We continue our reading of the Gospel of Luke and we meet John the Baptist. He doesn’t mince words, does he? No polite small talk – nothing warm and fuzzy, no funny story to warm up the crowd. More like a two-by-four over the head to get your attention: “You brood of vipers!”
Not quite: “You are beloved children of God,” huh?
The fire and the wrath of God is near. John rejects any claim about ancestral status. Calling yourself a child of Abraham means nothing. God has no grandchildren. God can raise children from rocks. And a rock is about as inanimate an object as there is.
But even the hated tax collectors and the soldier of the occupation Army gathered to hear him.
His description of “the one who is to come” reminds me of “He who must not be named” in the Harry Potter stories. It is hardly a meek and mild Jesus smelling the lilies and placing children on his knee that is described. This is more like a character from a “slasher” film: “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.”
Merry Christmas! Did you see that Macy’s is having a 50% off sale? “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” I wonder what the bad news was?
But it seems to work, or at least it attracts attention. This seeking and searching crowd, this throng of individuals filled with wondering and questions. They just want to know what to do. They want practical solutions, not theological rambling.
And I guess I have to put myself into that group of seekers and searchers, filled with expectation, filled with questioning. What do I do, to prepare for you, Jesus…really? How do I live what I believe? Often in the midst of the preparations for the holiday, the tree, the presents, the food, the decorations and all don’t you wonder, what’s it all about? Don’t you just want to know?
And as much as I don’t like to hear criticism, (after all, who likes to be told “what to do?”), there are times in the midst of the confusion when some hard, practical advice can be good news indeed. Sometimes when you are told, or when you tell someone else: “Look, if you keep going in that direction, this is where it will lead.” Or “I am leaving you if you don’t quit drinking,” or “Grow up and act your age,” it actually can be liberating.
Hold me accountable! Give me something to do that I can measure, that I can touch and feel as if I am contributing. Tell me what to do so that I can know I am alive and worth something. I want to change. Because more than half the time you look around and wonder, “What am I doing here?”
To the tax collector, John says, “Collect no more than the amount proscribed for you.” To the soldier, “Do not extort money by threats or false accusations.” It makes you wonder what John the Baptist, if he were alive today, would have said to the brain trust at Enron, or AIG, or Bernie Madoff? Even more timely, I wonder what words John the Baptist would have had for Tiger Woods? Or to you and me?
John the Baptist says: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, “Act like you are supposed to act.” And deep down I think we know how to act, how to treat others, what is right and wrong. Repentance is not saying “I’m sorry.” Repentance means “turning” and actually heading in a new direction. Repentance means BE who you were called to be. I remember my mother saying, “Act like a Lentz!” And my brothers and I knew we had better shape up. Do those things that reflect your identity.
Being a beloved child of God is good – but you and I have to walk the walk.
It is as if the Holy Spirit is agitating you to wake up – and ask yourself who you are, really? And what are you going to do about it?
In a tent, late in the night before the final battle, in the third movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Elf prince Elrond hands the sacred sword to a reluctant Aragon who is heir to the throne but due to history and circumstance has been hiding his true identity behind the guise of a wandering ranger. Elrond agitates Aragon, “Put aside the ranger; become who you were born to be.” Don’t hide anymore. If you are really going to claim your ancestry then you need to “step up.” Come out into the light and stand – don’t hide anymore.
And I am pretty sure that every time you feel the agitation from someone else calling you to account, calling you to be – you both hate it because you have to be honest with yourself, but you love it and yearn for it all the same – because someone sees in you, your gift, your potential and wants you to unleash it. At least I feel this way. The agitation of John the Baptist calls both for honest evaluation but doesn’t leave you stranded without also offering a way, that when you think of it, seems fairly practical.
Bear fruit that reflects your identity, that expresses your new grounding, that is worthy of your repentance. The metaphor that John uses of bearing fruit is actually quite lovely. Bearing fruit is a good thing. But we hide the fruit of our identity, we hide our gifts under a bushel basket. And John the Baptist will have none of that.
