Meditation on Luke 3:7–18
Third Sunday of Advent
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton
Pastor Karen Crawford
Livestream of the service: https://fb.watch/9S9N3jS_8A/
Monsieur Charles Blondin became the first person to cross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in the summer of 1859. This was something the French acrobat would go on to do hundreds of times, always without a net! When word got out that he would be crossing the Niagara on a 1,300-foot rope, two inches in diameter, without a net, gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death.
“On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer to gather on the American or Canadian side of the falls for a view of Blondin. He was dressed in pink tights and held a balancing pole of ash, 26 feet long and weighing 50 pounds. Smithsonian reports,“Both banks grew ‘fairly black’ with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey.”
“Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ Blondin reached Canada.”
On another crossing, he famously “carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelet.” Another time, he “walked backward to Canada and returned to the U.S. pushing a wheelbarrow. Two weeks later, he somersaulted and backflipped his way across, occasionally pausing to dangle from the cable by one hand. Shortly after that he made another crossing, and, after a brief rest, appeared on the Canadian end of the cable with (his manager) Harry Colcord clinging to his back.
Blondin gave his manager the following instructions: “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do, we will both go to our death.”
The crowds are gathered at the Jordan River with John the Baptist in our gospel lesson in Luke today. They come from the villages and the cities. They are curious about the charismatic preacher dressed in camel’s hair. They hang on his every word—for they have never heard preaching quite like this. He brings hope to those who long to be set free from the oppression of the Roman Empire, which controls every aspect of their life, including their religion.
But others come, too. Those of wealth, status, and power. The oppressors. Scoffers come to see what all the fuss is about so they can go home and tell everyone what a fraud this man John is, the errant son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Look at this man who so foolishly chose a wilderness pulpit over a nice, lucrative priestly career as a puppet of the Empire.
And they are afraid of John and his popularity, afraid of what the Empire might do to them because of John. These are the ones John is talking to when he says it’s not enough to be born into the faith—to have the right people on your family tree. God expects us to reveal who we are and what we believe by how we live.
John says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. (And) do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John provides a vision of the Kingdom of God ushered in by the more powerful One who is coming after him! It’s nothing like any kingdom of this world. For in God’s Kingdom, love reigns! When the crowd responds to John’s preaching, “What, then, should we do?” John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Think, for a minute, how dangerous this mob could be if John had incited them to turn against their corrupt leaders and seek revenge. That’s what we often see in this world! Hate and revenge! But that’s not what the Holy Spirit does. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Hearts are touched! Lives are transformed!
What strikes me in this passage is that the peaceable Kingdom is BIG enough and God’s grace is WIDE ENOUGH to include even the “worst” sinners of the community in John’s day, if there are “worse” sinners. And if it’s BIG enough and Wide enough for the sinners of John’s day, it’s big enough and wide enough for all sinners today. The Kingdom of God isn’t getting smaller. It’s GROWING!
Luke says, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized,” which would have sent shockwaves through the crowd. Tax collectors had the reputation in the Roman world as “meddlers, crooked, and deceitful.” (Joel B. Green). John doesn’t “take aim at the tax system itself, but instead concerns himself with the behavior of particular tax collectors.” In other words, they don’t have to stop working as tax collectors to be faithful in the Kingdom of God. They have to change their wrong attitudes and sinful behaviors. John tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed” for them.
And then there are soldiers, who use violence, threats, and intimidation to terrorize the people. Now they want to change! They ask John what they should do. Notice he doesn’t say, “Stop being a soldier and come live with me in the wilderness.” They can still be soldiers and be faithful! He tells them to change their attitude and behavior. He says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
This work of the Spirit through John’s proclamation and the baptism of repentance stirs the people to want to be different. They want to be ready! For Christ is coming to gather the wheat into the granary and burn up the chaff, bringing with him the just and peaceful Reign of God.
The people are filled with expectation. They wonder about John and his words. Is he a prophet? Is he Elijah? Has the Messiah finally come?
“(Charles) Blondin performed in China, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe. He soured on America in 1888 when he was forbidden to perform in Central Park and had to settle instead for St. George in Staten Island. Although he was then 65 years old, he carried his son and another man on his back and made another omelet for the crowd. By the time he gave his final performance, in 1896, it was estimated that Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope.” (Smithsonian) All without life insurance. He always joked that no one would take the risk.
Friends, can you imagine that you are at the Niagara Falls with Blondin in the 1800s—and you are riding on the back of the French acrobat, like his manager did, without a net below you? Blondin is saying to you that for this journey, you mustn’t imagine yourself as a separate being. No longer yourself, you are Blondin—body, mind and soul. “If I sway, sway with me,” he says. “Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself.”
And this is how it is with the Spirit of Christ living in us. For the one who claimed us in our baptism dwells with us forever and wants us to rely on Him! This is how we can change the world, by changing ourselves. Each day, when we wake up and clothe ourselves with Him, we have a new beginning—another opportunity to become less us and more Him. As Paul says in Galatians (2:20), “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Friends, let us also imagine ourselves in the crowd gathered at the Jordan with John in the wilderness. Whatever our reason for coming—faith, wonder, doubt, curiosity, longing for change or to be changed, or just entertainment, as those who came to see Blondin cross the Niagara, all are welcome!
Come and see what the Lord is doing. The Reign of God is BIG enough for all sinners. God’s grace is wide enough for all. For the one to whom we belong is the One who died to set us free from sin and death.
Come and be made new! For Christ is coming again in power with his winnowing fork—to gather the wheat into the granary and burn up the chaff.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, let the good news of the Messiah and the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing. And like the crowd who gathered at the Jordan long ago, may your hearing of the good news move you to LIVE IT and SHARE it.
May you be filled with expectation!
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, such as John the Baptist and his godly example. Prepare us, Lord, for your coming—for when you gather us like wheat in a granary. Touch our hearts by your Spirit. Transform our lives so we are empowered to live now as you desire us to live, following in your perfect will, walking in the way of peace. Lead us to be more like your Son and bear good fruits of repentance, revealing our hope and joy, grace and love, humility and generosity, kindness and compassion. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.