Sermon for Dec. 13, 2009, 3rd Advent C, Luke 3:7-18

Luke 3:7-18

What Should we Do?

The other day my son was watching old Monty Python sketches on Youtube from his computer.  Those old routines still make us laugh.  The Monty Python guys love making fun of the kind of authority figures who get all red-faced, barking commands, ordering people around.

Unfortunately today, it’s easy to see John the Baptist as John Cleese, all red-faced, barking to people who came out innocently to hear a sermon from a person they take to be a prophet saying, in a British accent, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

Disliking John, and Luke

That almost comic image of John the baptist is the easiest thing to dislike about this text, but there are more.  John’s recommendations to people – to share one cloak if they own two, to do the same kind of sharing with food and all – sound like a page right out of Karl Marx.  It sounds like (can I say this word in church?) socialism, right?  “”From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (the Marxist maxim).

So, our tendency this morning is to turn off this text because it sounds almost comically angry, or to turn it off because it sounds Communist, or both.  But I believe this text is in our Bibles, in the Gospel of Luke because we need its message today more than ever, especially now, in this season of Advent.

So I am going to ask us all to do some work in the next few minutes; maybe hard work: to think – really think as we look at this text together, and to keep asking ourselves, “what does God want me to hear from this text today?  What am I supposed to do?

What was the Greatest Gift?

Let us start our thinking with this question: what was the greatest gift God gave to the Jews?  The land?  The temple?  The glory of King Solomon’s reign?  Many people of John’s day would have answered: “the promise to Abraham.”  To be born in to the family of Abraham was to automatically inherit the blessing.  God promised to bless Abraham, to make him great, to make a great nation come from him, and to bless them (Gen 12).  Being of the family of Abraham, they would have said, is God’s greatest gift!

John was out to name that opinion as a mistake: as crucially, fundamentally wrong.  “You say you are children of Abraham – and you think that answers all the questions? –  Not so fast!  God, if he wanted to, could make children of Abraham from thes stones.”

I’ve been to Palestine – down to the Jordan where John was – there are lots of stones.  In fact almost nothing else but stones; it’s a grassless, stony wasteland.  No, being children of Abraham is not the greatest gift or final answer.

The Gift of Torah: a new vision

What then was God’s greatest gift to the Jews?  It was Torah; the scriptures.  Why?  Because in Torah, in the scriptures, God explains who he is and what he expects from his people – he “reveals” himself and his will.  Without Torah, without the scriptures, the Israelites are just like the pagan, idol-worshipping nations all around them in the Ancient Near East – Egyptian, Canaanite, Philistine – whatever.

But Israel was not like them at all, because she possessed God’s greatest gift: Torah, God’s instruction.  Moses who led them out of slavery in Egypt came down from Mt. Sinai with Torah in his hands, which gave them a concept that the world to that point had only glimpsed:  they were to be the first nation on earth who worshipped and served a God who was Singular, and Moral.  Moral monotheism was the revolutionary new idea that Torah taught.

Think of this!  All the other nations around worshipped gods – gods of nature – the sun, the moon, the ocean, storm gods, fertility gods, the Olympic gods.

These gods did not care who you lied to, stole from, cheated or slept with, as long as you kept them happy with sacrifices and proper ritual veneration.

Moses’ Torah was a massive sea change: an utterly radical departure; a whole new way of thinking about God and what God wanted from humans.  Torah teaches  that God is not many, like the pagans thought; rather God is one; the Sovereign of universe.  He is the Source of all life, all being; everything comes from him including all of us.  We are here because he made us.  We are not accidents nor just a mound of worker ants or a hive of worker bees.  We were created in God’s image to live in his good physical world, to be blessed, to be fruitful, to wake up everyday marveling at life and at beauty and at God’s greatness.

One more massively different and extremely important new idea that Torah teaches us is that God is not morally neutral like pagan gods and idols are: he is moral.  His essence is goodness – and there is a difference between goodness and badness.  Just like a wheat plant: some of it is good for grinding into flour and making bread, but the rest of it is worthless; only useful for fueling a cook-fire.  Good is different from bad, and the difference matters to God.  He has a winnowing fork and uses it.

Crucial Implications

Now here is the important implication of these truths that we learn from the gift of Torah:  this One single God who is good has a moral will for us, his creatures.  He cares what we do: who we you lie to, steal from, cheat or sleep with.

Have you ever been lied to?  God cares about that.  Have you ever been deceived?  cheated?  Cheated on?  God is not OK with any of that.  He cares, it matters to him precisely because he made us.  He hates it when one of his children is damaged, disadvantaged, or suffers.

He cares when his children are hungry and don’t have enough food, when they have no clean drinking water, when they have inadequate housing, when they get pushed around and abused by faceless systems – whether they be greedy corporations or abusive governments, or simply officials with titles and power who use them for their own advantage.  He hates it when they get blown up in the Baghdad market place and when their homeowners insurance gets cancelled even though they have paid for years without making any claims.

And he also hates it when some of his people who are doing OK observe the suffering of their sisters and brothers and turn away from helping them.  He hates it when the two-coat people ignore the no-coat people on cold nights.  He hates it when the plenty-of-food-on-the-plate people turn away from the no-food-on-the-plate people as if they were not children of the same Parent.

What does God do?

So what does this morally good God do when he looks and sees all this stuff going on that he hates?  If he saw it all and did nothing about it that would be as bad as the parent who watches the child lighting matches on the sofa and does nothing to stop her.  He must act.  Does he have options?  Is it going to be another world-wide flood or another round of “fire and brimstone”?  Well, he has tried that response, and it didn’t help much.

God invokes a plan – maybe in Advent we should call it the “Advent Conspiracy” (unless that name is already taken).  The plan starts with a messenger to “prepare the way,” followed by a direct intervention.  John comes as the messanger to prepare the way for God’s direct intervention: God comes down to this planet of his making and makes himself one of the humans he has made; God’s direct intervention is Christmas!

God himself comes down to be one of these people to save them from the mess we have been making.  He comes to be with to be with us, to know first hand what life is like down here where some of us have two coats and supper waiting, while others have none, and to teach us, once again, about his Father – Our Father in Heaven; about God.  That is exactly why Christmas is so crucially important for us.   It is God’s direct intervention into a world that maybe deserves another round of fire and brimstone.

God has no interest in more fire and brimstone; he has the plan to redeem these pathetic, small-minded, selfish little creatures, like me, and transform me in to a person who “gets it”.  I’m supposed to  “get it” that God, my Creator, my Father is morally good and wants me to be good; to worship him as he truly is, and to take my place on this planet for the span of years that I will occupy understanding that all the people around me are relatives for whom I am morally responsible.

What should we do?

So what should we do?  What we should do is to do exactly the same thing that every group of people who came out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John did.  The crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers all did the exact same thing: they all asked the question “what should we do?”

This is the question that shows that we “get it”.  “You mean God is watching? You mean that he cares?  You mean that all of our actions towards each other, all our relationships, all our interactions with each other matter to him?  Well then, what should we do?”

A person who is asking “what should we do” is only working out the details.  The details always differ.  What should we do?  It depends on who you are and what you have been doing.  If you are a tax collector and you have been extorting, you need to stop it!  God cares.

If you are a two-coat person then look around – you know what you need to do.  If you have been a food-on-the-plate person, look around; you know what to do.  The main thing is to keep looking around and to keep asking the question: “today, what am I to do?”  It’s not rocket-science; it’s not even algebra II; what should we do?  We should be good!  Not trivially good, but globally good, humanely good, ethically good because we know and worship God who is good! Let this be our Advent conspiracy!

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