I am on a movie kick today. Have you ever seen the movie or the play Billy Eliot? It is about a boy in the working class community of Northern England where there is no future. Billy was born to work in the mines. That is his identity. His father and grandfather before, his uncle, his older brother – all mine workers. It is a dead rocky end. But Billy Eliot dances.
There is a woman in the town who acts as the John the Baptist character. She will not let Billy crawl back under the rock of self-denial. She sets him free. For Billy’s potential is different. In his ability is liberation. In Billy’s liberation the dance teacher will find hers.
Of course, Billy’s father is against it all: “No son of mine is going to be a dancer.” It just isn’t done. “You have miners for your ancestor, you are a coal miner – dancing is for girly-boys.”
But grace overpowers conflict. The agitation shakes the foundation. The pruning and the threshing and the separating that has to take place for clarity to come – leads to freedom. Out of the rut of identity, the oppression of expectation, the weight of ancestry, Billy dances. The ax of the two-step fells the tree of ancestral immobility.
That is what John the Baptist is talking about, I believe. Those of you who feel trapped by expectation, by identity – John says, “Bear your fruit and take the consequences.” Let your light shine, let your fruit be borne – break out. Cut down the tree that needs to be cut. Don’t use your ancestry as an excuse or a dodge because your true identity, as God’s own, is way beyond DNA.
Sometimes hearing that is tremendously difficult to fathom and hard to hear but you find yourself leaning towards it, no?
But this message of breaking out, breaking free, cutting down is not into the anarchy of ego-driven madness. God sest boundaries of grace not to contain and constrain us but really to set us free. God has set us free in community to share what we have.As you unpack John the Baptist’s harangue, it really is rather sensible and practical and doable, isn’t it? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Start behaving the way your believe. Let your walk be your talk. Suspend the doubts. Just do it – or don’t do it, in some cases. We need to hold ourselves accountable and hold each other accountable and hold the systems and structures accountable to justice and good common sense.
It can’t be right that some people have two coats when some others don’t have any. Make sure you give one away.
Nations that waste so much food daily, while millions starve simply is wrong. Bring a can to our food pantry.
Individuals taking advantage of the systems and getting insider information and “playing” with other people’s money with no regard, really, for the consequences – deserve a good fire bath.
I realize the complexity of the health care debate. I understand that people of good faith disagree. I get it. But it does seem as if there is a moral obligation to cover the neediest.
John does get all worked up, but the message is so down to earth that we already know it, or at least the better angels of our nature know it: In your jobs don’t cheat. You may get by with it for a time, but it has no lasting value. And the consequences in real time might be horrible. In your relationships, don’t lie. It is hard to speak your truth in love, but if you don’t, don’t expect vitality. Don’t use your power to abuse: Soldiers, politicians, pastors.
Sometimes I believe we know full well what we have to do in our individual lives, in our collective lives, but the winnowing is hard, and the shake-up might not be easy, and the new reality might BE overwhelming. But this is what is coming down the pike: Emmanuel, God with us – calling us, calling you, calling me to account. And the presence of God among us is a presence of love, of acceptance of grace, of hope of power. Sometimes, however, we get so twisted that the presence of love seems harsh, and the power of grace seems horrible, and we would rather cover ourselves with the blanket of a lie than say what needs to be said and take the first step towards change.
So a strange character comes forth from the desert calling us to account. And his words can be easily misinterpreted. His diatribe easily ignored or re-directed: “He’s not talking about me, but THEM – Jews, tax collectors, soldiers.” But there is this deep yearning to lean close and to take it in. And if we are open, the judgment seems like grace, and the harsh words seem like gospel – good news. We want, I think, the Spirit of God to burn the chaff within, that which separates us from God, from each other and our own best selves away so that the wheat, the good fruit can be harvested. What a promising thought, really. There is a way out of the madness: BE yourself! Dance if the spirit says dance! Behave like you want to believe. “Look in the mirror and make the change.” For all his weirdness, even the late Michael Jackson speaks John-the-Baptist truth.
Make the change and the dawn will come, and the star will shine, and with all the others called and agitated and loved, we will make our way to the cradle, to the manger, to the place where our true identity lies.