Sunday, December 13, 2009

Share. Be Fair. Don't Bully.

Seriously, without David Lose or the folks at Preaching Peace, this sermon would have been a big ol' pot of I-don't-know. Good thing God knows how much help I need to be articulate, huh?

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I would never dare to accuse the unknown Elves who put together our Lectionary of having a sense of humor, but this weeks' readings come pretty close to suggesting just that. We get “sing, rejoice, exhult, rejoice, rejoice again, do not worry.”

I confess that during this Advent season I've been looking forward to talking about the birth of Jesus, to reading about the star in the east and the shepherds and wise men, about the angels proclaiming the birth, and when I started reading this week's Lectionary texts I got my hopes up. “Sing, rejoice, exhult, don't worry.” All right!

Then this hairy guy dressed in animal skins, this John the Baptist, pokes his head up out of the wilderness and shouts “you brood of vipers!”

It makes sense, though, doesn't it? God is a God of surprises, after all.
The Gospel reading is a good example. John addresses the people gathered to listen – Pharisees and soldiers, poor people and merchants, tax collectors and artisans – by calling them all 'snakes.' He demands their repentance, foretells wrath to come, belittles their heritage, and the people respond not by arguing or threatening or throwing stones or even walking away – instead, they ask “what then should we do?”

Well, certainly, John's response, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” should have entailed something complicated. After all, the people he was addressing were steeped in religious tradition of one kind or another – traditions which demanded that prayers be said precisely, that rules be followed stringently, and that sacrifices be carried out meticulously. Repentance has to involve expensive gifts and time-consuming acts, sweeping reforms and some degree of public humiliation, doesn't it? Repentance has to be a big deal, and the fruits of repentance have to be cumbersome!

But what does John say? What are those fruits?

To the poor: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

What John says to the crowd is not at all complicated. It is simple. It is easy. It is attainable: Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Not the stuff of cathedrals and choirs and Damascus-Road epiphanies; more a kindergarten or playground lesson. Share. Be fair. Don't bully.

Simple, easy, attainable, but all too easy to misinterpret. Here's what I mean: If John were instructing these groups of people in how to gain a state of repentance, how to earn repentance, how to get to a place where you're allowed to repent, John wouldn't have been at all controversial, because he'd have been prescribing religious actions to a people steeped in the habits and attitudes of religion.

Now, I'm defining religion as (quoting “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Religion, as such, is not a bad thing, but it is a template, a framework, a language and context from which one develops and strengthens a relationship with the Living God.

Yet what seems to happen all too often is that this template of religion – the rituals, devotions, the code – this template serves to supersede or to replace the relationship – the spiritual part of the formula. One of the best quotes I've read recently is this: “religion is for people trying to avoid going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” In this context, repentance is a spiritual act, not a religious activity.

John isn't inviting people on a journey to hopefully get to a place where they are allowed to repent. John is telling them how to prove they have repented.

The Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia,” which translates to “think differently after.” To change your way of thinking. Repentance is a thing which happens between ourselves and God, and from which we emerge thinking differently than we did before.

This is going to sound like John going off down a rabbit trail, but bear with me, and maybe it'll all fit together. I don't know if I've talked about “The Thump” before. “The Thump” is something that is almost unique to pastors and preachers, especially those of us whose full-time work is in the regular old business world.

It's where I'm talking with someone about anything at all, and somehow in the conversation it comes up that I am a preacher. I can almost audibly hear “The Thump.” The person I'm talking to may or may not have been using bad words, may or may not have been talking about a bar they had gone to, or whatever, but immediately the conversation will turn to how they go to church, went to church, like church, like God, love their mother, Jesus is their homeboy, whatever. Out of the blue, they're suddenly Joe Christian. Who knew?

I can, however, point to cases where “The Thump” didn't happen. Where the conversation did not change when my beloved vocation came up... because it did not have to, there was nothing to excuse or justify or build up. And it wasn't that they didn't cuss, didn't drink, didn't smoke, eschewed jewelry, said “brutha” a lot and wore long skirts. That may or may not have been true on any and all counts. It was that I was speaking to someone whose life was truly grace-filled, who was genuinely living what they believed.

What we see in John's words is that, when we think differently, we act differently. What we believe is evident not in our words, but in our actions. What we know to be true is what we act upon.

That can be enormously liberating to know. In some ways, though, that knowledge can be either mildly depressing or it can be paralyzing: I know, for example, that I can point to several dozen times in this past week alone where my actions and my words have not at all reflected my belief in the risen and soon-returning Christ. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not loved the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. If I think that I have to do everything right all the time or else, I might decide to not do anything at all!

But repentance, like our overall relationship with the Living God, is in itself a journey and not a destination. In John's words we see not a complete and systematic theology, but baby steps within a state of being someone who lives the grace-filled life of repentance.

We've talked a lot this past few weeks about things we can do differently during Advent, not as a way to hopefully properly prepare ourselves for Christ to come and maybe we hope we'll be acceptable and all, but as a way of response to the love and grace of a God who has already sent Christ to us and for us, a loving Christ who will certainly come again. Whether it's taking part in the Advent Conspiracy or pulling down a particularly pesky altar in our lives, we've been talking about taking small steps in response to God's grace. Simple things, like buying one less gift and giving the money saved to a charity. And for all the thunder and fire and winnowing forks and worthy fruits, all the frightful imagery in John's pronouncements, he is in reality speaking of the same kinds of things – simple fruits, if you will. Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Think differently.

I don't know if Paul, who would have been Saul at the time, was in that crowd listening to John, but in his letter to the Phillipians, the Apostle writes about some simple and profound things which demonstrate what we believe. I want to close with that passage from our reading this morning, as found in The Message Bible.

“Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you're on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Let us pray...


  1. John, a question. What part of metanoia actually comes from God? I mean, if all I have to do in order to make myself right with God is to have a change of mind, how is that any of God's work? As you may be tired of hearing from me is the question how does God matter in changing our lives? And if He doesn't, why is Christianity any different than any other religion?

    I am so pissed that my own life never had been transformed to the likeness of Christ by any agency other than myself, and that was a piss poor job. That is the crux of my entire lack of faith: where does the supernatural come in to make me a new creation? If II Cor 5:17 doesn't happen in the believer's life by God's grace alone, isn't the whole thing BS?

    I'm frustrated John. I could and have screamed at God for an answer, yet nothing comes.

  2. As I understand it, the fact that we understand the *need* for metanoia is in itself from God. Calvin's doctrine of "Total Depravity" says, in effect, that not only are we separated from God, we lack even the capacity to want to think about God *at* *all.* Thus awareness of the need for repentance is through God's grace.

    One of the challenges I face is recognizing that transformation into the likeness of Christ isn't a total, one-time makeover. It's a process - and one that is frankly never completed. It never happens fast enough for me, nor in the ways I am expecting change to occur, as a general rule. But the supernatural is present first in that I *desire* change, and as well in providing the direction and sustenance of change.

    I wonder if it is our expectations that are out of line, rather than God's Spirit not being present. Perhaps 2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of those things we Reformed Theology wonks "hold in tension" as a present and completed fact *and* a lifelong process...