In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
The presidential election of 1800 was a watershed for the United States for many reasons. The original constitutional formulation had stipulated that the person who got the most votes in the electoral college would be President. Unfortunately, when the electors gathered in early 1801, two men, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes: 73. In this event, Congress is supposed to decide who wins. On February 11 of 1801 congress met. The vote was an even split, each candidate getting the votes of 8 state delegations. For 96 hours they voted, again and again. Members were sleeping on the floor of the chamber. 33 ballots were cast, no one budged.
Outside the capital, the country was in turmoil. The election had been rancorous, and feelings were running high. We often forget that the constitution was so new at the time. It seemed like it was not working. The governors of New York and Pennsylvania called up the militia, preparing for Civil War. Virginia was about to march on the capital. It was a single man who saved the day, James Bayard, a congressman from Delaware who finally broke the impasse and made possible the election of Thomas Jefferson. He submitted a blank ballot. Bayard is hardly a household name. But he might have saved the country singlehandedly.
The people come to John and ask what they can do. He urges them to simple acts of repentance and mutual care. He does not call the powerful and important people to do something. He calls for everyday people to share their food and clothes with the needy. He tells the tax collectors and soldiers to do their jobs but do not use their power for selfish reasons.
We often hear admonitions to repent and imagine that they are meaningless. We look the actions of the mighty and feel that change must happen there. But this is God’s kingdom, and it does not work in the same way at the broken world. In God’s kingdom that act of loving your neighbor is at the very heart and it pulses with the very power of God. It is Advent, a time of purification, repentance, and preparation. Your vows and acts of repentance may not seem like much to you or the world. But God thinks another way about them. He uses the small and the weak things of the world to shame with wise and strong (I Co. 1:27). James Bayard, a nobody in your history books, may deserve to be called the savior of the nation because he cast a single vote, or in this case, abstained. Share that can of soup or that jacket you have hanging in your closet but have not worn for years. God might just be doing something unimaginable with it.