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"What Then Shall We Do?" - The Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on December 16, 2018 by Kathy Miller

What Then Shall We Do?

Luke 3:7-18

John said 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? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

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Well … there’s nothing like being called a Brood of Vipers to really get you in the Christmas spirit! After all, who doesn’t like some good fire and brimstone preaching mid-December to warm things up?? As our children and youth pointed out last week in their wonderful retelling of the Christmas story, we tend to combine the various Gospel accounts of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. One result of this mash-up is that often the only glimpse we have of John the Baptist in Christmas stories is in utero.

After the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her she’s bearing the son of God, Mary goes to stay with her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were also expecting a child. When Elizabeth greets Mary, she feels the child within her (a soon to be John the Baptist) leap for joy. Rare, however, is the Christmas play that features a grown John the Baptist—the wild man who lives in the desert and calls those who come to see him terrible names—though there’s always next year …

Instead, we tend to save John the Baptist and his hair shirts for the season of Lent and our preparation for Easter. Such a figure is a ready-made mascot for a season often characterized by self-denial and asceticism. And yet, every year, our lectionary readings for Advent include at least one reading about John the Baptist with his honey and locusts, winnowing forks, and winning people skills. That this reading frequently falls on the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy only adds to the irony. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing like some good threats of unquenchable fire to really make the joy bubble up inside of me.

 

Setting aside the questionable choices of the lectionary creators, one really does need to question John’s tactics, as least as Luke describes them. In Matthew’s account, John’s Brood of Vipers comment is addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious elite, but in Luke’s version, John’s epithet is aimed at the entire crowd. These are the folks who have traveled into the desert to find John, to be baptized by him. These are the ones who actually want to know what John has to say.

But John offers no welcome, certainly no praise for coming this far, instead, John insults them and warns them that being Jewish, having Abraham as an ancestor, will not be enough to save them from the wrath that is to come. Even now, he says, the ax is lying at the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. This is not exactly the cozy yuletide fires we envision this time of year.

Given this introduction, it is somewhat amazing that the crowds not only stick around (I know I would likely have slunk back to my comparatively comfortable life), but engage John, asking “what then should we do?” This middle section of the text reads, at least to modern ears, as far more reasonable. Having established why the crowds must listen to John, the author of Luke’s gospel now shifts to focus on the practical realities of what bearing good fruit actually looks like in everyday life.

First the crowds ask, “what should we do”, and then the tax collectors ask, “Teacher, what should we do?”, and finally even the soldiers ask, “And we, what should we do?” Luke is being abundantly clear that this question, what should we do?, is a question that everyone must ask—everyday folks in the crowds, tax collectors (who would have been Jewish outcasts), and even Herod’s soldiers.

This message of repentance, which in Greek means to turn around, this message that we need to turn around, that we have been focusing on the wrong things, walking in the wrong direction, chasing after the wrong gods, it is not just for the Jewish people, it doesn’t not exclude those whom the Jews exclude, and it does not care if you are a servant of Rome or a son of Abraham. John’s call to repentance, to turn around, is all-inclusive.

What is surprising, given Luke’s introduction of John, is John’s response. John does not, as we might expect, tell the people that they must walk away from their lives and join him in the desert; he doesn’t tell them that they need to sell all their possessions and become one of the poor; he doesn’t even tell the tax collectors and soldiers that they need to find new jobs or fight the oppression of the systems in which they work. To be honest, John’s advice is something of a let down after his fiery introduction—one expects from John an impassioned sermon about the need to fight against the powers and principalities of the world, a good diatribe about the poisonous nature of power or the corrupting influence of status. I mean, I don’t want that sermon directed at me, per se, but as a reader, it would have made for a more exciting narrative.

But, no, John’s advice is much simpler than that (though simple does not always mean easy). To the crowds he says,  “if you have two coats, given one to someone who doesn’t have a coat, and likewise with food.” To the tax collectors he says, “don’t collect more than what you are supposed to.” To the soldiers he says, “don’t use your positions of power to extort money from people, be satisfied with what you are paid.” It is eminently reasonable advice from a man who was only moments before threatening axes and fire. Share, be fair, don’t bully people, John preaches, and kindergarten teachers the world over nod their heads in recognition of a common curriculum.

But what I love most about this passage is John’s ability to see the opportunities available in the lives we already live. Far from requiring them to pack their bags and begin life anew (as their ancestor Abraham had to do), John “points them to the very places in which they already live and work, love and laugh, struggle and strive[. It is these places, John suggests, where God is calling] them to be, where God is at work in them [ … ] and through them for the sake of the world.”[1]

I will admit that I have a soft spot for grand visions of a world transformed—of the wolf lying down with the lamb and the like. And, in times of transitions and hardship, the heroic acts of faith I find in the stories of characters like Abraham and Job have helped guide and uphold me. But most days? Most days it is passages like this one that feel relevant.

Most days I am not (thankfully) deciding whether or not to leave everything I know behind to follow God. Most days I am not living in the valley of the shadow of death and in need of courage and comfort, most days I am waking up in the morning and trying to get one kid out the door in time to catch the bus and the other one to daycare before she requires a second diaper change. Most days I am juggling a to-do list that is way too long and an email inbox that is overflowing. Most days, I am thunderstruck by the reality that once again we have to figure out what to eat for dinner. I mean, seriously, the people in my family want to eat dinner every. Single. Day. It is unrelenting.

So when I hear John answer these questions about what to do, I hear for myself—at this stage in my life—the admonition to pay attention, to notice what is in front of me, the person in front of me, the task in front of me, the beauty in front of me. I hear John telling me that my work of preparation this advent season of advent is to be present. Because for me, when I am present, when I don’t allow the to-do list or the inbox or the stress of the season distract me, I am able to see what the people around me need, and I am able to open my hands and share what I have to give. When I am present, I am able to see the small people in my life as chaotic bundles of energy doing their best to navigate a new home and the excitement of the Christmas season rather than little devils whose only job is to test the limits of patience by throwing as many tantrums as possible. When I am present, I am able to let go of all the things I will not get done today and be content with what I have accomplished. When I am present, I am able to see that despite the never-ending question of what to have for dinner, we have the resources to eat dinner every single night. And sadly, that is a rare blessing in this world. 

John’s answers to the tax collectors and the soldiers, his personalization of the message to fit the situations of their lives, allows me to imagine what John might have said to me, had I been present in the desert to ask that question. But, there is, at least for me, the temptation to personalize the message so much that I obscure the sometimes hard truth of the gospel—John’s instructions to the crowds and to the tax collectors and soldiers focus on the ways in which we treat those around us, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. As important as it is for me to be present in my life, to my family, I am not exempt from John’s command to share when I have two coats (and I have way more than two coats). And, despite my family’s daily insistence on eating dinner, John’s message reminds me that we have more than we need and part of preparing for Christ means giving away the extra.

John’s instructions invite each of us individually to imagine what John might have said had we been there in the desert and been able to ask what it is that we should do, but they also remind us that it is the way we interact (or don’t) with the stranger, the hungry, the needy, the weak that ultimately matters.

You don’t need to believe in John’s end-time visions of fire and brimstone to hear his good news—God can use you right where you are—a life of faith doesn’t always necessitate great acts of self-sacrifice. Sometimes, it is just about sharing what you have, resisting the temptation to take more than you need, and refusing to use your positions of power, whatever they might be, to gain advantages for yourself. Sometimes, preparing for Christ simply means making your corner of the world a little brighter, a little more generous, a little more caring.

So the question before us this morning—this advent season—is “what then shall you do?”

Amen.



[1]. davidlose.net/2018/12/advent-3-c-beyond-scolding

 
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