You might wonder after reading Luke 3:7-18, what good news John the Baptist has for people now and even then. We have become accustomed to hearing this passage as God hurling fire and brimstone, but that is not true to the text. In fact, John does not say what wrath is coming. although he would have heard mutterings of insurrection often. Luke’s narrative was written after both the uprising in and then the destruction of Jerusalem so the writer would have known precisely what wrath was coming. It was the wrath of Rome, a nation that demanded silent obedience and unswerving loyalty to its ideals.
The first interesting idea in this narrative is John’s notion of call. It is a commonplace to say that the people of Israel understood themselves as chosen, but the prophets saw that as conditional upon adherence to a communal code of ethics, not rules precisely, but a spirit of justice and kindness and honesty. So lineage alone would not save the people. It is a return to the essential understanding of the relationship with God that is required; then God will fill everyone with the ruach ha-kodesh, the holy spirit.
The first step in reconciliation is an acknowledgment that the community has forgotten its origins and values. Simple ritual purity is not enough and might even delude people into thinking that their lives were in control. Repentance, that is open awareness of reality is the first step; then ritual cleansing. Since most people were not wealthy enough to have their own mikveh, a ritual bath in running water, they came to John, who was waiting for them in the river, before entering the Temple.
That was not the end of the requirement that John set before them, however. Restitution depended on means and circumstance. The more affluent were challenged to share their assets with the poor, tax collectors wee discouraged from exploiting their position. Soldiers, probably conscripts, were told to minimize the damage that might be required of them.
And finally, what we have learned to hear with dread, the image of God’s winnowing fork, a pitchfork for tossing wheat until only the grain remains and the dust from it is blown away. or burned to throw on the fields as fertilizer . This is not about winnowing people, but about systems, governments, authority. It is about how the ruach ha kodesh, the holy spirit, will stir up the courage of people to bring about a new way of life. It is about reclaiming freedom from servitude and returning to the community of justice and mutual support.
The internet has provided people with a new tool for effecting change. At its best, sites encourage people to actively voice a call for change, for mercy, for justice, or for action. In our time, there is no excuse not to because at the very least, we can press a key that sends out affirmation or challenge. At the very least, the rights of others can be supported from our armchairs.
The angel says to Mary and to all of us, Don’t be afraid and that’s good advice. There will be chaos and upheaval whenever orderliness masks corruption or oppression. We will be challenged to think more compassionately, to act more generously, to put aside our own ideas so that we can learn new ones. And sometimes it might feel like we are being tossed, but it is how learning happens. You can always tell when you are on the edge of a big discovery about yourself or something else, because it pinches you in places where you thought you were comfortable.
Change will come and it might feel like wrath or it may feel like freedom. To some extent we choose how we experience the coming storm.