“Changes & Expectations” Colchester Federated Church, December 12, 2021, Third Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:7-18)
On this Third Sunday of Advent, we continue on with John the Baptist calling on people to change their hearts and lives out in the wilderness. John challenges those who come before him to produce fruit that shows their repentance. Actions speak louder than words. He gets specific when people ask what they should do, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” God’s rule on earth looks a little different than how our human societies are often set up. We are called to share our resources with those who have little to nothing as people of faith.
To the tax collectors, John the Baptist advises that they should collect no more money than they are authorized to collect. Don’t take some off the top because nobody will notice. Be fair in your dealings with your fellow citizens. To the soldiers, John advises that they shouldn’t cheat or harass anybody—be satisfied with your pay. Don’t intimidate people just because you have power or strength in order to get more than what you are owed. John didn’t hedge his bets out there in the wilderness. He bluntly called on people to take care of their neighbors, to treat one another fairly, and was pointing toward Jesus—the one more powerful who was to come.
Today’s text gets into some of the economic realities and power dynamics present in the First Century. Though in some ways, it’s timeless. We can read this Gospel story and wonder about the modern implications. Perhaps the most important instruction from John for all of us sitting here today or watching from home is, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Of course there is a difference between charity and justice. Churches often excel at charity—we collect items for those in need. At this time of the year, it’s literally shirts and food and other essential items. That is great work, and it’s important. Through the Adopt a Social Worker covenant we are helping children and families in need through DCF and our Social Worker Haley. It’s wonderful. And we know that the work of justice is harder and far more complicated. Because that work gets into systemic problems of salaries, the cost of education, debt realities, healthcare, and issues related to housing and homelessness.
The Bible is full of stories related to the economy. Remember that Jesus once said, “I assure you that it will be very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” Jesus said that in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s just a tad political. And it would seem that John the Baptist held similar views when he spoke about the importance of sharing clothing and food with people who lacked life’s necessities.
All of this can make us consider one of the greatest Christmas stories—Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s such a cultural touchstone, and I’ve referenced this story in a previous Advent sermon and probably will again some year. Because if one gets called “Scrooge” we have a fairly good idea of what that means even if we never read the book! We know that Scrooge refers to someone being greedy or stingy with one’s resources (before the complete and total change of heart that unfolds). Now it’s not a story where Charles Dickens references the teachings of Jesus outright. Though the call for those who are well-off to share our resources is there. Jesus’ words, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” are echoed by many of the characters in the story. Scrooge’s change of heart has economic implications.
Whether we’re reading the book or watching various movie version, A Christmas Carol has a scene with Ebenezer Scrooge sitting in his Counting House on Christmas Eve thinking of all the debts he has to collect. Two gentlemen stop by and the book’s dialogue goes like this, “‘At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge . . . it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’ ‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman . . . ‘And the Union workhouses?’ demanded Scrooge.” The gentlemen are not deterred by Scrooge’s initial indifference and press on, “‘A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’ ‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.” Meanwhile, Bob Cratchit and the rest of the book keepers who work in the Counting House are shivering in the other room because Scrooge won’t even spend money on decent coals for the fire. Charles Dickens brilliantly makes his audience understand the depth of Scrooge’s indifference to the sufferings of the rest of humanity.
In the night Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and three other ghosts—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. These ghosts walk Scrooge through his life and show him the consequences of his actions. He sees in the past that he lost the love of his life over money. In the present, he realizes that Bob Cratchit has a crippled son named Tiny Tim that the family can barely afford to care for due to the meager salary Scrooge pays Bob Cratchit. Because Lord forbid Scrooge pay his employees a livable wage where they can support themselves and their families. Economics are all over the pages of A Christmas Carol. Finally, Scrooge sees a glimpse of what the future will be like after he’s gone. He hears people speaking ill of him, with some feeling relief or even happiness that he died and is no longer around.
Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning safe in his bed, discovering that he has a second chance. Not everybody gets second chances in life, but Ebenezer Scrooge does. He may not be able to change the past and some of the pain that he’s caused. But he can make things right in the present. And the future will look a whole lot brighter because of his repentance. Scrooge completely changes his heart and life as John the Baptist was calling for people to do out there in the wilderness. The story ends with the changes that Scrooge makes and the ways that he uses his resources to lift others up. In some ways, we see what sharing one’s resources and a theology of abundance can look like.
On this Third Sunday of Advent—Joy Sunday—we can remember some of these lessons. When the crowds asked John the Baptist what they should do to change their hearts and lives, the instructions were specific: “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” As much as John the Baptist seemed to delight in calling people “broods of vipers”, he would have been pleased with Scrooge’s transformation. And our transformations—as we look around at those in need and endeavor to be God’s people of joyful sharing. Thanks be to God. Amen.