Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s clear, as we mentioned last week, that the season we’re living through right now is anything but ordinary. Each week, each day even, is so high stakes. We’re stuck in this awful pandemic. We who are white have woken up in new ways over the past year to white privilege and white supremacy in our country and to the extent of violence against Black Americans and other people of color (things that are no surprise at all, of course, to those who aren’t white). And now we’re headed into a presidential inauguration week praying that the entire nation won’t erupt into violence. (25,000 National Guard troops assembling in DC??) It’s not for nothing we feel like we’re living through some kind of disaster movie script. Don’t you feel some mornings, as you scan the headlines, like you accidentally woke up in an alternate universe?
All of this begs the question: what can we do about it? I certainly don’t envy the job our incoming president and his new administration have ahead of them. But I’m talking about us. Regular citizens. Ordinary people of faith. What can we do? What should we do?
Enter John the Baptizer today to help us move in the direction of some answers. Yes, John – that strange, bug-eating, camel-hair-wearing prophet. For as you may have noticed in verse 10 of our Scripture reading, whole crowds flocked to John asking that very question: “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10) Why do you suppose he gained such a following? He was an unusual dude, certainly, but I don’t think the oddness of John alone would have been enough for him to gather disciples. A few curious spectators if he were holding forth on a city street corner maybe, but not great crowds following him out into the wilderness. John was so popular he actually had to convince people he wasn’t the Messiah. There was something about him that compelled people to listen.
They certainly didn’t tune into his message because he was a sweet-talking flatterer. Did you hear what he called those who came out to hear him? A bunch of snakes! (Luke 3:7) Biblical prophets weren’t known for their subtlety and John’s no exception. But the text tells us when he called them out like this, when he told them they were headed for ruin and they needed to turn their lives around completely, they said: show us how. “What then should we do,” John?
No matter how bad the news was, I believe his listeners knew John was speaking the truth. And some chose to hear that truth and act on it rather than escaping his hard words to find someone who told them what they wanted to hear.
Listen again to the kinds of truthful words John spoke. First, don’t rely on your birthright to save you; that won’t cut it. (That’s that line in verse 8 where he says: don’t just say we have Abraham as our ancestor) In other words your family tree, your inheritance, the skin you were born in – none of that is enough to save you. God could take a bunch of rocks and raise up an equally impressive crowd. Then: trees not bearing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, good fruit here meaning good deeds or faithful actions.
The crowd starts cluing in, and this is where they ask their question. If what we do is the thing that matters, John, what should we do? And he offers some specific examples. First to the whole crowd: if you have more clothes or more food than you really need, for heaven’s sake, share it. Be satisfied with enough. And then to the tax collectors and the soldiers he offers similar instructions – don’t take too much in taxes, be satisfied with your wages. Don’t take advantage of others or abuse your power. Be honest, be peaceful, be content with enough, be generous.
Finally, in reference to his not being the Messiah himself, but only one preparing the way, John says of Jesus: fair warning, folks, he’s coming to sort the wheat from the chaff, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. And immediately after that uncomfortably memorable line about unquenchable fire in v. 17 we read in v. 18: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news…” Wait, good news was it? Not for the chaff! But again, no one ever accused John of pulling his punches rhetorically speaking.
Remember, all of this talk was prefaced back in verse 3 by Luke introducing John to us as one preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he urged the crowds in verse 8. The purpose of prophetic judgment texts, you see, is to wake us up! To give us a chance to turn ourselves around. Worried about that ax at the root of the fruitless tree? Don’t be a fruitless tree. Bear some fruit. Worried about that chaff that’ll be thrown into the fire? Don’t be chaff; be more substantial than that. Be a stalk of wheat loaded with healthy grain. We’re hearing this word – as was John’s original audience – while we still have time to act on it. If you’re headed in the wrong direction, repent, turn around, make a midcourse correction. Live a healthy, fruitful, godly life.
As Luke explains earlier in the chapter, and as we heard in that short video during children’s time, Christians believe John was the one of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote centuries earlier. A voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, to make the crooked straight. It’s not easy to straighten out what’s crooked. Crooked things, crooked situations, crooked people? They tend to resist.
Take Herod, for instance. The one mentioned here in Luke 3 is actually the son of the Herod who ordered the slaughter of the innocents and forced Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt with little Jesus back in Matthew 2. Both father Herod and son Herod lashed out violently when they felt frightened or threatened, something they have in common with tyrants everywhere. Which is why every day that brings us closer to his removal from the White House seems to bring another last-ditch effort by Donald Trump to cling to power, no matter who he has to hurt along the way. He’s been lifting a page from a playbook that’s been used far too many times through history by bullies who feel threatened, frightened to realize they’re not getting what they want.
It's important to notice in connection with John the Baptist that he was unafraid to “rebuke” Herod “for all the evil things that [he] had done.” (Luke 3:19) John models for us what it looks like courageously to speak truth to power, and he paid a steep price for the courage of his convictions, both here in the conclusion of today’s reading when Herod throws John in prison and later on when he executes John for opposing him. Naturally prophetic truth isn’t welcomed by those abusing their power, and prophetic voices are often silenced for their troubles. As we remember for instance this weekend, the reason why the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the age of 39.
But even when it takes far too long, even when they do far too much damage along the way, tyrants eventually fall. Young Mary - Jesus’ mother, John’s auntie - she just sang about this a couple chapters ago, remember? Back in Luke 1, after hearing she would give birth to Jesus, she voiced another prophetic word that holds both good news and bad, depending on where we stand when we hear it. Mary sang of good news for the lowly, the hungry, and the poor that would simultaneously be bad news for the rich, the proud, and the powerful. All at God’s hands. All tied to the birth of her son.
Meanwhile, as we wait for God’s intervention to pull all the tyrants from their thrones, what should we do? According to John the Baptist, above all we should get our own act together. We should repent.
There’s so much that should be prompting our repentance, not just individually, but collectively. As a nation founded on genocide and slavery, as an American Church that far too often has chosen to side with white privilege and white supremacy over God’s justice for all God’s children, as a global Church whose history is littered with abuses of power.
And when we need something smaller scale and more concrete to focus on in the midst of these enormous projects of repentance? As we’ve seen, John offers us other challenges to tackle along the way too. In a world full of lies, let’s be truthful. In a culture of excess, let’s be content with enough. Let’s wield our power and privilege responsibly, not taking advantage of others. Let’s be peaceful. And generous.
In this high-stakes time, we already know we’ve got work to do. I believe that’s why some of us are drawn to prophets like John who tell us the truth about the condition of our lives and our world.
Now certainly, it’s easy to feel helpless, as we live through the disaster movie script we seem to find ourselves in right now. But we also believe in a God with whom nothing is impossible. A God who promises that one day “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:5-6)
Which means, with God’s help, we might just be able to turn this Titanic around. But we’ll need to hear and accept the truth from God’s prophets, however uncomfortable it makes us, rather than being fed a pack of lies. We’ll need to speak out against tyranny, no matter how fearful or angry it makes the tyrants. Both individually and as communities, we’ll need to repent. And then don’t forget the smaller scale stuff - if we have more clothes, more food than we really need, let’s share it. Let’s be peaceful, be satisfied with enough, be generous. Let’s use our power and privilege for the benefit of others. Let’s tell the truth. Let’s show ourselves, as God’s people, to be substantial: fruitful trees and grain-heavy wheat.
“What should we do?” John assures us there’s plenty we can do. Let all of us who have ears to hear, hear. Amen.