John the Baptist, a unique Jewish character, captures the attention of the Jewish community preaching themes of repentance and issuing a poignant call to action in response to God’s everpresent love. The third Sunday of Advent continues to build joyful expectation of Emmanuel, God’s love come to live with us. John preaches the good news of the expected Messiah and calls the people to life-changing response.
Today’s gospel reading has three sections. Verses 7–9 sum up John’s preaching points: (1) the call to repentance is for all people; (2) there is no exemption based on ancestral lineage; and (3) our actions (fruits) define the nature and depth of our repentance.
The next section (vv. 10–14) speaks to the heart of how John defines “fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8). John addresses peace and justice issues of the first century, which translate easily to the twenty-first century. Generosity that flows from a heart dedicated to justice has no compromise and finds practical application all around. Share whatever you have with those in need, do not be greedy, and be fair in all your dealings with others.
Note the diversity of those gathered for baptism who asked John, “What then should we do?” (v. 10). Besides the nondescript crowds, he identifies tax collectors and soldiers as among those seeking baptism. The implication is two sided. Repentance and good fruit are required of all, and the Messiah comes for all.
The final section of the passage talks of identity and baptism. John is not the Messiah, for as he says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming” (v. 16). Not only is the coming Christ mightier, but he will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 16). John goes on to connect these images with common features of agrarian society and a process well known to all. At grain-harvest time, the focus is on saving the wheat, letting the wind separate the chaff, which is eventually consumed by fire.
The tone of this text mixes warning and seemingly harsh critique with instruction, expectation, and joy-filled hope. John is pointing to something beyond the current environment of following the letter of the law, to a deeper baptism that transforms hearts and births a new way of being from the inside out. The writer and the Baptist’s exhortation, clearly reflect an understanding that the Messiah’s message of good news is one of social justice, restoration, and wholeness, rather than religious ceremony, ritual, and tradition.
John’s call to repentance encourages the Advent pilgrim to turn toward God in preparation of receiving the Christ child. It is an invitation for God’s light to expose that which needs the “ax…at the root” of our lives (v. 9). Then we may exchange injustice, greed, and shallow religiosity for a baptized heart—a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit and the cleansing fire of passionate concern for a world in need. Rather than condemn his hearers, John encourages them to embrace fully the tangible reality of God’s love that comes to dwell with us in the life of Jesus, the one who is the Messiah.