Going through the motions
We are now at the third Sunday of advent, already two full weeks into the new year…the Christian new year.
This is a time of preparation for almost everyone around us. The Jews are already in their season of Chanukah -- the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of Kislev 25 or this year (Friday) December 11. The festival-- celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality. I would like to suggest that if you know a Jewish family that you wish them a Happy Chanukah. Listening to that brief description of that festival I am reminded that it is not very hard to find connections to our adopted Jewish roots.
We celebrate the Triumph of Light over darkness as Jesus came into the world. The gift of imputed righteousness as we receive the gift of Jesus perfection on our souls. And we are reminded with phrases like Jesus is the reason for the season that our celebration is also about a focus on the spiritual event over material things. Chanukah last for 8 days while our season of Christian preparation last for 4 weeks.
We are picking up with the story of the beginning of John the Baptist ministry this week. Last week we were reminded that the basis of John’s message was par of the prophecy form Isaiah. That the Voice would come from the wilderness calling the people to get ready, prepare for the arrival of the Lord.
As he preached along the river Jordan at places where people gathered , people responded by being baptized as a sigh of their repentance. Baptism indicated that mountains of arrogance and greed were leveled. And that sins of abuse and hate were covered over preparing that person, identifying the person’s relationship with God.
What we heard about John’s message last week was a quote about what his message as the herald of God would include. This week gets a bit more specific.
Starting at verse 7:
“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."”
My first thought is that John is not using any of the tested techniques that we might find in the book, “How to win friends and influence people.”
Dude, this crowd can out her to hear you message, don’t run them off or make them mad before you give the invitation.
It seems that John just goes straight to the point. He might have said you sinful generation some other historical prophet phrase to remind the people of their condition. Instead he uses a word picture.
I was reminded of my Boy Scout days as I tried to understand the image. What I remembered was that my scout master did not like to go camping in the middle of summer. He took us on trips that involved hikes starting in the fall and ended before spring started warming up.
You might think he was avoiding the heat. But in reality he was doing everything in his power to avoid contact with snakes.
Basically, really did not like snakes. Every year as the troop would prepare for our first trip we would talks about safety. There was the Toten Chip card orientation that allowed you to carry a pocket knife and ax. , fire safety, first aid drills, then there was a lot of time spent on snakes. He encouraged hiking sticks that you used to pat the ground as we walked. Of course everyone had to have hiking boots with high tops. Never forget to shake out you boots before you put them on. When a log crossed the trail the first person in line could not just step across the log. They were supposed to tap the log and us their foot the shake it as much as possible.
The idea is that snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them…..I am not sure that is exactly true in all cases. The important thing in training was that every scout needed to make sure that we did not surprise a snake…basically of they felt you coming with the tapping and stomping and rocking that would take off like a shot to avoid the potential danger.
John has called the crowds that hear about the baptism of repentance as people that are running form destruction. Running from the approaching wrath of God.
John asks a rhetorical question about who warned them…indirectly John warned them. The crowd was responding to what topple told them about this prophet down by the river that offered a warning and forgiveness of sins.
He tells them to produce fruit with ….with repentance. Basically, I suggest that meant that repentance, real repentance causes change….Real repentance bring something good into the world.
However going through the motions does not do anything. There are no people that are guaranteed a relationship with God because of the father and mother or because of the promise made to the head of the family Abraham. Because, God can raise up other children in the family line and keep his promise to Abraham.
Most of us understand or at least have ear that our salvation is a personal experience. We don’t have to have a family with a God connection to qualify. An John is even more specific to tell his hearers that you if you do it does not automatically give you a good resume or special consideration either.
In fact, John tells them that the axe is ready to take out trees that are not producing and destroy them.
John’s sharing of God’s message gets a response form the crowd. Most of them would be well aware of the requirements of the law. Not they submitted to theis call for baptism….
John is not talking nice to them now….. It makes me think that they were just heading down to the river to submit to the next Opera – fad. They are looking in the self help section to learn what some expert sez will make them right with God. Then they plane to head home and live life as usual…..
John is telling them that there has to be a change….The temporary repentance , the special rock in their pocket, the new prayer words don’t mean a thing if their daily life is not changed.
The crowds are convicted. They can feel that something is wrong. They have repented like always and they went down into the water and they are waiting for assuring words like the priest always used…you offering is accepted and God had covered your sins….
This prophet leaves them on the hook. What does he want form them so they can feel better.
So they ask, "What should we do then?" the crowd asked.
John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."
John’s answer is fairly simple. What do we do, Clean house and share. Do you have more clothes than you need? Give them away to some one that has a need. Can you share some food with those that are hungry, do that.
He does not send them on some difficult quest. He simply tells the crowd the same thing that my mother tried to teach me since I started understanding words. The change he ask the crowd of people to step up to is to help the poor. To not be greedy or resist doing the right thing.
