Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 16, 2018
We are wading slowly into the Gospel of Luke – a hallmark of which is the overturning of traditions and expectations in order to realize the kin-dom of God – depicted in the prophets as a peaceable kin-dom in which natural adversaries find ways to coexist without relinquishing their core identities. Each Gospel gives us unique perspectives into the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice. The baptismal narrative in the Gospel of Mark tells us that “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.” Matthew reports, “At that time, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. John baptized them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.”
This may be some hyperbole. It is doubtful that everyone went all at once, or that the temple authorities or collaborators with the Roman occupation were there to repent – perhaps some of them to spy on a potential insurgent movement, or to take notes on how to motivate and manage large crowds. Imagine though, a large diverse gathering, perhaps representing the middle demographic of the population – not too young, not too old. Pregnant or nursing mothers and caregivers of toddlers or the elderly probably didn’t make it. Those physically unable to traverse the long steep way from the Judean highlands down to the Jordan River, and those who could not afford the cost of time away from their flocks or fields were probably absent, except for those who lived close by. You can imagine then that the crowds looked a lot like us – at least in some ways privileged in terms of standard of living, health, and opportunity.
We don’t much like John’s message. Who likes to be called a brood of vipers? Who likes to be called out on their assumed privileges – such as the assumption that descent from Abraham and Sarah will somehow guarantee ultimate status and privilege? But John first holds out the promise that if we level out the way – if we seek justice – if we make the rough road smooth – then all humankind will see the salvation – the healing presence – of God. The Baptizer specifies that justice within and for all creation is the purpose and precursor, if not the prerequisite for salvation. We might even speculate that John’s “wrath to come” and “axe at the roots” are not necessarily from the hand of God. The text allows us just as well to attribute the wrath and the destruction of the roots as the consequences of human action – a direct connection to the degradation of our planet and the marginalization of our planetary siblings.
Brood of vipers feels like a nasty dig – we take it personally. “I am not a snake!” we say. But part of the phrase – brood – means a generation. It is an inclusive term. In it, John is saying that together, the common laborers, those who live off the labor of others, and the so-called peacekeepers whose labor is to enforce that system, are likely to slither away from any threat, or to bite anyone who would threaten their world order. One of the defining characteristics of prophets who speak truth is that they get bitten – even by those who might be set free by truth and repentance. There must have been something about John’s exhortation that caused the crowds to pour out to be immersed in cold muddy water that rang true.
Throughout history, followers of Jesus have imagined themselves in the story. As you can see in this painting, “The Sermon of John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the wealthy Dutch burgers imagined a huge crowd of well-dressed merchants and land-owners gathered along their own river to hear the baptizer in his tattered tunic. Luke does not claim such a comprehensive and inclusive a throng as Mark and Matthew. Luke names three groups present among those pouring out to the Jordan: the masses, the despised tax farmers, and the soldiers. In other words, those that were compelled to call upon the Baptizer to specify what they needed to do in order to purify themselves – and thus to flee from the wrath to come – were the common laborers, those who made their living from the labor of others, and those whose labor was to enforce the status quo. These were the ones who John’s message touched – each of them in different circumstances – each of them in a different relationship to power. And according to John, each of them called to a different response in order to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Unlike some other events and characters in the gospel accounts, there is independent historical verification for John the Baptist’s message and notoriety. The Jewish/Roman general and historian, Josephus, writing around the same time as the gospel writers, “describes in his Jewish Antiquities the destruction of the army of … Herod Antipas. Many people thought that this was a divine punishment, because Antipas had ordered the execution of a just man, John the Baptist.…”[i]
“Herod's army was completely destroyed.… Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God. For only thus, in John's opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice. Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words.”[ii]
their souls had already been purified by justice
The important take from this account is that the contemporary view was that it was justice that purified the souls of those who came to John, and subsequently found themselves in the following of Jesus, who John had announced as the spearhead of this justice movement and forerunner of the beloved community foreseen by Isaiah and the prophets of the exile and return.
I read great hope in John’s message. It is within our reach to respond to the grace offered to us in our baptism – our immersion in God’s grace – in ways that bear fruit worthy of our repentance – each of us in a different way that is determined by our station in life as well as our capacity to act. Let’s hear Luke’s description again:
And the crowds were questioning him, asking “What then should we do?” John replied, “The one having two coats let share with the one having none. And the one having food do the same.”
Now came also tax collectors to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what should we to do?”
And he answered them, “Exact nothing over and above your fixed amount.”
Soldiers likewise asked, “What about us?” John told them, “Extort from no one, nor slander. Be content with your living.”
John’s message: redistributive justice, ethical living, and humility – precursors in radical alignment with Jesus’ good news are rooted in God’s unconditional, universal love. It did not require the people who sought repentance and forgiveness to abandon their place in society, but to live out their traditions and rôles in a radically different way – the Jesus way. How do we place ourselves on that path? How do we “Make ready the way of Abba God; clear a straight path, raise up the lowly, bring down the mighty, make straight the twisted paths, and smooth the rough road, so that all humankind will see the salvation of God.” It could start with something as simple as Christmas shopping. On this, I’m probably too late, because, unlike me, you have probably all completed your Christmas shopping for this year.
This is a generous congregation. With God giving the growth, something lasting and good has been built here. Just think of the long list of things we do together as a congregation and imagine the many things we suspect members do as individuals for the welfare of others. Still, what it might mean if we started giving as much to Jesus for his birthday as we give ourselves. For one thing, we’d probably save on wrapping paper. In 2017 per capita spending on Christmas in the United States was about $794 – down from $862 in 2016. What would happen if we either matched that with spending on Jesus’ wish list – or even if we cut spending on ourselves by 50%, and spent an average of $397 each on Jesus’ birthday gifts this year? Last Sunday there were 60 in worship here. What could we do with $23,820? What if we asked, “What would Jesus wish?”
For $10,000 we could give Jesus a “Gift of Transformation” through Heifer International, which offers a chance to affect change on a truly massive scale. Each Gift of Transformation includes: Herds of heifers, llama, and goats, flocks of both sheep and chickens, a pen of pigs, a school of fish, and a gaggle of geese. Plus, the gift includes all the training that each recipient family will need to not only transform their own lives, but also the lives of others when they Pass on the Gift of offspring to their neighbors.
For another $10,000 we could give Jesus the gift of a new classroom for 45-50 students in Kenya through the Church World Service School Safe Zones program which has helped thousands of African children learn in schools that offer running water, working toilets, security gates and other amenities that take risk out of the school day.
With the nearly $4,000 that’s left, we could support IFCH, VYFS, and the new Luke 4:18 fund, created to help post bond for our neighbors of Hispanic ethnicity who are often singled out simply because of their heritage and arrested by local police or ICE agents. Once arrested they are detained until their court-date on (for example) a $10,000 bond. They can be released if they post 10% of that bond (for example, $1000). If they don't have bond money, they remain detained.We could give Jesus a love tsunami for his birthday this year. And we don’t have to wait for next Christmas. We could work on it all year long. It might be scary to think what that might mean for us in terms of the Christmas traditions we have grown up with. And we can’t really know what will come of it. Just think if our souls were purified by justice! Just think how things would be turned upside down