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What Should We Do?

Advent Sermon

(Luke 3:7-18)


John the Baptist is the commanding figure at every Advent season; and he appears, this odd-looking man of God dressed in a camel hair tunic and leather belt. Probably bearded and hair blowing all over the place in the wind, this counter-cultural man was not easily missed.

When we think of the greatest men and women of the Bible, we think of Moses, Abraham, David, Ruth, Esther, Elijah, Peter, and Paul, and yet, Jesus says that there was no one born who is greater than John the Baptist. What made John stand out so much that Christ singles him out as the greatest human being born?

John was Spirit-filled – right from his mother’s womb, the scriptures teach us.

Most Christians tend to minimize the Holy Spirit’s role in their lives. We need to realize that it’s the Holy Spirit who draws people to belief in Jesus Christ. It’s the Holy Spirit who wants to work in our lives to mould us into the image of Christ. It’s the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with God and stands as our advocate and helper. No one can live a successful Christian life apart from the Holy Spirit’s enablement and empowerment. Every believer is indwelled by the Spirit, but not every believer is controlled by the Spirit. John was Spirit-filled.

John lived a separated life.

His food and clothing were far from fashionable. He lived a strict, separated and disciplined life; he didn’t drink and he didn’t conform to the world around him. King Herod feared John, because he knew John was a just and holy man; while Herod was a manipulative man, a crook and an adulterer. And of course, he had John put to death. We don’t know if John was a Nazarite or an Essene, but it’s quite possible he was.

John was completely steadfast in his stand.

He was uncompromising when it came to truth and righteousness. His message was never watered down to be more attractive to people. He called sin - sin and confronted the issue of sin regardless of whether he was speaking to the locals, the priests, the politicians or others in authority. He confronted everyone with the nearness of eternity and the judgement of God and he compelled people to understand what it means to be obedient to the word of God. We could do with a little more straight-talking ourselves. We’re so good at grumbling about things, talking about who’s doing what and wondering why they do it – but if someone actually dares to ask a direct question they get “Oh, you can’t do that – you might hurt someone’s feelings!” We’re allowed to praise someone in MCC, we can even gossip about them, but we mustn’t hold someone to account for their behaviour. Listen . . . if claim to love God and believe the Scriptures we need to live in truth, like John did. It doesn’t strengthen and grow anybody when we ignore our responsibilities and compromise at every turn.

John was totally submissive to the God’s Will

He recognized God’s call on his life very early on and gave himself completely to it. He was humble and refused to accept names and titles that people tried to put on him. When priests and Levites from Jerusalem came and ask him, "Who are you?" He told them straight, "I am not the Christ." “I am not Elijah.” “I am not a prophet.” So when they asked him, straight, "Who are you, so we can tell those who sent us?", John quotes Isaiah, "I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Make straight the pathway of the Lord," ’” Of Jesus, John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

John was a winner of souls.

The Gospel writer John says of John the Baptist, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness to the Light that all through him might believe. He was not the Light, but was sent to bear witness to that Light.” Jesus Christ called John “a burning and shining light.”

General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, once told his students, "If I had my choice, I wouldn’t send you to school, I’d send you to Hell for 5 minutes, then you’d come back real soul winners!" John’s heart was for God and for people to live in God’s love and holiness.

John speaks to people plainly and bluntly, without politeness or sensitivity; he’s even insulting at times.  He calls for people to be baptized, with a baptism of repentance, insisting that his fellow Jews begin again and receive baptism normally required only of non-Jewish converts to Judaism. And the people come in their droves to him eager for a fresh start, spiritually and soulfully hungry for God and what does John call them?  A viper's brood! He calls them a nest of snakes!

But his point is this: Before a holy God, no one can rely on who they are, what they do or what faithful ancestors did before them; and they can’t rely on John’s baptism of them in the river!  If they are truly repentant, if they have really undergone a complete change of mind and heart, then it must be shown outwardly in their behaviour and in how they live. Like a vine grower expects the vines to produce wonderful grapes, or the owner of an orchard expects to find luscious fruit at harvest time, so John tells the people they are expected to produce beautiful fruits of repentance.

Let’s look at some of the people who came to John:  

The tax collectors

Now, bear in mind that tax collectors in John's time and in that area represented an imperial occupying power – the Roman Empire - so in effect they are collecting money for the enemy.   They are also notorious for keeping the difference between what they could extort from the population and what Rome actually demanded.  Tax collecting is a lucrative business for anyone without a conscience and who selfishly only looks to feathering their own nest.

But the tax collectors have heard John’s message and have undergone a complete change.  So they ask him earnestly, "What should we do?"

John tells them straight! "Don’t collect more tax than is prescribed." He knows exactly what these people get up to. John’s message is so simple yet incredibly powerful and life-changing.

Some soldiers approach him 

Now, don’t be confused here – these men are not Roman soldiers. They are Jewish soldiers in the service of the local ruler who only governs at the pleasure of imperial Rome.  They are in the unenviable position of enforcing the will of Rome in their own homeland, over their own people.   Local patriots despise them, they are regarded as legitimate targets for Jewish Zealots (local guerrilla fighters) and many would regard them as traitors to the Jewish nation. And not surprisingly: they are known for threatening people for money, accepting bribes and for charging the innocent with petty crimes just to look powerful.

