Luke 3: 1-6
Luke takes great pains introducing John in the first place, setting him beyond the shadow of a doubt into a very precise historical context: according to Luke, and unlike with any other gospel, we could pinpoint almost to the day the exact time John was preaching. Luke set the stage with all the great personages in the region, including not only the Roman rulers from Caesar on down but also their Judean puppets—and even threw in the Jewish high priests. It’s a remarkable introduction, and what he’s trying to tell us is that here in the midst of all these muckety-mucks, God’s message came to none of the big shots but instead to a relative nobody out in the desert, far away from the centers of power and influence. Just to someone named John, out in the wilderness. We know, of course, that eventually John did mix it up with the powers that be, and because of it he lost his head.
The verses I just read continue on for a while and suggest that according to Luke, if John were just a wild man who seemed to be a little off his rocker, he was at least one who could draw a crowd. We then would wonder why exactly, since immediately after that John appears to light into that crowd with a vengeance, calling them the spawn of Satan and telling them in no uncertain terms to get their act together. Hardly the way to win friends and influence people. But the crowds of people do respond, nonetheless, and then—before Jesus of Nazareth is even hinted at or comes down to the river to be baptized—it is John who responds to the question “What shall we do?” with some concrete ethical options.
If you have two shirts or some extra food, give a shirt to somebody who’s running around shirtless, and give some of that food to someone who’s hungry. If you’re a tax collector, stop skimming off the top. If you’re a soldier, stop extorting people and be satisfied with your paycheck. Strong, clear, simple advice on how to start turning your life around. Easy to understand, no need for any special interpretation. Treat others with kindness and decency. Just do it. Do it in your daily life, every day, not at some special time that seems holier somehow, but all the time, because all of the time is hallowed by how God’s spirit walks through time with us. Take a look at the way you live out your life when you’re at the tax office or on the parade ground, or City Hall or the classroom or the lab, or in whatever place it is where you spend so much of that life you’ve been given to live. At work, at home, at play, in the idle or intense or insufferable minutes and hours and days you are given. Certainly not just in church, for God’s sake.
The fire and brimstone that we usually associate with John? Well, it’s there, to be sure. But I think it’s nothing more than the gospel writers’ way of saying that John was speaking with urgency. It wasn’t only “just do it”; it was “just do it now.” Now, not later, is the time to make the decision to change the way you operate. There is forgiveness on offer, says John, but it doesn’t come about just by being nice or by making nice or by making empty promises; it comes accompanied by making real and honest changes in how we live. As the medium that conveys the message of repentance—of turning in a new direction—John’s ministry seems loaded with symbolic weight. I picture him on the east bank of the Jordan—over on the “other” side, the foreign side, challenging those who come to commit themselves to change now, then to wade into that water and be baptized, then go back across that river, heading west back into Israel proper, re-enacting the entry into the land of Canaan, cleansed now and made ready to await the coming of God’s kingdom. And, while waiting, to start bearing that “fruit that befits repentance.” It’s not about the threat of impending doom; it’s about the need for change. And actually it’s not just about waiting either—at least not in Luke’s version of the story. It’s about what to do with your life in the meantime. Which is always the place where we always live.
Hardy Kim is an associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of the large “tall steeple” churches in our denomination, so he speaks from a posture of being embedded in a big institutionalized congregation, with jillions of members and dozens of programs, and all that entails. Writing about John the Baptizer, Kim thinks ironically about things like church growth and the marketing of Christianity, and admits to some embarrassment when considering “how anxious we are about our numbers; how we worry about people connecting with our ‘brand’; how we sometimes scramble to compete with other congregations for a target audience.”
So far, of course, we at Christ Church Presbyterian are with Hardy Kim only in theory, given that our membership is not in the thousands like Fourth Prez, and since we have never really prized the numbers game very much here, and have started to take it more seriously only in recent years as we’ve begun to face other numbers, like the increasingly alarming ones in our church budget. By the way, it is NEVER TOO LATE TO GET YOUR PLEDGE IN!
But Hardy Kim goes on to say that he sees John the Baptizer as a real challenge to anyone who worries about congregational growth, and he asks a couple of important questions related to John’s challenge:
What difference does “doing church” make if lives are not changed?…What good does it do to connect others to our traditions and values if those traditions don’t address challenges that those persons face?
Those are powerful questions indeed, the kind of questions that, if we aren’t asking, we might as well not sign up in the first place. What he’s getting at, of course, is that John the Baptizer was focused on change, not institutional aggrandizement, and that much of modern-day marketing for church growth would have seemed pointless to him. The urgency for John was not about filling the pews or making the budget or preserving the institution, but about challenging people to get ready for the kingdom of God. Jesus would come along after John and say much the same thing, except that Jesus would say that there is no need to wait for the kingdom to appear—it was already here and happening. The choice was, and is, to get on board or not.
Still, John seems to have understood his role—if the gospel writers weren’t putting too much of a spin on this—as one of “getting ready” for the Something or the Someone that would come after him. It’s not entirely certain, as we read through the gospels, exactly how much John initially understood Jesus as being that One, but it is clear that John seemed to know he was on the cusp of something larger than himself. And so the words of the ancient prophet before him made sense: Prepare—make ready—the way of the Lord.
This afternoon we will be moving ourselves as a living symbol of our transition down the hill to the place where our new spiritual home will be, and I encourage you to make that pilgrimage with us by foot or by wheel. Yet as I’ve tried to say before, I don’t see our journey as being simply and only about ourselves, going it alone. We move with a sense that the Christ is in our midst, and that he and his Spirit travel with us wherever we go, or else, really, why go at all? And I think we also move with a sense that we may be on the cusp of something larger and newer than what has gone before, maybe even to discover new ways to grow—and not just in numbers. So in that sense I’ve been asking myself, and I ask you now, in what ways—as we travel the steps of our transition—are we about “preparing the way of the Lord?” When you think about making ready for something in your life, what do you think about? In particular, how do you prepare for something that you might have some inkling about, but that you can’t yet fully see? What helps you do that? How do you imagine we might prepare the way—this afternoon and in the weeks and months to come—as we make our way to the new place God seems to be calling us to? In a word or two, what will you be doing that “prepares the way of the Lord”?
John the Baptist is easy to caricature, and thereby to take for granted. But if we allow him to be heard across the centuries he has something definite and emphatic to say about the future, and he becomes a change agent for God, pointing the way to something greater than himself, announcing that God has something very new in mind, and inviting us in his rough way to prepare the way of the Lord. How we prepare, in our hearts, in the lives we live, and in the world around us, makes all the difference. In Jesus, who has come and is coming. Amen.
Rev. Michael Brown
Christ Church, Presbyterian