Here Comes the Hard Part

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 12, 2021

Scripture: 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. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Here we are at the third week of Advent, closer and closer to Christmas, to the birth of Jesus, and instead of a story about Jesus, we get a story about his cousin John, whom some scholars believe was also Jesus’ major rival.

What’s more, this is one of those stories that bigots over the centuries have turned into anti-Semitic propaganda.

What’s up with that?  Why this story?  Why here, and what does this story mean for us today?  

Our reading takes place in a particular place, at a particular time, and it’s helpful to understand that.  The Israelites of that day, lived in an occupied country.  They were used to what that meant; in the Middle East of that time, their land was the main highway between the Egyptians and the Persians, the two main powers of their world.  If you know European history, it’s something like the situation of Alsace and Lorraine in the decades of war between France and Germany, or something like Catalunya or the Basque country in Spain.  In other words, not only did they not have much control over their land, but they were always in danger of just plain disappearing, being assimilated into the dominant culture.

Along with the cultural questions, the religious leaders of the time were expected to help keep the peace in the occupation of the land by the Romans, and the government of the many and various, but equally slimy Herods, not one of whom was worth a red cent.  The poorer you were, the less power you had, the less you trusted the Herods, and the less you thought of the heads of the Temple in Jerusalem, who couldn’t win for losing.  

If they stood up for the am-haaretz, the poor of their country, the Herod of the day, or the Roman governor would smash them down.  

If they supported the Romans, they ran the risk of rebellion.  

Into that context stood John the Baptist, trying to call folks to repentance, naming names, and getting into trouble.    

There’s one level on which this is a story about the conflict between taking care of  yourself and doing the right things.  It’s a story about people who, bereft of effective leaders, begin to take things easy.  It’s a story about the foundations belief in Judaism that right believe is shown by right behavior.  Yes, it’s a story about specific people in a specific time, but it is not just about them, and then.  It is a story which applies to here, and now, and to every time and place where we are tempted to substitute saying the right things to living in the right way.

John says that some folks have been defending their wrong actions by claiming that they don’t have to worry, that they “have Abraham as their ancestor”… to which he responds, “big deal.  God can make descendants for Abraham by the dozen; you didn’t do anything to make that happen.  If you can’t be bothered to live up to Abraham, you won’t last long.”

You know, it’s not about literally being a descendant of Abraham.  It’s about privilege, the thing that these days, we call “white privilege”.  And around here, sure it’s about being white.  But it’s also the privilege of having been born here, having gone to a better school than others, being smarter, having more resources, or any number of other things that give us a step up in the world.  John’s saying that having been given that step up, we now need to live up to it, and help the world around us.

Then he starts telling how – share what you have with those who don’t have enough.  Do your jobs honestly, don’t cheat, don’t over charge.  This isn’t a place for a long list; he’s simply responding to the jobs the people there have, and pointing out how they could do them more faithfully.  

So, what he’s really saying is that, whatever you have – money, power, influence – use it to make things better.  Be honest, be loving, be just, be merciful.  Live out your faith.  Be who you say you are.

He’s saying that we’re no longer bound by the expectations of our world.  Instead, we are freed to live under the commitments of our faith.  We don’t have to stop with what we think is possible; we are freed to think towards what needs to be done.  It’s not about the limits of possibility or practicality; it’s about the call to build on God’s foundations – what does our world need?  How can we get there?

Today in the Christian Calendar, is Joy Sunday.  that started because Advent had been celebrated as a kind of Lent, no meat, no eggs, no fun… and this Sunday was a day off from that denial.  But today, it’s Joy Sunday, because on this day we see the practical meaning of the idea that we are freed from the sin of living within custom and assumption.  Today, we see how Jesus will show us how to strike off the bonds that prevent sharing, block love, make it too easy to think “me and mine first”.

Today is Joy Sunday because today we see the first signs of our freedom coming, a new and better way to live.  And that is the best thing of all about Christmas.


© 2021 Virginia H. Child

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