They ask John the same question as the tax collectors, "What shall we do?"

John doesn’t hesitate, "Don’t extort money from anyone by threats, don’t falsely accuse people; and be satisfied with your wages." John is not blind to their greed for money and for feeling powerful and he tells them exactly what they need to hear.

By far the majority of the crowd though, are not soldiers or tax collectors; they are not public figures in any sense. They are ordinary, local people, cut to the heart by John’s call to repentance and to show works of repentance.  They ask John about the fruit they must produce. "What are we to do?"

And he responds to them all, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

John the Baptist tells these tax collectors, soldiers, and private individuals that the most amazing fruits of repentance are found in the mundane and ordinary.   Stop your extortion, stop bullying and lying, don’t grumble about money; show kindness and hospitality by sharing your surplus clothing and food with those who don’t have very much.

Notice that John doesn’t actually ask for anything explicitly spiritual or religious, like fasting, making sacrifices at the Temple or praying for hours.  He doesn’t demand holy or extraordinary action, like his own aesthetic need to live in the wilderness. Things like that are to do with a deep and profound private calling from God to an individual. No, what he speaks of is soulful, deep and so, so simple for anyone to do; take the opportunity that appears in front of you every single day to bear fruit that says simply, ‘I love God and I love you.’  

There’s no exhaustive workshop, no 12 step programme to be right with God, no rule book to carefully follow. There’s just a different way to live for those who have changed their minds and been baptized; this is living in God’s grace.  All John does is point out the first step people can take to move in a new direction.   By their repentant behaviour – in other words, by what they abstain from doing and what they choose to do instead – they will then open themselves to God’s love and grace and allow God to direct their path.

It’s possible John presumes that those listening to him will go on asking that same question over and over as their circumstances change and their lives progress - "What should we do?"  Later, and as they grow, the answers they hear will not come from the lips of the Baptizer, but from their own vulnerable, open and struggling hearts before God and from being grounded in the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Now, let’s fast forward a little bit: if those newly baptized in the Jordan had the opportunity and the obligation to bear fruits of repentance, don’t you think those who have received through Jesus Christ the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit and the fire of God are expected to bear fruit of repentance as well?  Where is yours? Remember, the opportunities and the obligation to take those opportunities appear in exactly the same place John the Baptist indicated: right in front of us.

The words of the people who came to John echo down to us now. “What do we do?” You and I are not so different from them. So, what do we do?

I want to read you a portion from one of Martin Luther King’s letters. It doesn’t take much to work out that with a life of non-violent protest come a lot of arrests and prison time. This is from a letter he wrote from a prison in Birmingham Alabama:

"There was a time when the church was very powerful - in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" or "outside agitators." Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

King wrote that in the 60’s. Doesn’t it feel familiar? That is our church, right here, right now. “What do we do?”

In New Testament Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia, literally a change of mind that determines how we live. It’s not about feeling sorry about something.  What opportunities for metanoia appear right in front of us now?  What do those opportunities ask of us?  To raise the question again, "What should we do?" What should each of us do?

Well, in the spirit of John: 

Look at your life.  Recognize the places where it is broken and stop pretending about them.  Who do you need to be reconciled with before the feast of Christmas comes? Stop blaming others for everything and complaining about them when they legitimately challenge you about something. Be reconciled. Get it done before Christmas and stop procrastinating about it.

Pay attention to reading the Scriptures and praying. Everything about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, along with what it means to be a Christian is in the pages of the Bible – how can you say you know God if you don’t spend any time with him in prayer or in his Word?

Look at how you use power.  Do you use it justly and kindly or do you manipulate and control people? Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Do you care about your partner or closest friends and do good things with them or do you tend to only go to them when you want something or need something?

Look at what you have, in your wardrobe, your fridge, your finances, your possessions.  If you own two coats, if you possess food in abundance, is it time for you to share? Did you collected a Christmas shoe box so you could bring joy to some little boy or little girl who might otherwise have nothing for Christmas? Are you doing any volunteering over the Christmas season with the homeless or elderly or others less fortunate than yourself? Or are you just looking forward to eating and drinking and being merry with family and friends in the warmth of a nice home?

Today's gospel actually identifies John's gruff and blunt demands as good news. And his demands are targeted just as much at us as they ever were at the people who gathered at the Jordan.  When we hear John’s words in faith, we recognize them as good news because they speak simply of the good things we can easily produce, whatever our finances might look like. Do you have money and goods? Then give some away. Do you have very little? Then some of your time could be given to something worthwhile.

When this becomes our way, when our faith produces fruit, then things change; where we are becomes different, blessings and miracles pour out on us. Our world becomes different, our church becomes different - and so do we. When our answers are “I can’t be bothered,” or, “I don’t like her or him,” when we say “I’m not going to help,” or “they can do it,” don’t then wonder why you don’t experience abundant blessing or wonder why you don’t see God working in you and around you.”

Changing, for the sake of the Gospel is good news.  This is what opens people to the realization that Jesus remains active in the world, a realization that comes to them where they are and whoever they are, a realization that consoles and comforts and challenges people, because they see it in our lives. This Advent, why not change your heart and mind and do something incredibly simple, but amazing?