Texts: Phil 4:4-7, Lk 3:7-18
Date: Dec 13, 2009
Author: Isaac Villegas
The people come out to John to be baptized. But apparently John never learned how to be nice, how to be open and kind and polite and say excuse me before leaving the table and thank you and please, and how to be embarrassed when he offends others. John has no manners. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:8). That’s what he tells them. That’s what John says to the people when they want to join his movement. He sticks his finger in their faces and calls them names—“you brood of vipers,” he says. But that’s not all. At the end of our passage, John says that there is another one coming, the Messiah, and he will come fire. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (v. 17). It doesn’t sound very good. John tells the people that they are snakes, and then talks about an unquenchable fire. That’s not a very good way to grow a movement, or to grow the church—to insult people and then scare them.
The crazy thing about all this stuff is what the narrator says at the very end. “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news…” (v. 18). What!? Good news—John is speaking good news! How is any of it good? It sounds like bad news to me. There must be some kind of confusion here. Where is the goodness in what John is talking about? That’s the question I want us to wrestle with.
This past summer a bunch of us from church helped out with Habitat for Humanity. We spent a Saturday working at one of their sites. I knew that Habitat for Humanity built houses for people, so I expected to do some construction. But we didn’t build anything that day. We showed up, they gave us crowbars and sledgehammers, and sent us to an abandoned old house; it was barely standing. The Habitat facilitator told us that we were going to do some deconstruction—that’s what she called it. We began taking the house apart, piece-by-piece, brick-by-brick, floor joist by floor joist. We cleared out the old house, and harvested different kinds of material for other building projects—lumber and bricks and siding. We began the process of deconstruction—of clearing that piece of land so that new construction can begin, right there in the place of the old, abandoned house.
Our work site is right by my house, so I drive past it all the time. Since our day of deconstruction, new groups have been showing up for the construction. That’s definitely more glamorous. Their work is there for all to see—the roof, the siding, the deck, the paint, the whole building shows their work. Not so for us, the deconstructors. We’ve got nothing to show for our work. We just made space for the construction to happen; we cleared the spot for the new house. The work of deconstruction made room for the new construction, a place for a family to make a home. That needy family will receive the house as good news. And even though they may never know our names, or see our work and the work of all the other deconstructors, we made room for their good news—the news that they can move into a house, and own that house.
That’s why we can receive John the Baptist’s message as good news. He is doing the work of deconstruction; he is a deconstructor like us—making room, clearing space, getting rid of all the stuff that gets in the way of the new build, a new home. That’s the good news.
Advent is a time for deconstruction, for making room for Jesus to arrive. One way to do this is to do interior work, to take stock of your worries and anxieties, your dispositions and attitudes. Our passage from Philippians draws us into ourselves and asks us to make room in our inner thoughts. When you are overwhelmed with worry, Paul says, turn to God in prayer—“with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7). Make room in your interior life through prayers of thanksgiving; learn to notice all the little things, and thank God for them… for a friend who listens, or a house to live in—and all the other stuff that goes unnoticed, for food and work and warm clothes and clean water. Through prayer, find ways to turn worries into chances for thanksgiving. That’s how we make room, as Paul puts it, for the peace of Christ to guard our hearts and minds. And when let Christ’s peace enter our lives, we will become gentle creatures. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul says (Phil. 4:5). God’s peace transforms us, from the inside out, into people of gentleness. It’s a way of being with people, with friends and strangers, neighbors and people at work, cashiers at the store and drivers on the road. Gentleness is the way your presence makes room for someone else to be who they are—without prerequisites, without pretention, without illusion, without facades. Gentleness is the way your presence invites someone to emerge, to become more human, to be the creature God loved into existence. Gentleness is about embodying a disposition of welcome, of invitation, of letting someone just be, without any need to impress you or win you over. Because you are already on their side. That’s gentleness: to show someone that you are on their side, and they can simply be who they are, the one who God loves. Your gentleness welcomes people into the life-giving peace of Christ.
This doesn’t mean that advent is reduced to something that happens only in our hearts. The advent of Christ is something that happens to more than the dispositions of our interior lives. That’s why John the Baptist is so important. He doesn’t say anything about a change of heart. He isn’t really interested in the interior lives of the people who come out to be baptized. Instead, John wants to see the fruit. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says (Lk. 3:8). For John, making room for the advent of the Messiah involves very concrete and specific actions—and for some reason he focuses on money and possessions. “[B]e satisfied with your wages,” he tells the people. Don’t take more money then you need. And share your possessions; be generous. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (v. 11). The bible doesn’t get any more specific than that. It’s cold outside. If you have enough to stay warm, think about giving some of your extra clothes to people who need it. John doesn’t care if they deserve it; he doesn’t care if the needy people deserve our benevolence; none of that matters. If you know someone who lacks what it takes to keep warm, then share with them. That’s all that matters for John. The same goes for food. If someone is hungry; share you food with them. John doesn’t care if they spent all their money on alcohol or drugs or whatever, and now they don’t have enough to eat. John isn’t interested in intentions. Just give to those who are in need.
This is our deconstruction. We have to clear space. We have to tear out a lot of stuff from our lives—from our houses, like we did with Habitat for Humanity. That’s how we make room in our lives for the good news, for Christ to come, for the advent of God. None of this is easy. It will take work. Gentleness may not come naturally for us. Sharing may require difficult sacrifices. But that’s the nature of deconstruction—it takes sweat and tears to rip out the old stuff and make room for the new. Gentleness and sharing—those are two ways we deconstruct our selves in order to welcome the advent of Christ, the coming of God, when all things are made new.
And when the good news comes into our lives, when Christ happens in our midst, we are overwhelmed. The goodness of God is overwhelming. It may not seem like it fits in our lives at first. God seems to bring more life than we can handle, more than we can manage, more than we thought we had room for. It may take us some time to make room for the good news, to let God in a corner of our lives and grow. That’s why we think about Mary during Advent—a young woman, unprepared, without the necessary prerequisites, yet she opens herself to the good news: “Let it be done unto me,” she says. We see Mary, with Jesus stretching and growing in her belly for 9 months—and when he arrives, when he is born, I’m sure the whole process felt like more life than Mary could handle. Yet that’s how it goes with God. Christ comes and invites us into more life than we think we can handle—and it turns out to be good for us; it turns out to be good news for the world.
Through sharing what we have, and through our gentleness, let us make way for the coming of the Lord.