For October 20, 2018
Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 3:3, 7-8, 10-14, 18-20
2000 years ago, before Jesus was “a thing,” there was a preacher named John the Baptist. His preaching created waves of excitement across Palestine–among both Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
His preaching was connected with widespread expectation of the appearance of the Messiah–the long promised, long-expected, super-hero of that lived at the heart of Jewish culture, religion, and theology.
The end was near. Or rather, a new beginning. God was going to break into this dismal world with something bright and new and powerful. The excitement spread. The crowds gathering around John the Baptist grew larger.
John’s preaching was framed in the classic denunciations of the ancient prophets. His words were sharp, definite, confrontational.
When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
This was hell fire-and-brimstone preaching. It was thunder and bombast.
Note John’s fierce rejection of self-congratulation based on ethnic/religious identity. You tell yourselves, “We are children of Abraham. We’re good.” “You better shut that nonsense up.” John said. “God doesn’t care who your daddy is. God doesn’t care about your DNA or passport or church membership. God is watching your way of life. Prove you’re a child of Abraham by living out Abraham’s highest ideals.” (Note: Even Abraham did not live up fully to his ideals. You’re going to have to do better than Abraham did if you expect God to be impressed by your doing.)
John was preaching for effect. He did not want the people to “like” his preaching. He wanted them to reshape their lives. Like any good coach he was aiming at improved performance. And fortunately, his students asked the right question.
The crowds asked, “What should we do?”
We imagine ourselves as the spiritual heirs of John the Baptist. We, too, are heralding the coming of the Messiah. We, too, proclaim the coming of a New Age, a New Era. We urge people to repent, to change the direction of their lives, to get ready for the return of Jesus. We are thrilled when people hear this message and ask the question:
“What should we do?” What’s the answer? What’s the special preparation we are to make for the dawning of the age the Messiah?
John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
What is the proper lifestyle of those who are getting ready for the coming of Messiah? Generosity. Kindness. Compassion.
All of us have some measure of blessing in our lives. Health, smarts, beauty, a pension, an American passport, some investments, a graduate degree, friends. John told the crowd. “Consider the blessings in your lives and ask yourself how you might touch someone else’s life with that blessing. What sacrifice are we able to make to bless others?” This is the central characteristic of people living in the light of the Messiah.
I received an email this week from a woman named Emme. She had read an article in Adventist Today that described the best of our life together here at Green Lake Church. She had posted a link to the article on her Facebook page. After reading the article, a number of her friends commented, “I would love to go to a church like that.”
What did Emme and her friends find so attractive?
The article described acts of service performed by people in our congregation, acts of generosity to strangers, acts of enduring faithful service within the context of family. I wrote of the church celebrating the amazing accomplishments of our gifted kids. I also mentioned our regard and respect for the people among us who care for children who will not graduate or perform in recitals or win athletic awards. Here, in this community, all children are precious, not just the “above average” kids.
Here we devote a lot of attention to worship. We work to create worship services that feed our souls and give voice to our deepest values–loving God and loving people.
Of course, we aren’t flawless. But we do have high ambitions, holy aspirations. We want to be like God–practicing generosity, faithfulness, and integrity. We know that we are keeping company with God as we rear our children, help our neighbors, build airplanes, write code, heal the sick, drive buses, or sell cars. Every day, in everything we do, we aim to make the world a little bit better. This is how we live in the light of the Coming of Jesus.
When the crowd asked John the Baptist about what they should do, John’s first response was generic, something that applied to everyone. Practice generosity. If we have two shirts, share one. If we have two sandwiches, share one.
Then there came a more specific question.
Tax collectors came to be baptized and asked what they should do. John replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
In that world, tax collectors were independent contractors. They were businessmen. With the advantage of having the powers of the state behind them.
John’s answer acknowledged the legitimacy of their work. Governments need taxes to provide service. And a business has to collect money if it is going to survive. According to John, it was okay to receive money. To take money. But there was also a moral limit.
It is not morally permissible to take everything I can get, if I’m in a position of power. The primary function of morality in the teachings of Jesus–and foreshadowed here in the words of John the Baptist–is to limit the power of the powerful. Christian morality is not about keeping little people in their places. It is about curtailing and directing the power of the powerful.
Collect taxes, but don’t overdo it. Charge enough to make the business viable, but don’t gouge your customers. Make a profit, but not a killing.
Then some soldiers spoke up. “What should we do?” they asked. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
The soldiers were members of the Roman occupying force. They were essentially the police force. They had power. John directed them to use their power ethically and with restraint. In today’s world where there are heartbreaking stories of police misconduct, it is vital that we as a church celebrate and honor the work of the great majority of police officers who respect the law and the people they serve. It is also our responsibility to speak against police misconduct. Whatever the color of our skin personally, together as a church, we stand with our brothers and sisters, people of color, in their protests against police brutality.
With John the Baptist, we say to those charged with keeping the peace: Do justice. Do right.
Now we come to the most startling element of John the Baptist’s preaching.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. 20 So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.
When public persons engage in egregious evil it is the obligation of the church to speak up. We must be clear about the difference between our values and the values on display in the world around us.
When the president of the United States mocks women, we say, No. That is evil speaking.
When the president of the United States celebrates violence against news reporters. We say, No! That is evil doing.
When a candidate for the Supreme Court lies about his high school drinking parties, we say, No! Lying is wrong. Even if lying will get you a highly coveted job, it is still evil. We are a community of truth.
When the president of our denomination uses innuendo and insinuation to defame congregations and cast suspicions on pastors, we stand up and say, “Stop it.” That is unworthy of any minister, much less the president of the church. Presidents and judges are rightly held to higher standards than ordinary people. Their words have consequences.
Our highest commitment is responding to the call of God. That begins in generosity and compassion. But it moves unavoidably into standing bold and unbending in the face of evil and oppression practiced by the powerful. We stand for truth. We stand against lies, the encouragement of violence, and the idolization of a mythical golden age in the past. Our eyes are on the coming Age of the Messiah, the better land is ahead and beckons us.
Here and now we pledge ourselves to the practice of the values of the kingdom of heaven–to generosity and compassion, to truth and justice, to nobility and dignity.
When these values appear beaten down in the world around us, we come here to church and reaffirm their reality, their beauty, and their ultimate triumph.
God will win.
Truth will win.
Love will win.
And we pledge ourselves to speak the truth and to practice love.