The third Sunday of Advent. This is the rose (not pink!) candle, the week when the intensity of the Advent fast traditionally pulls back. It is, after all, a season of fasting. Often, this is forgotten, even among more liturgical Christians because we simply have lost the sense of a fast-and-feast rhythm. And yet on this day, the Church gives us the reading of John the Baptist’s preaching against wealth and extortion as a preparation for the coming Messiah.
The passage breaks out into three addresses and a summary. In the first, John comes out hard against the crowds, identifying them with those who would hide a lack of an ethical response within their ethnicity. Their belonging to the children of Abraham is meant to absolve them from the personal response of faith and trust. Could there be a more Wesleyan text than this? To read this through the rest of the New Testament, we can say that our chosenness in Jesus, the True Israel, does not absolve us from a personal commitment and response to works of mercy and works of piety. We are not a disembodied faith, but one that demands embodied response.
The danger here has been well-documented in American Christianity–a legalism that sees only the works that are done as evidence of salvation. Many of our people are well acquainted with the gospel of profound grace that echoes the Reformers, including Wesley. But it is a perversion of their preaching to claim, as so many will when looking to avoid responsibility, that the Church can expect no claim on our behavior. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. While we may have needed to lose the judgment that is present in certain re-presentations of John’s preaching, I wish we would not lose the urgency to call people to the repentance of both heart and hand.
Preacher, the crowd hears John well and asks for direction. I am genuinely struck by this dialogue within the preaching moment. Luke presents us a synopsis, so maybe this didn’t happen historically just like this, but as one of my friends has reminded me when preaching on the rich young ruler, “Don’t rule out the possibility. Maybe someone will desire to sell all they have and give it to the poor.” Maybe you will see a conversion in the moment. Have you prepared prayerfully for that moment? Pray that someone’s heart might be genuinely stirred by this text and be prepared to give some direction.
John responds by addressing specific stations in life. “Whoever,” tax collectors, and soldiers. There is a general rule and then there are those who are engaged in industries that bring a very specific kind of danger. And he calls each of them away from the societal norm and toward an ethical norm. It is a norm that is derived from the experience of being tax-collected or soldiered, of having no tunic while someone waltzes past with two and extra food. It may be that the preacher’s job this week is remind the congregation of what necessity actually is. The radical economic stance taken here in John’s preaching can hardly be overstated in practice but beautifully, it seems to resist a kind of theorizing. Instead, John’s message does not outlaw certain kinds of work (“You can’t be a faithful Jew and a tax collector!”). It simply removes the entire incentive structure that is built on the Romans’ expectation of abuse, controlling a population from within by turning some of the population’s members against the whole.
What might be if preachers across the world on this Sunday decried not police, but the violence that comes from their formation in a police state? What if we were clear that while one could be a banker, to do so while relying on usury puts one’s soul in danger? What if we spoke out against the routine ignorance of the poor and suffering, the normalized hoarding of goods that is present in a society based on money rather than real goods? What if we called the church to an act of critical reflection on the interaction between Christians and the marketplaces that we call home? I cannot see John the Baptist doing anything less.
Theologically, it is vital that we recognize that all of this is done by John the Baptizer, John the Forerunner as the Orthodox call him. He is the one who prepares the people to receive the Messiah though not the Messiah himself. In the same way, by the third week of Advent, we should be preparing our people to receive the Lord on Christmas, preparing them for the incarnation of the Lord in flesh in Bethlehem according to liturgical time, in the Parousia according to the events of the salvation and redemption story, and within our own lives. How many of us participate in injustice and oppression in order to make a living, believing the cultural lie that it is just a part of being “in this world” while we go to church to remind ourselves that we are not “of this world.” John’s many exhortations call to mind that there are not such subtle distinctions in the Kingdom of God. Judgment is a real part of the grand arc of salvation history and we ignore it to our own peril. John reminds us that there is a reality in which God stands on the side of the poor and works out his salvation through and among them. For us to remain on the side of the powerful without lifting up creative ways of serving and being within the kingdoms of our day is to miss the very character of Christ’s coming. And if we miss the Kingdom, we are missing the King.
We would do well to remember that Christian tradition values a preferential option for the poor and communities that are rich with mutual solidarity and participation. John Wesley saw the development of wealth among his Methodists as one of the primary causes for the inefficacy of Christianity. If we want to answer John the Baptist’s challenge in verse 9, we ought to look first to the way that we organize our riches and the work that we do to gain them. Otherwise all our efforts toward holiness may end up no more than straw burned in the flames of God’s judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
“Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” USCCB. Accessed November 10, 2021. https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.
Wesley, John, Albert C. Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.” Essay. In John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, 549–557. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.
 This tradition is distilled in the seven themes of Catholic social teaching. You can find a summary here: https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching
 John Wesley, Albert C. Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), pp. 549-557.