By Daniel Harrell
Today we have Luke’s take on John the Baptist, who is my focus for this summer’s sermons. Verses 10-14 may have sounded a bit out of context, but you’ve already heard the context in previous weeks. Luke includes the part about John preaching in the desert—significant for the fact that the desert was nothing but a bad memory for Israel. The desert was where their faith failed and for John to call them back to the desert meant that their faith wasn’t in much better shape. Then there was the whole horror of being baptized in water since water was a de facto sign of divine judgment. Their forefathers had been rescued through the waters of the Red Sea and through the waters of the Jordan River, but now they were being told to wade back in. The good news was that all of this bad news “prepared the way for the Lord.” But why did John have to call everybody names? In Matthew’s gospel he reserves his condemnatory “brood of vipers” for the Pharisees, which most of us agree they deserved. But here in Luke John labels everybody viper spawn. Children of Satan. Kind of hurts your feelings.
This is the problem with the gospel. People will say they want to attend churches that “preach the gospel,” but that’s probably because they’ve never really heard it. The gospel begins with the base assumption that you suck as a person, that you are mired in your selfishness and sin so deep that you’ve learned to love it like a pig in mud—or as John would say, a snake in the grass. A sure way to shrink a church is to preach the gospel. Granted, the gospel goes on to have God launch a rescue operation to get you out of the muck, only he does it initially through a nation of people who end up becoming a part of the problem even as they are bearers of the solution. I’m talking about the Israelites, of course, chosen by God as a preview of what heaven on earth could look like. But what do you do when the chosen people turn out to be just like everybody else? The good news of the gospel ends up as the old news of exile and exodus, sin and grace and sin and more grace and more sin—a story that runs on and on like some bad, never-ending soap opera.
Mercifully, God personally steps into this maddening spiral, finally, as all of the prophets promised. John the Baptist described God’s intervention as a hot one: “a winnowing fork in hand with which to separate out chaff from wheat and burn it unquenchable fire.” But then, disappointingly, God shows up in the person of Jesus with hardly a spark. Later in Matthew’s account, John the Baptist, the very one appointed to point out the promised Savior, gets a load of Jesus and asks him what everybody else was surely thinking: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we be expecting somebody else?” Born into a poor and scandalized working class family, from Nazareth no less, it was impossible to imagine this homeless vagabond to be the heroic inheritor of King David’s throne. Just look at him! Just listen to him. “Blessed are the poor and the meek?” “Be glad when people insult you? Turn the other cheek? Don’t hate or take revenge? Forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors? Sell your possessions and store up treasure in heaven? Don’t worry?” Who’s he kidding?
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. It’s one thing for a homeless vagabond to be the Son of God. OK, so the best heroes come from humble places. But what kind of hero fights a losing battle—only to lose it on purpose? God rescues the world from evil through the strange strategy of surrendering to evil. Refusing to join in the double helix of arrogance and violence, Jesus would practice what he preached—loving his persecutors and forgiving his enemies—even though it killed him. He gives himself up to die an unjust death for an undeserving people. He would act out his own read of the ancient prophecies which spoke of a Savior who saves through suffering, mocking evil and thereby exhausting its power. Only then does he rise from the dead in genuine triumph, to establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace, heaven itself, new creation that begins here and now.
That’s basically the gospel; and to believe it rightly begins with rightly believing in your own perversity, a belief with which John the Baptist was only too happy to help. For some of us, to rightly believe in our own capacity for evil is a no-brainer, but for others this is the hardest thing. I can’t rightly believe I could ever be a bad person because that would be wrong.
In her new book, Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margins of Error; author Kathryn Schultz begins by asking, “Why is it so fun to be right? As pleasures go it is a second-order one at best. Unlike many of life’s other delights—chocolate, surfing, kissing—being right does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts. And yet the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal and almost entirely undiscriminating. We can’t enjoy kissing anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything. Our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right. We go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”
I was doing some premarital counseling with this couple when we came to the important topic of conflict resolution. I always like to use an actual conflict to discuss resolution (and if the couple doesn’t have one I can be pretty good about starting one). As we discussed their conflict, I asked the husband about possible steps for resolution. He said that, well, he thought it was important first to explain things more clearly to his wife so she’d understand his point of view. And then he thought it good to listen better to her perspective so he could empathize with her concerns and address those. I waited to see if there was anything else. Then I asked him if there was anything else that might need to happen. “Like what?” he said. Like the possibility that you were wrong and need to apologize? I think his wife enjoyed watching the blood rush to his face.
“As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”
On another occasion, a church-shopper scheduled an appointment to talk about our congregation. Actually it was more if an interview. Or better yet, an exam. He brought a long checklist wanting to know how our church, and especially its ministers, measured up to his standards. “Do you believe in the Trinity?” “What is your view on baptism and communion?” “How does your church execute discipline?” And of course, “Do you preach the gospel?” These were all legitimate questions, but I was starting to get a little irritated since I knew that he was quizzing other ministers too and then comparing answers to pick the church that believed what he had determined was right. So I decided to ask him simply, “When it comes to your beliefs, how do you know that you’re right?” He stared at me in a way that I knew meant I wouldn’t be seeing him any Sunday soon. He said, “Don’t you believe the Bible is true?”
