John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."Long before the birth of Jesus, a cranky prophet named John was sent out in the desert to "prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3). And John was none too subtle about it - talking to upstanding church-folk with phrases like "brood of vipers." He told them, "It doesn't matter about your heritage, who's son or daughter you are, or your tradition - what matters is the fruit you are producing for the Kingdom of God."
"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.
John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." (Luke 3:7-11, NIV)
The crowd says, "OK, you've insulted us, but we're listening. What should we do?"
And then he delivers the simplest definition of repentance and service: "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."
Take care of those around you. Not just at Thanksgiving. Not just as part of a "Toys for Tots" drive or "adopting a Christmas family." If you have some, and someone has none, you take care of them. All year long.
Look at the sweep of Christ through his three brief decades of life, and you'll hear the same lesson, time and time again. "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). "...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36). "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?...Feed my lambs." (John 21:15)
Jesus has no problem hanging out (and even having dinner) with prostitutes, tax-collectors who are traitors to their countrymen, with thieves or lepers or the blind or lame. Physical and medical uncleanness, or who has slept with who, or who gets to have communion, or what color the liturgical vestments should be just doesn't seem to bother Jesus as much as the answer to the simple question: "Are you takin' care of my Father's kids?"
It's tragic how far we as a church, and a supposedly Christ-following community, have strayed from the instructions on how to prepare for the first Christmas.
God, in the midst of the insane commercial sprees of this time of year, help us to focus on the very first instructions for Christmas preparation - to take care of those who are in need. Help us turn our churches back to this simple message from John. John showed us how to prepare the way for Christ's arrival. Let it begin with me - with my church - with my life - with this day. Amen.