What Should We Do? 12-16-18 Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers!” That’s the endearing opening line from John the Baptist’s sermon in Luke’s Gospel today. He goes on to talk about God’s wrath and God’s axe lying at the foot of the tree, and concludes with a reminder that the Lord will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire.” And then Luke has the audacity to add, “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Doesn’t that make you wonder what he would consider BAD news?
How is this sermon from John good news? How is declaration of imminent judgment ever good news? Who hears this as good news? The answers to those questions may depend on where you are located on the social spectrum of comfortable to uncomfortable right now. If God’s judgment is only about everyone getting punished for every single thing they’ve done wrong, then I can’t see how it’s ever good news for anyone. But if you are a family who is awaiting a verdict against someone who has harmed you, justice can sound like a good thing. If you are someone who is constantly being treated unfairly, who cannot get ahead because all the systems are rigged against you, if you are carrying a heavy burden of someone else’s misconduct, then justice doesn’t sound scary; it sounds hopeful.
So to whom is John the Baptist delivering his fire-and-brimstone sermon in today’s Gospel lesson? The answer will give us a clue to why Luke calls it good news. You may know that the Gospel of Matthew records almost this exact same sermon, but Matthew has John the Baptist talking to the Pharisees and the Saducees, the theologians and Biblical scholars of the time. They would have been listening to John as professional church folk.
But Luke has John the Baptist preaching to an entirely different crowd—the fringes of society. This crowd lives in the places your realtor won’t take you to; they hang out on the street corners you go out of your way to avoid. They are tax-collectors—Jewish people hired by the Roman government to squeeze money out of their Jewish neighbors to finance the occupying Empire. They are soldiers—not like our armed forces, but hired mercenaries—again, probably Jewish people hired to kill their own countrymen for a certain price. These despised groups and other outcasts and losers are the people who flock around John in the wilderness in today’s text. So if you consider yourself a part of that shady company, today is your day.
Why are these people coming to hear a preacher in the desert? If they are interested in God, why aren’t they in the synagogues, listening to the rabbis, the Pharisees or the Saducees? Why are they with this guy who is wearing animal skins and eating bugs? Maybe because—as is frequently the case in our time—they are suspicious of religion and religious people. Maybe they aren’t sure they would be welcomed by other worshippers because of the way they dress or talk or live. Maybe they come to hear John because John does not condescend to them, but sees them for who they are and meets them right where they are. He preaches to them as if how they live their lives matters. He talks to them as if they had choices, and he offers them significant spiritual questions and ideas to ponder.
John tells his hearers about God’s dreams for them and for all people, and explains how the world fails to measure up. It says something about this crowd that they don’t slink away quietly to feel bad about themselves or to judge each other afterward.
But what if we aren’t a part of that crowd? What if we are on the other side of the socio-economic scale, the other half of the power imbalance? What if we are good church people like the Pharisees and Saducees? What if we are most often people with a lot of privilege, as I am—well-educated, upper middle class, white, straight, and so on?
Every week we sing Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, confidently announcing that God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry and send away empty those whose bellies are full. If you are feeling lowly, oppressed, and hungry, the Magnificat sounds like a song of triumph. It’s definitely Good News. But what if you are more often oppressor than oppressed? Then the fact that the playing field is about to be leveled and justice will be served can sound kind of threatening.
Maybe that’s why so many people fear the Day of the Lord coming. They hear John’s proclamation to get ready for the arrival of the Messiah as a frightening warning. “The apocalypse is upon us! Head for the hills! Bring canned food and your rifle and let’s hunker down!” How are people with more advantages than disadvantages supposed to hear John’s announcement that God is on the way as good news?
Well, what if God’s judgment is more than punishment? What if the impending reign of God, kingdom of God, is not a threat but a promise of redemption? What if God’s arrival among us means a reordering of the world into a place where all creation is cherished and honored and valued equally? The restructuring might hurt us a little, if we’re used to be on top of the heap. We might lose something in the process . It is not always comfortable to be refined. But can we trust that since God’s reign will bring fairness and goodness and wholeness, it will be good news for all of us?
Instead of being afraid, can we look forward to the Day of the Lord as a day when we’ll finally be freed from some of the cycles in which we are trapped? Can we be excited that God will bring an end to systemic racism and sexism, will distribute food and power and resources even-handedly? Can we rejoice that in God’s kingdom we will no longer hurt ourselves or others, accidentally or on purpose?
During Advent we eagerly anticipate the arrival of the Baby Jesus, God-with-us, Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace. Can we not trust that this same Jesus is the one who will return one day? And if this is the same Jesus, then what do we have to fear? The God whose axe is at the root of the tree is the very Incarnate Lord Jesus whose coming to earth we celebrate with carols and cookies and gifts. If Jesus, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, is carrying the winnowing fork, then can’t we trust that he will use that winnowing fork for good? Can’t we rejoice that his arrival will bring about God’s liberation and compassion for all?
If that’s the case, then what do we do while we wait? How do we live? That’s what John the Baptist’s crowd asked too. John thoughtfully responded to them with very concrete, practical suggestions, things we’ve probably heard since elementary school—share, be fair, don’t bully. Simple, but not easy. He didn’t tell them to leave behind their daily lives and go to seminary, or move to a monastery to ponder what it means to live a godly life. Without condescending or judging, John told a crowd of very poor people that if they had two coats they should give one away. He told business people not to cheat their customers, and mercenaries not to extort more than their wages.
What do you think John the Baptist would have to say to you if you were to raise your hand and ask, “And what should I do?”
Maybe he would suggest that if you are a student, you should study hard so you can put all that you learn into making our world a better place to live. If you sing in the choir, sing as well as you can. If you stay at home with children, teach them to love God and their neighbors. If you are retired, pray for people who are in the workplace, for those who cannot find a job, or for those who are unhappy in their work.
There are many ways to wait for the Day of the Lord. In our second lesson today, Paul suggests rejoicing, praying, being at peace. The prophet Zephaniah also has some ideas for his readers: do not fear, and do not let your hands grow weary. How do you wait?
You may have noticed that there is a blank page in the back of your bulletins today. I’d like to invite you to spend some quiet time this week imagining yourself in the desert with John the Baptist. Write down how he might answer your question, “What should I do?” If you like, you can also ask the question on behalf of us as a congregation: “And we, what should we do?” The answers you hear might be useful to us as we gather on March 2 to explore how ULC is becoming a new creation.
How we live as we wait has everything to do with how we imagine or understand the One for whom we wait. So remember, the One we are looking for is the One who brings justice—the very same One who has looked with love on us servants here and blessed us all our lives through.
Come, Lord Jesus!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 12-16-18” name of the sermon.