One of the best things about taking an early-morning walk this time of year is the chance to see the stars. For millennia now, humanity has navigated by the stars. They’re always there, always reliable, always true. And we don’t always pay attention to them, or at least I don’t. But recently on my walks, I’ve received the gift of seeing the stars once again in their stunning brightness, piercing through the nearly-winter sky.
The stars this Advent have reminded me what needs my attention. It’s sin. As a Church, we’ve moved away from attending to our sins during Advent, these days preferring the blue of Mary, the blue of expectancy, to the purple of past years. But Advent used to be a time we thought about sin, almost a mini-Lent.
The readings both last week and this week remind us why. In Advent, we hear about John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. John the Baptist stands in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, voices from the outside reminding God’s people what they already knew, deep down. Whether it’s Isaiah or Jeremiah, Amos or Hosea, the prophets speak for God – not in the sense of predicting the future, like a fortune teller, but in the sense of holding up a moral compass for people set aside as God’s missionary presence to the world. That was the call of the people of Israel, to show everyone else what it looks like to live out God’s holiness and love. That’s our call, too, by the way.
So, John the Baptist tells the crowds, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4). The messiah, God’s anointed king, is coming; and the time to get ready is now. John doesn’t pull any punches, especially in Luke’s telling: “You brood of vipers,” he says, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:7-8) – and don’t you dare rely on belonging to the right group of people as the source of your salvation. It’s about your own choices, John says. Repent – turn in a God-ward direction.
The crowds are dumbfounded by his directness. They stammer, “What then should we do?” (3:10). It’s not rocket science, John says. If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t. If you have enough food, share with someone who doesn’t. Even reviled outsiders come and ask John for the basics of moral living. He makes it clear: Tax collectors – don’t gouge people for more than they owe. Roman soldiers – don’t demand protection money.
I can’t imagine that people found this very surprising. Even the tax collectors and soldiers probably knew they shouldn’t extort money from people. The Jewish people in the crowd certainly knew God’s call to care for the poor – that’s a longstanding message from the Hebrew Scriptures. John’s offering little here that’s new. He’s just saying it out loud.
On second thought, maybe there is something new here. We have to remember the setting: God’s people in Judea and Galilee were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They were a subjugated people, allowed to practice their religion because the Romans found it convenient but with little other freedom or power. On the ground, Rome’s reach took the form of oppressive taxation and military occupation. And the people who did Rome’s bidding weren’t exactly beloved. Tax collectors and soldiers were hated and feared, and for good reason.
So, back to the reading: There they are, tax collectors and soldiers, among the crowd listening to John the Baptist. John could well have drawn lines between faithful Jews and hated outsiders. Instead, he turns the tables. It’s the good guys he threatens with being chopped off at the root and thrown into the fire. And the hated outsiders? John welcomes them as simply more people who need to repent. That seems crazy. God’s people were afraid of tax collectors and soldiers. God’s people hated tax collectors and soldiers. God’s people were sure the tax collectors and soldiers wished them harm. But John the Baptist doesn’t write off the outsiders. He recognizes they, too, are God’s creations, different only by being broken in different ways.
I say all this because we still, today, find it easy to hate those whom we fear wish us harm. And just as troubling, we find it easy to demonize those with whom we disagree, letting our language do violence we’d never sanction otherwise. John the Baptist’s prophetic witness reminds us of the truth about pointing a finger at anyone, even someone you find reprehensible: the other fingers always point back at you.
John the Baptist is a bright star in the cold, dark sky. Those stars following me on my morning walk remind me of the ways I miss God’s mark, which is what “sin” means. One bright star says to me, “Don’t judge or reject people with whom you disagree.” Another bright star says, “Take time to love the people around you, not just get work done.” The brightest star simply says, “Trust God more than yourself.” I don’t know what sins of yours the stars might be illuminating this Advent, but those are some of mine.
And to each of us, John the Baptist says, “You know the repentance you need. You know the ways your heart misses the mark instead of finding the heart of God.” If we each sat here for a few minutes, I’ll bet a few sins might just come to mind.
You know, that’s not a bad idea. Today, you get the gift of a short homily, but it comes with the price of a little congregational participation. I invite you to take out one of the blue-and-white cards in front of you and write down a few ways you know you miss the mark. Names aren’t necessary. When you’re done, you can either offer the card in the alms basin as a prayer request, or you can fold it up and take it with you for your own prayers at home. But let’s take a couple of minutes of Advent stillness, and offer to God the chaff of sin you need the Holy Spirit to burn away.