The Gospel: 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.
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that have you inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
You will remember that last week I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the word "Wilderness." We looked at the people of Israel and their "Wilderness" experiences. The people of Israel journeyed through the "Wilderness" from their time of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They learned to be in relationship with God in the "Wilderness." Then they experienced "Wilderness" again when they went into the Babylonian captivity. In that experience, they had to relearn how to know and to hear God.
I talked about how John the Baptist began his ministry in the "Wilderness." He proclaimed his message in the "Wilderness" and people came to hear him. This week, in Luke's Gospel, and we hear the details of John's message.
Luke tells us how people come out to hear John, they leave the comfortable and secure setting of the villages and towns, perhaps even the cities and they come to hear this unusual man and his message in the "Wilderness"
John could never be accused of being diplomatic in his presentation of his message, or in his response to the people. Within the first few sentences of this morning's reading, he describes the people as "a brood of vipers." He goes on to reject their claim to any kind of theological or spiritual heritage. He rejects their claims to connection to Abraham. He warns that an ax is being laid to the family tree and that any tree not bearing "good" fruit will be "thrown into the fire."
What do the people do?
I have to say I am surprised. The people don't get angry with John. They don't threaten him. They don't blame their situation on anyone else. They don't argue and reject his claims. They don't pack up their belongings and just go home. What do they do? They ask the question: "What then should we do?"
Wow! Now that is some kind of preaching. You use words, descriptions, and threatening language, that in any normal context would be considered insulting and denigrating and the people you are talking to want to know what their response should be. They want to know what they can do to amend their lives. How can they change? What are the next steps they should take?
Not very long ago I was asked for a short description of what I thought the role of a preacher or preaching should be? I have heard a wide variety of descriptions, but I have to say that the one that is close to the top of my list is: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I didn't create that description. I am not that clever. But I have to say it encapsulates what I hope might happen on some Sundays when I stand up to share my thoughts on any given passage of Scripture.
I know that there are people in the congregation who desperately need to hear something that will bring them comfort and reassurance. I understand that often people come to church looking for what they are familiar with. They feel challenged and sometimes they feel battered by the circumstances of their life. They come to church looking to be reassured, they know that there is a place where they can be reassured.
I also know that there are likely to be some people who are feeling fairly settled and at ease in their relationship with the church and perhaps even with the Lord. They are OK with how things are and not necessarily looking for things to be different. I hope perhaps that these people will be a little shaken by what they experience in worship.
So, I hope that those who need assurance and affirmation will receive it. While those who need to be shaken up will also receive something they might consider. If on any given Sunday someone was to leave with the question "What should we do?" running through their mind I think I would be happy to have been a part of that.
A few weeks ago I said I thought that perhaps I would take some time to talk about the prayer we pray each before the Sermon. I am not going to look at the whole prayer this morning, but I thought I would look at the first and last sections.
In the beginning, we affirm that the Holy Spirit will be with us. Then we say that we are depending on the Holy Spirit being active among us. The words we use are very purposeful. I wonder how many of us carry that expectation with us into the week? Do we look for the activity of the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives?
Then at the end of the prayer, we pray that the Lord will empower our application. What do we mean by that?
Are there things that we will attempt to do differently in the coming week because of the message of the Sermon and the message of the Eucharist? Will we seek to remember what we heard and what we did today on Tuesday or Wednesday? What would it look like if the Lord did indeed empower our application?
Now I spoke briefly last week about how we view prophets. What we expect their message to us to be. When the people ask John what they should do he gives them a list of things that they might consider correcting. They ask "What should we do?"
This morning I want to take a slightly different approach to John. I believe it is the same message but presented in a slightly different way. I believe that what John is asking of us this morning is that we consider our priorities. To ask ourselves what or who gets preference in our lives?
When John responds to each of the groups who ask "What should we do?" he gives them specific answers. When he addresses the crowd he challenges them to be generous with what they have. When he addresses the tax collectors he challenges them to have integrity in their dealings with others. When he addresses the soldiers he challenges them to not abuse the power that they have over others.
What do we think that John would say to us in this time and place? Well, I have to think that it would have something to do with how we prioritize our time. How much time in our week do we allow ourselves to consider "the things of God?"
Do we make room for the Holy Spirit? Do we expect that we will have moments this week when we are aware of the presence of "the Holy" in our lives? Do we allow ourselves the time to ask the question: "what should we do?" Then do we allow time for the answer to come to us?
Brother Keith Nelson shared, in one of the SSJE sermons, this week, entitled Night Life, how Jesus would take time to pray. Jesus would actually spend the whole night in prayer.
I find that concept very difficult. There have been times when I have attempted to pray, for a long period of time, but I don't know that I have ever prayed all night. Of course, I don't think that is the point that Brother Keith was trying to make. What he was really trying to do is remind us that we need to make the things of God, of prayer, a priority in our lives.
Brother Keith put it this way in his Sermon: "Like sponges, our waking lives become quickly saturated: full of relationships, interactions, activity, stimuli, the expectations of others, the demands we place upon ourselves, the tug of our past and our future. This is a kind of fullness, though unfulfilling without respite. Without some empty space, there will be no room for God to abide. In order to fully live out our callings, to make wise and inspired choices directed by God’s will, to become conduits of God’s healing, or to offer words that reflect Christ’s good news, we must come to know the withdrawal of Christ to the lonely mountaintops, if only from time to time. We must come to know the silence and darkness of night and the curtain of rest it gathers around us. We must come to know a space set apart for God to work in us, and to allow time for such work to unfold without our help or our surveillance."
Brother Keith goes on to say that unless we are willing to separate ourselves and spend time with God, we are at risk of missing God.
"Otherwise, we are in danger of a bloated, blinding, loud, and supremely self-directed journey with God. Our choices will reflect our own will. Our words to others will be mere self-engineered problem-solving. Our words of good news will become platitudes and well-wishing. Our spirits will be stuck at noonday, and fluorescent bulbs will eclipse the flickering of candle or star. We will be awake from dusk until dawn, as Jesus was. But we will now know the night."
What richness we may experience if we are willing to follow Jesus' example. We will be better equipped to answer the question: "what should we do?"
" Jesus deliberately withdrew from the actions and encounters that others had come to recognize as sure proof of his special nature and identity. We do not know the contents of Jesus’s nocturnal prayer. But we have come to know that a pure, prodigal love guided him more surely than the noonday sun in his darkest moments, and that the same love – his love in us – burns pure and clear. Such love grows deep and bold in a space apart, swaddled by the night, with no witness but God alone. And then, spent beyond counting, we meet the new day, new joys, new possibilities, spending the fullness that only God can give."