John the Baptist doesn’t mess around, does he? Eugene Peterson paraphrases John’s remarks this way: “What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snake skin is going to deflect God’s judgment?”
Whatever happened to “Beloved children of God?” Good gracious.
John is on fire! God is coming. Don’t play – it is going to be a shake up, a quake up, a rattle and roll turn over. This is NOT about hanging mistletoe. It is about cutting a tree, but not bringing it home and hanging lights on it!
And yet, John’s message echos other incendiary words. Mary says a chapter earlier, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
And Jesus says later, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
And even later, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.”
The wrath is coming, the axe is at the root, the fire is being stoked, the chaff is being separated from the wheat, the great leveling is approaching.
This may be great news to those one the bottom – but not so much the top 1% or even the top 50%!
And yet, here is the thing, it is so full of surprises. In verse 18 Luke writes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the GOOD NEWS to the people.”
Good news. The word “euanagelitzeto” in Greek is translated as “gospel” and is the root of “evangelize. “
It is true, isn’t it? Sometimes good news doesn’t feel “good” at first.
Sometimes the gospel afflicts before it comforts.
Truth hurts, challenges, disrupts, cracks open in order to liberate.
Sometimes the intervention may even seem violent, but it is better than the alternative.
If you see somebodies life being ruined by alcohol – what should you do?
If you see your child about to touch a hot stove, or run into the street?
A nation gripped by racism, or fear – sometimes you just want to scream to get somebody’s attention and say “Will you please breathe deeply, Nation?!?”
It is particularly hard for adults to be confronted. We have spent too much time building scar tissue, too much time with excuses, and patterns, in denial. After all, who likes to be criticized or judged?
I think it is especially hard for men and particularly, especially difficult for white males – we usually do the confronting and the firing and the agenda making and the “truth-telling.” (That will get me a few emails this week!)
John’s words are hard, and yet…people flock to him. Flock to him.
I think deep down we all kind of YEARN for someone to confront us, hold us accountable – shake us down.
You and I are spiritually wired, you see, to go after truth.
True, sometimes we do almost anything to avoid it, but I think really we want to be whole. We want to be in alignment. We want to be free.
So John is touching a chord.
“What then should we do?”
I want to do something, I want to do anything.
Where do I begin to show this changed life? This true life, that I think we all want to live.
John gives very practical advice to his audience. He tells them to do the obvious: If you have two coats, give one away. Do your job and be fair and don’t take advantage: don’t threaten, don’t cheat, and be satisfied with what you have.
Just think if the mortgage lenders who preyed on the elderly and low income had been fair? What if we had a minimum wage to be satisfied with and everyone had a coat, and a pair of shoes, and health care? The Messiah might come and see that he is no longer needed!
And today in the face of such xenophobia and fear of refugees and Muslims, we as a congregation take a picture and try to at least speak out.
Is that too much?
Now here is the thing: John’s words can certainly be stretched to cover social issues of inequality and injustice. Absolutely. But today (and here is the tension because there is SO much going on in our world today that needs to be faced) I find that the force of John’s words are quite personal.
I think we need to pay attention because often we would rather focus on the social then the personal; avoid looking in the mirror by only looking out the window. Feed everyone else’s hunger and never identify our own starvation.
John the Baptist reminds me that while preparing for Jesus is a journey outward, it is also a journey inward.
It may be obvious, like going to therapy or giving up smoking.
Did you notice who John speaks to directly? Soldiers, tax collectors, and those wealthy enough to have more than one coat, which in first century Palestine may indeed have been a sign of affluence.
Truthfully, I was expecting John to say something much more radical:
- To the soldiers – the oppressive occupying forces of Rome who were making life hell for the Palestinian – “Quit the army.”
- To the affluent “Give up all your wealth and follow me” (I guess John had to leave something for Jesus to say!)
- To the tax collectors who were collaborators of Rome: “Go to hell!”
The affluent (there was no middle class in first century Palestine), the soldiers of the oppressive Roman occupation, and tax collectors were the trifecta of evil in the days of John and Jesus and the Jewish peasant.
For John to burst out of the desert saying that there is a place in the coming kingdom for these three groups is pretty radical in and of itself.
It makes me wonder what John would say to pastors, bankers, teachers today.
Maybe to stay-at-home parents John might say: “Give yourself a break, you are doing great work!”
To those fretting over the season: “It’s OK, forget the decorations! Don’t feel guilty!”
I don’t know.
So into our moment of history the words of John still ring: Prepare the way!
And while it doesn’t exclude involving yourself in the pressing social issues of the day: gun violence, racism, terrorism – they’re all out there–John’s words hit even closer to home. Just do the obvious!
So maybe I should look at my closet, at the piles of my clothes up in the attic. I should begin the spiritual exercise of a separation of the necessary from the too much, the wheat and chaff of seven coats (four of which I never wear), and 400 T-shirts.
Or take a spiritual inventory of where my money goes.
Or to choose to be civil.
Maybe I should take a good hard look at my position of privilege and status and begin to listen more carefully.
It is a start. It won’t bring world peace. It is a FIRST step, not the final one.
There is more truth to be told, and more changes to be made, the turning of the ages is coming, and all will be cracked open and shaken down and revealed…
But there is something really urgent and powerful in John’s words. I feel them today. They make me lean in and feel the fire, because I trust it is the refining fire of a love that will not let me go!
I want to start somewhere.
The Word is “Just do it!”