Sermon on Luke 3:17—18 for Dec. 16, 2018, Advent 3C. The Audio version will be here for several weeks.
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.
I want to start with a bit about history, which, I believe, is helpful to understand this text, but then we will look at the message here for us today.
So first the history. Once, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate had Roman standards with his image on them brought into Jerusalem by night. When they were discovered, it upset the Jewish people who are famously anti-graven images, so thousands of them, including men, women and children marched down to the Pilate’s headquarters at Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, to demand their removal.
Josephus says they “they fell prostrate around his house and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position” (War 2.171). We would call it a sit-down strike.
When they were ordered to disperse and the Roman soldiers drew their swords, the people exposed their necks to show that they were ready to die right then and there as martyrs, without resistance. The governor backed down that time. This is an example of non-violent resistance.
Strategies of Resistance
I told you that story to illustrate the fact that there were several different strategies of resistance to the Roman occupation by the Jews in the time of Jesus and afterward. Some were violent, others were not.
Other groups at the time believed that the Romans would be violently driven out, but not by humans. God would do it, like the plagues of Egypt or like the falling walls of Jericho.
New Testament scholars believe that John held just such a view. He went down to the Jordan River, where the Jews had, so long ago, crossed over, under the leadership of Joshua to enter the Promised Land for the first time.
In a ritual reenactment of that crossing, John had people come down, get in the water where he baptized them, ritually preparing them to be the renewed nation, in preparation for the coming of the end of the present age and the arrival of Messiah. God would then expel the Romans by force.
So the images he used for that expulsion were violent images: the ax swinging for the tree, the chaff getting burned up in fire. Meanwhile, the baptized people did not form a resistance army, but went back home to live lives of justice and compassion, having been made ready for the Divine intervention to come.
Jesus and John
Jesus started out as a part of John’s movement. He was baptized by John. But when John was publicly critical of Herod Antipas, he was arrested and executed. There was no divine intervention. No fire from heaven.
Historians suggest that the lack of violent response from God was what laid the groundwork for Jesus to reassess. Maybe God was doing something important, but not violently.
In fact, perhaps it was necessary to re-think the nature of what it meant to be part of God’s family, and the nature of God’s kingdom. Maybe being part of God’s family did not need to exclusively involve descent from Abraham. And maybe the kingdom of God was not a territory on earth, but an embrace of God as king with everything that would follow.
This is what Jesus preached: the kingdom of God was already present — for those who had eyes to see it and ears to hear about it — but not present to those who did not. The kingdom was present, “within you” and “among you”, Jesus said, as a spiritual reality.
As such, the kingdom does not need violence or judgment. It is an invitation. And to those who accept the invitation, it is not an invitation to a battle, but to a banquet.
So, I said accepting God as King means embracing everything that follows from that. What follows? If God is king then God’s will needs to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will? To this day, Jewish people summarize it as “Tikkun Olam,” the healing of the world. Another way of saying it is simply, “Shalom,” wellbeing, peace, justice, human flourishing.
John’s Message Assumptions
How did John respond when the people asked what they should do? John’s preaching was completely in line with what the earlier prophets of Israel had called for, and Jesus continued the same call.
John told them that they should “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Specifically, to the crowds he said,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
There is Enough
There are several important assumptions being made here. First, it assumes that there is enough for everyone. It has been said often that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. It is also said that we do not have a shortage problem in the world, but a distribution problem. There is no reason for children in Yemen to starve to death, or for children in Fort Smith to lack decent food when the school cafeteria is on break. Scarcity of resources is not the problem. There is an abundance, enough for everyone.
Enough is Enough
The second assumption is that there is such a thing as “enough.” There is also such a thing as having more than is needed. Two coats is John’s example. One is enough; two is more than you need. I like how John McQuiston puts it:
“Our wants are insatiable… Our pleasure, our needs, our wishes — all are mere self-interest, and the demands of self-interest are never-ending. Our desires are the path to disaster. At every turn, there is something more to acquire, something to distract our attention, something to divert the unchangeable footprints we leave behind.”McQuiston II, John. Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living,15th Anniversary Edition, Revised (Kindle Locations 387-391). Church Publishing Inc. Kindle Edition.
Contentment comes from believing that there is such a thing as enough, and being satisfied with it.
Love Connect Us
The third assumption here besides abundance and enough-ness, is that we are connected to each other in a deeply significant way. Someone else’s need speaks to me. You and I, and all humans on the planet, are connected in a web of relationships so that someone else’s need is a call for my response.
I do not want to use words like obligation or responsibility, which sound like rules and duty, because I believe our connections are deeper. I would never say I was obligated or responsible to feed and shelter my sons. Of course, I fed and sheltered them; they were my children! Any parent who would only feed and shelter their children because they felt obliged or responsible to an authority, we would say, had failed to love their children. In the end, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is basic and fundamental.
Do the Right Thing
John continues as others ask what they should do in preparation for the coming of Messiah and the kingdom of God. Tax collectors must not use their positions to defraud people. In other words, they should act justly. Tax collection is a governmental function. The government is held to a standard here to act justly.
Some people have argued that the ethics of Jesus and the New Testament are strictly personal ethics. But that is not the case. Governmental functions are included in the demands of justice.
Similarly, soldiers must not use the power of coercion to extort people. Might does not make right. The ends do not justify the means. Again, the connection between people must be respected. Violence, and threats of violence, are dehumanizing.
How does this text speak to us? First, it is amazing that Jesus moved away from that harsh, judgmental, violent conception of God. Even though the Hebrew Bible is filled with violence as God’s tool, even calling God a warrior, Jesus revolutionized our understanding of God. Later in the New Testament, we read,
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”(1 John 4)
Second, we see here so clearly that when we become aware that the kingdom of God is present, here, spiritually, it immediately has material implications. There is a materiality to spirituality. The two are tightly connected.
What does repentance look like? It looks like justice. It looks like clothing and feeding the poor. It looks like social justice. It looks like human rights. There is no such thing as genuine spirituality that does not seek God’s will to be done on earth, in the material world.
This is an inspiring vision. This is why we do what we do here. We welcome everyone and share a positive gospel of a God of love. We practice personal spirituality, we meditate, we pray, we worship with gratitude. We believe in abundance, and we believe that enough is enough.
We practice the materiality of spirituality, as well, by feeding the hungry, providing for ministries of compassion, justice, and advocacy. We shelter children and help people get back on their feet.
And we keep reminding ourselves of the vision of the kingdom: a vision of a world reconciled, a world healed, a world of brotherhood and sisterhood where there are no more coatless or hungry people, no oppressed or extorted people, and no violence done to anyone.