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But this is not mid-town Manhattan and this is no Macy's extravaganza. It has been something of a parade though, as people trekked out to the desert to hear this strange man. He IS an astonishing preacher, we have to grant. Not many would start out the way he does - he stands before the assembled crowd, stares at them with a look of scarcely-disguised disgust, then bellows, "You are a bunch of SNAKES!!!" Wow. That should get a congregation's attention.
The crowd is equally amazing. After this phenomenal insult, they must know that it is downhill from here, but they stay. "Vipers...the wrath to come...repentance...trees cut down and burned...winnowing fork...unquenchable fire." What was John trying to do? Scare the hell out of the people...literally? And then there is the gospel writer's remarkable conclusion to this drama: "And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them." GOOD NEWS? Right!!!
What do you think? Was John's preaching "good news?" I wonder. Actually, I do not wonder. I think it WAS and IS good news, because John, in his unique way, was saying there is hope for us, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, we are not stuck with our worst selves. We can change. We can be different. We can be better...better, perhaps, than we ever thought possible. And I, for one, think that is good news indeed.
Spend a few minutes with me looking carefully at John's message. The heart of it is repentance, that good $2.00 "churchy" word that means, not only being sorry for your sins, but being sorry enough to QUIT! The Greek behind the word repentance reflects a changing of the mind, a 180-degree shift. The world outside the church says very little about repentance because the world outside the church is not convinced that such a thing is really possible: "A leopard cannot change its spots," "Can't teach an old dog new tricks," and all that. At this time of year, we hear a great deal about Scrooge...always a metaphor for someone who is mean-spirited, miserly, and miserable. But the Scrooge of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" repented, and by the end of the story becomes a generous warm-hearted benefactor. Why do we remember only the rotten in him? Is it because the world remains unconvinced of the possibility of change? Or perhaps it is that misery loves company. If no one else can change, neither should I be expected to change. John says WRONG!!!
In that context, we begin to get a better understanding of his talk about "vipers" and fleeing "the wrath to come." You see, standing on the edge of the wilderness, John is using wilderness talk. The picture he envisions is of those desert grass fires that are nature's way of removing old dead growth to allow new grass to grow. When those flames sweep across the desert floor, indigenous creatures - including snakes - run for escape. Thus, it would not be unusual to come across a brood of creepy-crawlies where you might not expect them - like right beside the river where they would hope to be safe! John is not simply in the name-calling business here, but he IS calling a spade a spade. He knows that the people have traveled out to him and are ready for his baptism because they see it as a sort of fire insurance. They are escaping from God's refining fire, just as snakes escape the desert's fire, and John says that ought not happen. As desert fires clear out old growth to make room for the new, John wants the people ready to have the dross and dead wood removed from their lives. The word he uses for the process is repentance.
But John is not content with someone saying, "Sorry." Don't just talk the talk, walk the walk. John says, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." The phrase "in keeping with" [Gr. axios] has as its root the image of a balance scale. One side needs to weigh the same as the other side. It has the idea of being "worth the same as" or "equivalent to" or "measuring up to."(1) In other words, your talk might declare that you have cleaned up your act - repented - but your walk will SHOW it.
John's next comments are as apt for today and tomorrow as they were for the people who stood there listening to him: "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." In other words, don't you dare say, "This does not apply to me; I am a church member...have been all my life; I'm OK, John." Don't dare say, "I'm saved; I was born again on July 18, 1985 at a city-wide crusade; I'm 'washed in the blood of the Lamb,' so John's words don't worry me." Don't dare say, "I read my Bible and pray everyday; I'm at church every time the doors are open - John is not talking to me." Maybe. Maybe not. The truth is that more folks than we care to admit sow their wild oats for six days a week then on the seventh day come in to church to pray for a crop failure. John's message is that your religion MUST make a difference in the way you live in the world and the way you treat people; if it does not, your religion is not worth the dead grass that is burned up in a prairie fire. God is interested in your FRUITS, not your ROOTS!
OK. We buy that, John. Now what? To the preacher's credit, he does not hesitate: "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." In other words, in the jargon of the trade, John has now "stopped preachin' and gone to meddlin'." It is one thing to stand in the pulpit and rail against sin, injustice, oppression - everyone shouts AMEN...HALLELUJAH...PREACH, BROTHER! - but it is quite another to tell folks to start giving their stuff away. That is "meddlin'."
