What Then Should We Do?
| Luke 3:1-18
|Sun, December 10, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It is impossible to get to Christmas without meeting up with John the Baptist.
That is because it is impossible to get to Jesus without confronting - or,
should I say, being confronted by - John the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
You remember John, don’t you? He’s the other miraculous conception.
“Elizabeth”, Luke reports, “was barren” and the two of them were “getting
on in years” (Luke 1:7). It is odd, don’t you think, that the story of John’s
birth has been so overshadowed by his famous cousin, Mary’s boy child? Just
try to find a nativity set that includes Elizabeth and Zechariah and their
prophetic infant, John. It can’t be done ... even a search on the world wide
web comes up empty!
But getting to Christmas without meeting up with John is impossible. Oh,
you can get to Christmas alright ... you can get to the Christmas of sweet
sentimentality and candy canes hanging on halls bedecked with boughs of
holly. But you cannot get to the Jesus born in Bethlehem without first
encountering his cousin John as he emerges from the wilderness
“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. It is in
John’s voice that we first hear the good news announced (Luke 3:18). In fact,
it may well be in his cousin John that Jesus himself first hears the good news
... since he, too, finds himself drawn to the Jordan River along with the
crowds there to be baptised by the Baptizer who meets the people on the
edge of his wilderness home.
John is a character of ‘biblical proportions’. When the people of the 1st
Century meet up with him they have no idea that they are living in the 1st
Century. Nor, for that matter, do they imagine that they are living in ‘the
ancient world’. As far as they are concerned ‘biblical times’ are already back
in time. Moses and the Prophets are but stories told and lingering memories
of a people who can hardly believe that God still speaks and acts in the world
that they know. So when John shows up out of the wilderness people sit up
and take notice. He comes from the place where Israel was formed ... from
the wandering, homelessness of the wilderness. And he comes speaking in
the cadences of the Prophets of old: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his
paths straight. Every valley shall by filled, and every mountain and hill shall
be made low ...” . The people haven’t heard someone like this since Isaiah
came preaching the unbelievably, incredibly, impossibly good news that God
was preparing a highway out of their imprisoned exile in Babylon. It had
been five hundred years since they had returned home. Now Israel finds
itself exiled in its own land ... dominated by the occupying forces of the
Roman Empire. John arrives on this scene looking and sounding for all the
world like an honest-to-God prophet. He speaks with passion and courage
and power about the coming One of God. He says that now is the time to
prepare for the Holy One of God who is following hard on his heels and
bringing with him the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
And John really is some kind of a preacher. He strikes a resonant chord.
People come in droves to hear him. They come to be immersed in the Jordan
... to go back under the waters that their ancestors had passed through so
long ago. They come to be forgiven, to be cleansed, to be made ready for the
Messiah, the offspring of David’s monarchy, who is coming to save them.
This is surely a dream come true for a struggling wilderness preacher like
John who is used to preaching to a few stragglers out on the margins of
society. Suddenly everyone is flocking to listen to him and to be washed. But
did you catch John’s first words to those who show up to hear the good
news? Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament captures the tone
of John’s voice well: “When crowds of people came out for baptism because it
was the popular thing to do, John exploded: ‘Brood of snakes! What do you
think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little
water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life
that must change, not your skin ... What counts is your life. Is it green and
blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire”.
One might have expected that the crowds would have turned around as
quickly as they had arrived. This doesn’t sound like the kind of preaching
that gently invites people in ... that is careful not to judge ... that is ‘good
news’. It sounds so ‘in your face’, so impertinent and rude, so unnecessarily
harsh, so ‘un-United Church’! Yet the people stay. They do not reject John’s
preaching ... or argue with him. They agree with him ... ‘Amens’ can be heard
encouraging him on. John is, apparently, telling the truth about them and
their lives. They realize that here is one who speaks the truth about God and
about their lives. In other words, they hear in John a prophet.
So they ask for more. “What then should we do?” they wonder. Reading this
ancient request it is not difficult to overhear the same contemporary question.
We have just completed six weeks in which nearly sixty of us at University
Hill gathered each week to reconsider the practices of Christian hospitality in
our lives and life together. On Tuesday evening the ten of us who provided
leadership to the study groups met to review the evaluations and to ponder
the way ahead. Sure enough, many are wondering “What then should we
do?”. We now see clearly that Christian hospitality is not merely about nice
manners nor is it a technique for adding numbers to the congregational roll. It
is, instead, an invitation to enter the Reign of God. The practice of Christian
hospitality is all about turning away from a life of fear and pride ... from old
habits of hoarding and scarcity ... towards a life of hope and humility ... to the
courage to share out of God’s abundance. John speaks the truth when he says
that the Kingdom of God bears fruit in the flesh and blood of our very human
lives and communities. It takes shape in real human decisions to change and
to be changed, to turn away from the ways of the world and to turn to the
way of the Messiah. Preparing for the arrival of this Messiah entails resolving
to adopt new habits of the heart. Forget the decorating the tree and hanging
the stockings. These are the Christmas preparations that matter. This is how
we “let every heart prepare him room”. We change the way we live ... and
this changes who we are.
