986.
[iii] Culpepper, R. Alan, "The Gospel of Luke," p. 85.
[iv] McCarthy, Dan, "Great Leadership" Newsletter, February 10, 2011.