Perhaps you have heard the story of two farmers whose lands shared a common border. They were talking about how much they cared for each other. Jack said, "Joe, if you had two tractors, you'd give me one?"
Jack said, "And if you had two bulls, you'd give me one?"
Joe replied, "Right!"
Jack: "And if you had two calves, you'd give me one?"
Joe answered, "Now, Jack, you KNOW I've got two calves!"(2)
John says, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." That does fly in the face of the way we celebrate Christmas, doesn't it? How many new coats will be under the tree this year? How much feasting will go on? Someone has suggested that when we share the extra coat, we might discover that we suddenly have more closet space at home without the cost of more fancy racks or building on another room. When we who have plenty of food share it with someone who is hungry, we might discover a way to drop those ten extra pounds we picked up over Thanksgiving. That may all be true, but I would not imagine John buying that as appropriate motivation. We share because it is RIGHT to share. PERIOD! If you want do right, then DO IT! Jesse Jackson has said, "It is easier to walk your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of walking."(3) Did you hear that? Listen again: "It is easier to walk your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of walking." John would say Amen!
"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."
This was new. Tax collectors were a hated bunch for two reasons: 1) they were seen as traitors, having gone to work for the enemy - Rome, and 2) because they made their money by extorting as much as they could get away with from their neighbors; they paid Rome a certain amount each year for the right to go out and collect even more - whatever they brought in over and above Rome's requirement, they could keep for themselves. John says take only what is reasonable and no more. This would be a big change.
No problem with that today, right? Well. In 2002, the average CEO compensation package equaled $10.83 million according to the New York Times. While pay cuts for the most richly rewarded CEOs reduced the size of the average compensation package, most CEOs actually got pay raises. Median CEO pay increased by 6 percent last year - more than twice the growth of workers' paychecks. How much did you make? And while shareholders - including workers who depend on the stock market for their retirement savings and pensions - lost some $7 trillion by the time the market finished its collapse, today's CEO pay packages are roughly equal to the levels attained back in the glory days. At the same time workers' retirement savings have suffered through the worst stock market decline since the Great Depression, hundreds of millions of dollars have been doled out in special retirement plan deals to executives.(4) Hmm. Is any of this fair or right? What do you think John would say?
"Then some soldiers asked [John], "And what should we do?"
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely - be content with your pay."
We probably have less struggle with avoiding extortion than being satisfied with our wages, especially when those executive compensation packages come up. We struggle with the idea that what we make is a reflection of our worth in society, and we are offended. We ought not to be, but we are. John says be careful.
Good advice. Solid. Reasonable. For those who were serious about leading lives that would please God, what John had to say offered hope. His suggestions were not beyond the reach of anyone. Perhaps that is why he made such a profound impression on the crowds. Could John be the Messiah, the Anointed One? The one who would lead the Chosen People back to the greatness of King David's day? No. John says, "One more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
Ready or not, here he comes. "You'd better watch out/You'd better not cry/You'd better not pout/I'm tellin' you why... No, not Santa. One whose "winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." At first blush, this does not sound like someone I would look forward to. But in the context of what John has just told us - that change IS possible, that you and I CAN be better than we are, and that reasonable measures taken can MAKE us better - then the coming...the Advent...of this newcomer is good news indeed. Ready or not, here he comes. Are you ready?
To be honest, probably not. We would rather be the snakes in the desert who are content to run to the river for safe haven from the flames. Are there things in our lives that ought not to be? Are there people who have been neglected who need our love and attention? Has life become too hectic, too wrapped up in the pursuit of passing fancies? Probably. And that is precisely why we need the season of Advent...not simply to let us know that there is a diminishing number of shopping days till Christmas, but for the expected use of this time for reflection, for introspection, for taking spiritual inventory, and, yes, even for change. Ready or not, here he comes. Are you ready?
For those who are, I have good news indeed. Because those changes in our lives bring with them something wonderful. No wonder the Apostle Paul could write the Philippians and tell them to "Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, Rejoice!...The Lord is near." Ready or not, here he comes. And the Lord's nearness results in what Paul calls "the peace that transcends understanding." Be on the alert for the signs and symptoms. They come up on you like joyous floats rounding the corner in your own Macy's parade:
1. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #8952, 12/7/03
2. John Lohr, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1997 12 14," #17, 12/9/97
3. Quoted by Brian Stoffregen in "Gospel Notes"