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“Meet-Up with John the Baptist”
Sermon on Luke 3:1-18
2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent, Year C
The first sentence of Luke Chapter 3 reads like a “Who’s Who” of the ancient world: Tiberius is emperor, Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, the Herod brothers have authority over the Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas are in charge of religious matters. Luke has described the temporal hierarchy that ordered life in first century Palestine. People knew that Tiberius, Pilate and the Herods controlled their destinies, and Luke, writing his Gospel about the power of God over the events of history, still gives credit where credit is due: the people he names are the main players on the world stage in 28 CE, which is the best guess of historians as to when John and then Jesus began their ministries.
Tiberius and his underlings are the main players, but the “word of God” does not come to them. It does not come to anyone in the imperial palace, or the city centers, or the law courts, or even the temple of Jerusalem. It comes to an outspoken desert-dweller named John, the first real prophet in three hundred years, who preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John didn’t go into the cities and towns and villages looking for people to hear what he had to say. He stayed out in the desert, so people had to go looking for him. It seems they were looking for an authentic word from the Lord, and had decided they were not going to hear it from their appointed religious authorities.
They came out in droves, apparently, to be yelled at by John. He castigated them for their insincerity and presumptuousness, comparing them to poisonous snakes slithering away from a fire. And yet people kept coming to hear him and be baptized by him. They weren’t put off by his repellent appearance and abrasive speech – they saw and heard truth in him. There was something bracing and tonic in what John had to say, something their spirits, not their egos, were longing for. Out in the wilderness, in the place where God had formed Israel as a people and led them to the Promised Land, John’s followers believed they could make a new start in life, too.
We don’t know exactly who John’s followers were. Matthew tells us that the Sadducees and Pharisees, members of the religious establishment, trekked out to hear John, but Luke says nothing about these groups – Luke emphasizes the “crowds” that flocked to listen to him. “Crowds” is a bit of a euphemism: what is implied is something more like “the riffraff” or even “the misfits.” So it was probably a mixed crowd, made up of both religious insiders and outsiders, and John did them all the honor of chewing them out. For those who were used to being on the margins of things, used to being “held of no account” by the people who ran things, this call to repentance was an act of pure grace – because John, at least, was taking them seriously. And in speaking to these “crowds” in the desert, John offered a foretaste of Jesus’s ministry to prostitutes, tax collectors, mercenary soldiers, and other despised people. As for the insiders, John was putting them on notice that they could no longer hide behind their titles, fancy clothes or reputation in the community -- someone was coming whose perfect righteousness would be a judgment on everyone.
What John was saying, to both the elites and the riffraff, is that it doesn’t matter who you are, religiously speaking. It doesn’t matter whether you are a cradle Presbyterian or unaffiliated with any church, whether you are an elder or a deacon or a Stephen Minister or a pastor. What matters is how alive you are to the call and demand of God, how ready you are see things from God’s point of view and to change your attitudes and actions to conform to God’s vision.
It is not a feel-good message John brings, but John was not interested in making people feel good – he was interested in making them ready for the advent of God’s Messiah.
It is appropriate that this meet-up with John was happening out in the desert, in the wilderness. In the Bible the wilderness is a place of testing. It’s where the faithfulness of the Israelites was tested for forty years; it’s where Elijah ran away from trouble only to be told to get back to the job he had been commissioned to do; it’s where Jesus was tempted by the devil to be someone other than who God meant for him to be. The wilderness is where the people of God have their thoughts and their actions examined, tried, and purified.
The wilderness was also where people expected change to originate. In the first century all kinds of popular movements for social and political change started in the desert. It was where revolutionary groups gathered armies and where separatist religious groups built communes. Counter-cultural movements began in the desert, and John was definitely counter-cultural.
But John wasn’t trying to start a movement – he was just pointing the way to someone even greater coming after him. There would be no revolution, no coup d’état -- Tiberius and Pilate and the Herods could rest secure. The one about to come would not overturn the ruling hierarchy in any visible way. There wouldn’t be any movement for sweeping political change coming out of the desert, no program for social renewal – in John’s movement the thing that people were supposed to change was themselves. “What then shall we do?” the people asked. The changes John asked them to make were simple: to share what they had with the poor, not to cheat anyone, even in the most subtle or legal way, and not to use their power for intimidation or blackmail.
John’s advice really isn’t very difficult to follow, at least not on the individual level: share, don’t cheat, don’t be a bully. This is advice I assume all of us already follow. It’s not nearly as radical as the advice Jesus would give when he arrived: turn the other cheek, give up your possessions, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, don’t judge.
However, John’s advice seems to be challenging enough on a social, collective level. As a nation, we seem to have become so paralyzed by fear that we have been moving in a direction of greater insularity, making a deeper retreat from the world and its needs. People who came here as immigrants in the 70s or 80s or even 90s often say that the country just feels different now than when they were new here – that Americans no longer seem to be living up to our great reputation for generosity and openheartedness.
There was an article in last Sunday’s Post about what the author, Rob Reich, called “philanthropic inequality.” Because tax incentives for giving are heavily skewed toward the wealthiest donors, the very rich have become the main givers in our national economy. That sounds logical enough, but the very wealthy give primarily to the arts, hospitals and higher education, not to the poor. Middle class and poor people give mostly to churches and other religious organizations. But neither the wealthy nor the middle class give as much as a percentage of income as the poor themselves – in other words, in proportion to income the poor give the most to meet the needs of the poor.[i]
“What then should we do?” The force of John’s call to repentance is to remind us that changing ourselves also means reaching out to a world in need. It seems that we need to do more than practice private virtue -- we need to be a voice and a presence for compassion, fairness, and gentleness.
“What then should we do?” It doesn’t have to be anything heroic.
- Give a little more of our own resources;
- Think about going on a mission trip, or supporting someone else to go;
- Get involved with the SERVE meals program;
- Visit someone who is homebound and lonely;
- Tutor an at-risk child;
- Do yard work for an elderly neighbor;
- Ask someone who is grieving to tell you about the person they have lost;
- Make a gesture of friendliness toward that difficult co-worker no one seems to get along with.
I am sure you can come up with your own list. None of these things will change the world -- ultimately, we have to leave that to God. But these are small acts of resistance against the forces of indifference, selfishness and hardheartedness.
John’s call to repentance, in whatever form that has to take, is the theme of Advent. John’s message may sound harsh and impolite as the Christian world prepares for the birth in Bethlehem, but the emphasis on repentance is exactly right. Advent is the season of taking an inventory of the human situation, with its multiple cruelties and senseless sufferings. It’s the season when we consider once again our role in a world that seems helpless in the face of destructive forces – whether those forces come from outside us or within us – and realize our need for someone greater than ourselves to come and set things right..
The purpose of Advent is to remind us that we can’t get to Jesus without first meeting up with John out in the wilderness, that place of testing. That is not a comfortable place to be, and John’s words are not very comforting.
So what do we gain by meeting up with John and answering his call to repentance? We make ourselves ready to meet the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with holy fire, God’s Messiah, who comes for the salvation of the world. In him, the kingdom of God draws near.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018
[i] Rob Reich, “How the super-wealthy are shaping charitable giving,” The Washington Post , Dec. 2, 2018, B2.