But the crowds want to know how we are to change. “What then should we
do?”. John’s answers are straightforward: “Whoever has two coats must
share with anyone who has none: and whoever has food must do likewise.”
This is how to prepare for the coming Christ. Give away what the things you
don’t need for survival. Extra coats and sweaters, kept only as fashion
statements in order to enhance our status or image or prestige, are to be given
away. Notice that John does not tell the crowd to give away all of their
possessions. John’s message is often touted by those who seek to avoid
actually paying attention to him as hard and difficult. The truth be told,
John’s response is straightforward and not at all painful. He says quite clearly
that everyone should keep their coat, keep their long underwear, keep their
sweater. He does not ask the crowds to become paupers ... giving everything
away. He simply tells them not to keep excess clothing or food when there
are those who have nothing. So, in the year ahead, when you notice that I
consistently wear the same sweater and the same jacket I trust that you will
understand. I think that it is known as ‘practising what you preach’. Can
you imagine Christians actually taking John’s preaching as the ‘gospel truth’
... and putting it into practice? How long would it take for people at the office
... or in the classroom ... or around the neighbourhood ... to begin to identify
the Christians by their simplicity and lack of trendiness and capacity to give?
Or is such living testimony simply unimaginable in a consumer culture such
as ours? John urges the crowd to be prepared when the Messiah stands at the
door and knocks. John commends lives that are not subject to the world’s
convincing lies ... lies which hoodwink us into the foolish belief that we are
perpetually in need of more. John preaches repentant living as subjects of
the Messiah who is to met in the least, the last and the lost.
Perhaps you noticed that others also ask John what they should do. Tax-
collectors and soldiers ask this same longing question. Their’s are loaded
questions, of course. The tax-collectors are not just working for Revenue
Israel. They are despised Jewish collaborators who are contracted by the
hated Roman Empire ... and who are given freedom by the authorities to
gouge as much tax as they can ... and to keep anything they can steal over the
bottom line demanded by the Emperor. And the soldiers ... why they are not
even Jews. They are Romans ... Gentiles ... on tours of duty in backwoods
Israel where they spend their days blackmailing and violating the vulnerable.
One might well expect this prophet of God to tell these tax-collectors and
soldiers that they must stop everything immediately ... quit their immoral
jobs ... and follow him. But, no. John tells them that to prepare for the coming
Kingdom they must simply stop stealing and extorting. Given power and
freedom to hurt the weak they are to resist temptation and act responsibly.
They are, says John, to repent ... to change ... to bear fruit.
When you look at it, John does not ask for the impossible. In fact, he makes
repentance look quite possible. But what can such small actions accomplish?
How might they really be invitations into the Kingdom of God? Could
repentance ever be good news? Consider this. For fifty years Christian
churches and theologians have been trying to come to terms with the
Holocaust. In those five decades the growing awareness that Christian anti-
semitism provided the fertile ground for National Socialism to flourish in
Germany has deeply grieved many Christians. The resulting changes in
Christian attitudes towards Jews and towards Judaism have been
widespread and sweeping. Apologies have been spoken ... but more than
that, changes in thinking and in practice have begun. Witness the eighteen of
our number who participated in the 24 hour vigil with our Jewish colleagues
to mark Kristallnacht on campus a month ago. And what has become of these
fifty years of slow but steady repentant change? This past summer a
surprisingly diverse and sizable group of Jewish scholars and Rabbis
published the first statement of its kind - a proposal to reconsider the
relationship between Jews and Christians based on the changed attitudes and
behaviours of Christians, and of their churches, towards Jews. Fifty years of
learning new habits of the heart with regard to the Jews ... fifty years of slow,
steady repentance ... finally bearing fruit. This is good news, indeed.
Isn’t this what we have in mind as we host lunch downtown tomorrow? Our
guests will be First Nations plaintiffs who are in court bringing suit against us
for our collective role in their terrible ordeal decades ago. Don’t we hope that
slowly, one repentant meal at a time, we will learn to walk a new way with
them ... and that in fifty years or a century from now their grandchildren or
great-grandchildren will be able to see that this repentant path is genuine ...
and that then our changed lives will bear the fruit of reconciliation which is
the good news of Jesus Christ? Isn’t this the reason that we do not fear the
One who comes with “his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing
floor and to gather the wheat into his granary”, the one who will burn the
chaff “with unquenchable fire”. Why would a repentant people ever fear
such fire? Surely our turning to God and neighbour reflects our deep desire
that the chaff of our life be burned away. We long for the fruits of our lives to
be harvested ... to come to fruition ... to be gathered together in the granary of
the Kingdom of God. We dream of the days when the chaff of our
institutions and of our days is thrashed and burned ... eradicated once and
for all. Oh that the Messiah would winnow out our greed and turn to ash the
violence we do to one another. In the meantime, we prepare for that glorious
day by living the good news of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” ... we
“prepare the way of the Lord” by cultivating a life together that bears fruit in
surprising lives ... and unexpected places ... and mysterious ways. May it be