ADVENT WEEK III Words of Exhortation Luke 3:18. “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
The third Sunday in Advent is sometimes called “Stir Up Sunday” after a traditional prayer appointed for the day: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us….” But “Stir up Sunday” is apt for any Sunday when today’s gospel (Luke 3:7–18) is read. Continuing from last Sunday, John the Baptist is certainly stirring things up as he preaches to crowds seeking him out, wishing to be baptized. At times his words sound angry and judgmental (he calls those in earshot a “brood of vipers”). At times his images sound threatening and violent (he warns that the ax is nearby and “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down”).
His words get peoples’ attention. Even some who might in today’s culture be called public servants or members of the armed forces—tax collectors and soldiers—are attentive. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John tells the crowd. When they ask what that means, he tells them to share what they have, and not to take more than their share.
The gospel writer lumps all of John’s rhetorical moves—judgment, threat, guidance, and promise—under the heading of “exhortations.” An exhortation is intended to inspire, to encourage, to advise with great urgency. To move people from complacency to action. To stir them up.
Perhaps you feel, as I do, that you’ve been stirred up now for months, and not necessarily in a good way. We’ve only recently survived the 2018 election season, having voted just a few weeks ago after far too many months of listening to, and perhaps participating in, campaign rhetoric that was often negative and divisive. I wonder if the “stir up” words of John the Baptist have anything to say to us now, suspended as we are in time between the elections and the swearing in of those who will take up their mantles of public service. I wonder if John’s words have anything to say to us as we live suspended in this holy time of Advent, preparing for the birth of God.
Of course, John was not speaking to people living in a democracy. Neither is conservationist and activist Terry Tempest Williams addressing people of John’s era, or thinking about Advent, in her essay “Engagement” (Orion Magazine), in which she writes, “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?” Nevertheless, similar themes appear in both John’s exhortations and Williams’ rhetorical questions. Using very different language, each speaks to issues of compassion and generosity. Using very different words, each stirs us toward becoming our better selves – living authentically and honoring the spirit that connects all human beings. Using very different images, each offers hope.
All of which suggests another topic to ponder, whether on your own or with a trusted friend: What is stirring in you this Advent season? How are you bearing fruits worthy of repentance? Where are you finding, or offering, compassion and generosity? When do you feel the power of the spirit that connects all humanity? Wherever you locate yourself this week on the Advent journey, who or what gives you hope?