It seems that there were some Government contractors in the crowd. They did not just receive the simple instruction to share. They were wealthy because of their jobs. It is not clear that of they thought themselves to be better than the common folks. It might have been that they felt separate because they were considered to be unclean. They were working for the Romans and considered to be dishonest. The scripture says,
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.
Wait a second, John does not tell them to repay anyone. When he is asked how they should respond. He tells them to only charge what they were supposed to charge. No extra fees or interest or special tax options.
Their repentance and baptism set them right with God. Be honest and just do what is right.
Then John speaks to some soldiers, That ask the same question.
"And what should we do?"
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."
There is a chance that these were Roman Soldiers assigned to protect the tax collectors or perhaps just present for crowd control. John tells them to do their job and to not Increase their income by holding people up with threats.
Be content ….with their pay.
That seems so simple, perhaps even too easy.
John’s call for repentance, genuine repentance opened their eyes to a knowledge that something specific was wrong in their lives.
Over at the temple the priest insisted that they had to bring an offering of the highest quality. This ritual required an offering that cost them something.
The priest processed the offering, said some magic words and sent them on their way.
It is very likely that after each trip to the temple people went home unchanged.
They went through the motions required by the Law of Moses and went back to life and were unchanged by the forgiveness ritual.
Back to the same environment, same job, the same set of activities and choices. Then next month, or next year they were back at the temple making the offering like they were supposed to do and the cycle starts again.
John’s message starts with identification that the people are snakes looking for a way of avoiding destruction.
Like real snakes they can’t clearly hear or see what is coming they just feel it.
They are running around searching for protection, looking for insurance.
Here comes this prophet, John that calls for repentance and the sign of baptism.
They are tired of being scared and submit to John’s baptism looking for a divine fix for their flaws so they can move on and feel better.
But they don’t find instant peace and assurance.
John’s message leaves them on the hot seat.
They know that something must change….but they think that the answer is not obvious to them.
The stuff they are doing has been the same at lease since the Romans took over.
The people worked and found little pleasures. Perhaps worshipped at some of those Roman festivals form time to time. What harm could there be.
And everyone knows that when we work as hard as we do should get to keep and enjoy all of it. We earned it.
Tax collectors were no different. They worked to make a living on commission. They had a quota to keep. The Romans expected the taxes to be collected and turned in on time. Such a high stress job needs some perks and who will really miss a few pens and note pads or the longer lunch hours.
The third group were people with power, they had physical power and represented imperial power.
However, everyone in the government gets to boss you around, even those Jewish tax collectors. It looks like everyone else is making a buck on this deal, why not them. It is easy to use training and ability to push for what we want. To use position for personal gain and influence instead of for the overall good.
The problems of the people in John’s day are not any different than what we experience today.
Most of us have heard our kids say, “every one elst is doing it…” Everyone else’s parents let this or that happen.
You hear something similar from adults as well.
- Some people say everyone is cheating on their taxes.
- Everyone else speeds on that road.
- Everyone else gets to have a nice car and a new cell phone.
- That move only has a little bad language or nudity.
I had a business partner once that explained his view of paying taxes as being as clear as black and white.
- He liked the try to stay in the white (right) as much as possible.
- He did his best to avoid entering the black or clearly wrong things.
However he really enjoyed dancing in the grey area that existed between the two zones.
I believe that most people have a similar view of our life choices today.
It is as simple as black and white. However, our culture has a really broad grey zone.
It is ok to ignore the needs of the poor. That is the government’s job.
Which leads poor people to worship the government. Grey?
It is ok to get involved in shady deals because it is all about making money and being comfortable. Grey?
It is ok to watch movies filled with violence, nudity and language because “pretend” can never hurt you. Grey?
I heard a report on the radio yesterday about the environmental conference. The biggest group of protestors are insisting that the biggest problem we have is over population and that all nations need to implement Chinas one child policy. Including all the gruesome control methods that China uses to enforce the policy.
Using the cells from aborted babies to heal some adult’s illness…Grey?
-- My point, the grey area between right and wrong grows exponentially if we allow the culture to define what is acceptable.
John tells the people to share, be honest and to be content.
He calls them to change to a simpler definition of Black and white and to not depend on the ritual or religion and not family’s faith.
Our reading today includes the idea that people were wondering if John was the Christ. And John describes his relationship on the org chart as being the lowest of servants in comparison to the One that is to come.
This preparation offered by John is to help them to be ready for the arrival of the king.
This advent season is a time when our preparations often leave us with an uncomfortable feeling. We feel the pull of the cultural White and Red and are drawn into the pink area of Christmas expectations and the grey of right and wrong.
If we feel uncomfortable in this time of preparation we need to look at John’s recommendations. Share what you have with those that are in need. Not just money food and materials but perhaps more importantly you time.
Be honest in all of your dealings financially, relationally and spiritually.
Be content with what you have and what you are called to do.
Those are the simple preparations for the coming of our king. They are the little things that allow you to enjoy the Christmas season and the waiting on our lord’s return.
All Glory be to God.