I have to admit he had me here, because when it comes right down to it, what you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. This is the problem with believing things that are true. You have to do something about them. It’s true, for instance, that according to United Nations reports, more than 800 million people will go to bed hungry tonight—300 million of them children. If I believe that, then I have to do something about it—changing how I spend my money, and give and eat and vote. It’s also true that according to human genetics, all people are indeed created equal—that we’re all wired the same way. Nobody is essentially better than anybody else. If I believe that, then I have to treat people differently than I do, especially those whom I deem less important than I am. Scripture declares Jesus himself to be the very word of God. If I believe that, then suddenly I’m confronted with having to be glad when people insult me, turning the other cheek, not taking revenge, forgiving my enemies, letting loose of my lifestyle and not worrying about anything. But since I struggle with even wanting to do what Jesus commands, how can I say that I believe the Bible is true?
Better to shop for a church that only tells you what you want to hear. Like the church a friend of mine attended where they amended the line in Amazing Grace to sing, “how sweet the sound that saved someone like me.” They expunged the offensive word wretch on the grounds that it made people feel bad about themselves.
Rightly believing the gospel rightly begins with believing in your own perversity; in the plausibility of your own wrongness even when you think that you’re right. For some of us this is a no-brainer, but for others this is the hardest thing to believe because if it’s true—if I actually am a sinful person who’s fundamentally messed up and who really only cares about myself—then I have to do something about that.
To which John the Baptist replies “repent for the kingdom of God is near.” Come to the water and get a realistic assessment. Given water’s association with divine judgment, to soak yourself was to admit you deserved your doom and needed God’s mercy. Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as right as you pretend. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John says. But this goes beyond saying you’re sorry and getting your grace—as powerful as that is. To bear fruit worthy of repentance also includes a blooming new life. While it is the gospel truth that you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it.
Which finally brings us to our text for today: “What then shall we do?” To which John replies, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Basic generosity. Thanks for your sympathy on the occasion of the death of Dawn’s Uncle Bob who we buried in Boston last week. He was a man, a minister, a surrogate dad for Dawn and so many others who along with his wife Polly was notorious for their outrageous generosity—mostly because they had so little, monetarily speaking, to give—because they were always giving it away. As the family reminisced after the funeral, one cousin, something of a proverbial black sheep, noted how Polly continued to refer to her husband as Uncle Bob, instead of her husband Bob. She was still giving him away.
Maybe you expect this of ministers (maybe not). But what about tax-collectors? Luke seems a little surprised at their appearance. In ancient Jewish society, tax-collectors enjoyed the same sort of esteem as corporate lawyers, investment bankers and politicians do in modern American society—explaining why financial reform passed this week. But why would a tax-collector want to repent? Isn’t being despised in their profession just the cost of doing business? Not when the despiser is God himself. But note that John does not insist they quit their jobs—just that they stop being dishonest. “Don’t collect any more than you are authorized,” he told them. I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve counseled over the years who wanted to abandon business and political science majors in order to “serve the Lord” in ministry. I tell them that the last thing we need is more ministers. What we need is more serious Christians in business and law and even politics.
The same went for soldiers. These were most likely Jewish men enlisted in the service of Herod Antipas, the corrupt king who would eventually have John’s head. Allotted only minimal provisions, these soldiers gave into the temptation to abuse their power and position—a temptation we became reacquainted with reading about the runaway General McChrystal last week. For these soldiers in Luke, they would use their power to intimidate and shakedown fellow Jews they deemed less important. John told them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Generosity in giving, honesty in business and vocational contentment are not idealistic virtues, even if we treat them as such. The same goes for rejoicing when people insult you, turning the other cheek, not taking revenge, forgiving your enemies, and not worrying about your life. We treat these demands of the gospel as idealistic and leave them high out of reach so that when we fail we can get our grace and then feel OK about doing what we really wanted to do anyway. But I don’t think that Jesus was being idealistic when he said “forgive your enemies” anymore than John the Baptist was being idealistic when he said “don’t extort money.” You can actually do these things. You can share a shirt if you happen to have two. You can be honest at work. You can be content with your pay. You can pray for your persecutors. You don’t have to worry about your life. None of this stuff, really, is idealistic. It’s hard, but you can do it.
And grace can help. The same grace that saves a wretch like you saves you from being wretched any longer. The grace that saves is the same grace that can make us generous, honest and content. And when we fail, there’s more grace alright—but it’s grace to try again. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton put it this way: “It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God. It is when we are disappointed at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for the love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another. If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us. The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”