Comments and Observations:
Well what did you expect John would say? His preaching was getting through to the people. Big time. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?” And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?
Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives? Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?
Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit. No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.
Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices. He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.
In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”
Is this the message that pre-sages the advent of the Messiah?!
Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is. The coming of God’s Christ and of his salvation and reconciliation of all things entails and involves a nearly endless list of things. Ultimately we believe that no corner of the cosmos will go untouched by the renewal project that just is salvation through Christ Jesus the Lord. The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper is famous for many things but in the Reformed circles in which I mostly run, few things Kuyper ever wrote garner as much attention as his comment that “There is not one square inch of this universe about which Christ cannot say ‘That is mine.’” True enough.
But although such a sweeping claim involves all sorts of really big things—powers and principalities, nations and kings, planets and star systems—it also involves all the not-so-big things like cooking spaghetti and working on Excel spreadsheets and smiling lovingly at homeless children who come to you for help.
Jesus was coming to change the whole world, and few people sensed that better than John the Baptist. Mostly John’s sermonic rhetoric ran to the hot side of things. Jesus was coming to upend everything, and few saw that better than the evangelist Luke, who alone preserved for us in the New Testament young Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1 in which the young mother-to-be chillingly sang about sending the rich away empty handed and exalting the humble.
But even so here at the outset of Luke’s Gospel and in the key part of Luke that records John the Baptist’s ministry, when people come to ask John what the coming of all this change means for them in their ordinary lives, John sends them back to those ordinary lives as changed people. He sends them back not necessarily to try to change the world on their own and not necessarily to assume a new set of spiritual practices and ambitious projects the likes of which they’d never dreamed of before. Nope. John just told them to do what they had been doing all along and do it better, to do it all in ways that somehow color inside the lines of God’s good Creation in ways that—little though they may seem to be—will be part of that grander work of cosmic renewal.
So often people don’t think they are very spiritual. They don’t think that what they do at the factory, in the classroom, around the dinner table matters much or has much by way of spiritual implications. But they are wrong. If even a preacher as radical as old John the Baptist was could dole out the advice he did to people who wondered what active repentance would look like in their lives, then everything we do is profoundly spiritual and profoundly important.
“And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.”
That’s how Luke sums up John’s ministry. It was the Gospel somehow. It was Good News to be told both to repent and shape up AND to be told a little bit about what the result of such repentance would look like in action. The Gospel will change the whole world, including that little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon.
Advent has become such a “special” time of the year that preachers and those who listen to preachers alike can too easily forget that this ostensibly special time of the year is not so very special at all unless it has a profound effect on all the ordinary, non-special moments of our lives as well.
John’s words and what Jesus would preach in the course of his ministry had many similarities. Still, we all know that the day came when John the Baptist had cause to wonder if he had pegged the right man in Jesus after all. “Are you the Coming One or should we await another?” That was the remarkable question John sent to Jesus after John had been rotting in prison for a while. Maybe a partial clue to John’s later doubting can be found in the imagery in Luke 3. John liked to talk about axes being laid to the roots of trees, about winnowing forks and fiery baptisms. And, of course, it’s not as though John was wrong about all that in terms of who Jesus was and what he came to do, it’s just that the way Jesus brought in the heavenly kingdom was through meekness and sacrifice. But the seeds for John’s apparent disillusionment get sown here. It’s instructive for the church even today to notice the perennial temptation to want to get out in front of Jesus in ways that tend, as often as not, to veer toward the violent and the aggressive. If even John the Baptist could get derailed by this kind of thinking, it’s no wonder that many others in history have fallen prey to a similar temptation.
In one of his fine sermons some while back, I heard Tom Long tell a story about the church he joined when he moved to Atlanta a while back. At a new members dinner, the pastor had people go around the table to introduce themselves and say a little something about why they had joined the church. Some noted the good children’s programs that gave their kids something to do after school and for a week or two in the summer—that kind of thing helps out Mom and Dad, you see. Some noted the convenience of the church’s location, the proximity to their home, the good parking. Still others appreciated the organist and the lovely music. Finally it came around to a man who told the group that for more years than he could remember he’d been a crack addict, a boozer, and a derelict but that through this church he found the power of Jesus to turn it all around and that’s why and how he became a member.
As Long tells it, there all those new members sat, feeling sheepish. “We came for the good parking. He came for the salvation!”
It’s so easy to forget that at its core, the mission of the church is to see lives changed one at a time. People who had been walking nothing but zig-zags get the grace to walk a little straighter. People whose lives have been pock-marked by nothing but endless questions find a few answers that may not address every last query they’ve ever had but that answers enough to let them go on with hope. Salvation and the announcement of it is what the church exists for. And as Luke 3’s simple message reminds us, that salvation reaches down into the most ordinary of lives and transforms those lives not so as to make each saved person a superstar or an endlessly blissful person but to make the person they are and the gifts they have to shine more with the radiant hope that just is Christ Jesus the Messiah and Lord.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2015
Luke 3:7-18 Commentary