Advent 3 C: The Ideal of Ordinary in These Extraordinary Times

The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are

Old Testament      Zephaniah 3:14–20

Psalm                    Isaiah 12:2–6

New Testament     Philippians 4:4–7

Gospel                   Luke 3:7–18

We might think these extraordinary pandemic times call for extraordinary people. We might be tempted to hold our very human leaders to super-human standards. Why can’t they give us immediate, simple answers? Why can’t they reignite the economy even while the supply chains are broken?

We might be disappointed and anxious when we ourselves cannot rise to this extraordinary occasion.

And expectation of heroism is a persistent and pernicious habit when it comes to spirituality. It is a grave mistake to believe the gospel entails the transformation of humans into a super race? And when we start with the notion that this is what God promises, is it any wonder that we feel discouraged when no matter how hard we pray about it, we can’t make it to sainthood? We either get so good at covering up our sins that we fool even ourselves, or we fall into despair.

The hoards of people flocked out to the wild banks of the Jordan River expecting something extraordinary indeed. Word was that this was the One foretold by Malachi: Elijah reborn to usher in the final days of God’s reckoning. And when they heard John’s brassy call to prepare the way of the Lord by showing seriousness—by not only repenting of sin, but bearing the fruits of repentance—the spiritually thirsty cried out in response, “What fruits do you mean? What should we do?”

John’s answer: “Be decent.” Yes, the examples he gives, in Luke 3:11-14, demonstrate that John’s idea of the gospel of forgiveness is that it is the power to free us simply to be the human beings that God designed us to be. The gospel means you can share in the manna knowing more will come. That frees you to realize simple human decency in your life. The gospel means you don’t have to cheapen yourself by cheating or bullying others. You are freed by your repentance and God’s forgiveness to be “satisfied with your wages,” and satisfied with your part in the routines of life in this world. That’s just simple human decency.

Note what John doesn’t say about bearing the fruits of repentance. He doesn’t call on people to join him in the wilderness to become a saint or martyr. And he doesn’t charge them to do what Jesus does. Jesus is the Messiah who will baptize with fire and winnow people. There are things Jesus will do because he is the Christ, the Son of God, and able to do super-human things. Jesus is not an example to emulate, but a Savior to follow. So, we just build on forgiveness by being decent, ordinary, every-day human beings. That’s what God designed us to do.

And I, for one, would love seeing and hearing from more ordinarily decent human beings on the streets, in the restaurants, on the airplanes, at the school-board meetings, in congress, on social media, and everywhere else. Fighting this pandemic and moving forward to more meaningful action on gun violence, climate change, political division, and all our other crises, would be much easier if we all would strive for this kind of ordinariness in these extraordinary times.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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2 Responses to Advent 3 C: The Ideal of Ordinary in These Extraordinary Times

  1. Caroline Leean says:

    “You are freed by your repentance and God’s forgiveness to be “satisfied with your wages,” and satisfied with your part in the routines of life in this world. That’s just simple human decency.” I love that. There are so many I work with in metro Washington, DC area who are not satisfied with their wages, who want to get ahead… I have told a few that desiring that is almost as bad as going after the drug lords… who just want the almighty dollar…at the expense of the millions they affect. So many rush to work, without regard to the safety of other drivers on the road… even at 5am on a winter’s morning when it’s still dark. Thank you for your insights.

  2. John says:

    Caroline:
    I am pleased to hear from you again, and to note your comments about the rumblings of discontent you feel. It is a powerful witness to walk in gratitude. Perhaps you have heard of the great environmentalist and inspiration for our National Park System, John Muir. Muir walked the continent, often with nothing but a few biscuits to eat and the sky for his roof. He lived very close to nature, and wrote about it, becoming quite famous. A very wealthy man sought his guidance on a trip in Alaska, I believe it was, and a reporter tagged along. The reporter one day asked Muir if he didn’t envy the millionaire all he had; and Muir replied, “Why would I. I have everything I want and he doesn’t.”

    Peace and Joy this Christmas!!

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