“Teacher, what should we do?” they said.
John the Baptist had appeared in the wilderness looking as though he knew something other people didn’t know. He seemed to know that something was about to happen; something to do with an angry God. “You brood of vipers!” he said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”… One who is more powerful than I is coming… 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” he said, mixing his agricultural metaphors, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Something was about to happen. Someone was about to turn up. And wrath, anger, judgment was about to be unleashed.
So, quite reasonably, people came to him and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
“Teacher, what should we do?”
If there is about to be a battle, how do I guarantee I am on the winning side? If some sort of king is about to turn up, how to I make it clear that I am a loyalist, not a rebel. If I am about to meet a judge… and I know I am not completely innocent… how can I demonstrate enough remorse to be treated with leniency?
“Teacher, what should we do?”
I spend most of my time teaching women, and often have people come to me saying something along the lines of “Teacher, what should we do?” They say to me: “I am carrying the full weight of a difficult family – husband, parents, children, grandchildren all leaning heavily on me – and I am taking care of most of the pastoral care in my church, and nobody knows that I am suffering from depression. I feel guilty because I am not disciplined enough in my prayer life and don’t feel any joy when I read the Bible. “Teacher” they say to me, “What should I do.”
What should I do?
My fourteen year old daughter, Hannah, said to me the other day that she wishes God would put out an updated Bible: one that takes account of everything that has changed in the last two thousand years. One with advice about use of the internet, about dealing with high school teachers who really don’t like teenagers, something about what God really thinks about the length that a girl should wear her skirts.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that my teenaged daughter does not actually come to me and say, “Teacher, what should I do?” But the same motivation is behind her desire for a new Bible. The desire for a new word of God for a new situation. Here, at this time, in this place, as the person I am, with the pressures I am under, what should I do?
Keith’s sermons on homosexuality a few weeks ago encouraged us to look closely at new understandings of gender and ask again the question of what should we do about gay marriage. Whatever we think might be the right answer, the question is vital. What should we do?
A rich man ran up to Jesus once, as you know, and asked that same question, “Good teacher, what should I do?”
“I have done everything I have been taught but I know it isn’t enough. I know there is more, but I just can’t grasp it. Tell me, teacher, what should I do?” What should I do?
And how did Jesus respond?
How might you expect Jesus to have responded?
With words of comfort? Something like: “You are doing really well. Just keep it up.” Nup.
With words of mild correction? “Perhaps you need to work a little harder at connecting with your slaves and remembering that they are people too; otherwise you are doing pretty well.” Nup.
No, the loving, gentle Jesus told him that he had to turn his back on everything he enjoyed and valued; neglect his family; give away everything he owned and become one of the lesser disciples of a vagrant preacher.
For thousands of years this story has served as a lesson to Christians everywhere to NEVER to go to Jesus with the question, “What should I do?”
In fact, when we come back to look at Luke 3 we see that John the Baptist was a pushover compared with Jesus. John, with the weird clothes and totally inadequate diet; John who called his audience a brood of vipers and told them that the wrath of God was about to fall on them; that John! If I had to choose between him and Jesus as a teacher to ask, “What should I do?” Jesus wouldn’t get a look in.
It isn’t too hard to picture the scene. John is baptizing Jews in the river Jordan. The river the Jews had crossed over a thousand years earlier in order to enter the Promised Land. One of the places that gave them their national identity; their sense of who they were. God’s people. Led by God, ruled by God; provided for by God. They had lost that place for a while, a few centuries back, but they had come back, determined to hold on to it; determined to deserve it. Determined to remind their children and their children’s children that they mustn’t take God’s blessing for granted. They must be serious about keeping the law; serious about holding onto their sense of who they were.
For a while the power of Greek culture and religion has tried to swamp them and crush their identity but they had held out. They had rebelled. And they had won the right to practice their religion and serve their God.
And now the might of Rome was everywhere, reminding them of just how weak and poor and insignificant they still were. Whole cities were being built on their land, in Roman style, dedicated to Roman emperors and Roman gods. Roman soldiers guarded their roads and towns – keeping them safe, perhaps, but also keeping them subservient. Crippling taxes had to be paid – either to Rome or to the corrupt temple aristocracy who were in the pocket of Rome. All over Palestine small land owners were going into debt, losing their family inheritance and becoming tenant farmers on land they used to own, and even then were barely able to feed their families after paying rent and tax.
Rome allowed them to keep worshiping their God but made a mockery of the idea that the Jewish God had any real power. Everything the people saw pointed to the sovereignty of another God: the unstable, sadistic, utterly heartless emperor Tiberius. Notice that in verse one of chapter 3 Luke gives us a time stamp that names that emperor. I think he did that, among other reasons, to remind readers that this scene did not take place under the benevolent gaze of one of the few decent Roman emperors. No, it was Tiberius who was growing fat on their taxes. Tiberius, when he was not at Rome, lived in a villa at the top of a high sea cliff. He would have people of all descriptions brought to him for his pleasure, and when he was finished with them, or if they displeased him in any way, he would organise for them to lose their footing on their way back down to the sea. Tiberius: whose depravity and paranoia were exceeded only by his successor, Caligula. And the reason why he was succeeded by someone more evil than himself was that he had organised the murder of everyone in the imperial family who had any redeeming qualities that might make them popular, and therefore a threat to his rule. Tiberius’ strangulating hold on power threw out a challenge to every foreign deity to prove its right to rule. And the deity of those odd little people the Jews had appeared to be silent. But John the Baptist was standing there on the bank of the Jordan River announcing that a change was on its way. God was about to turn up as King and Judge. The God of those odd little people was about to put things right.
So when tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?” In the minds of the crowds on the river bank, there was only one way to answer that question: “Stop being tax collectors.” It was as simple as that. Tax collectors were collaborators with the power of Rome and the cruelty of Tiberius, and a serious Jew would not eat in the presence of a tax collector, let alone be one. “Find an honest way to earn a living.” John might have said, “and if you can’t do that then come and join me in the wilderness. It is possible to live on locusts and wild honey. It is possible to dress yourself in dead animals. It is possible to exempt yourself from the whole system of taxes, if you can put aside the need to be comfortable and smell nice. I have done it”, John could have said, “Why can’t you?”
But John didn’t say that.
He said to the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
That was NOT the right answer. The crowds around the river would have been utterly shocked and scandalized by such a lame reply. More shocked by that than by anything John said about any number of vipers.
Why would he let tax collectors off so lightly?
But is gets worse:
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”
Who were these soldiers? Well, they were certainly not part of a Jewish army. The Jews were not allowed to have an army. They were allowed only a small law enforcement unit that had jurisdiction only in matters concerning the temple. And John was nowhere near the temple at this point. These had to be soldiers in the Roman army. Soldiers who took orders from Rome, who were there to monitor and squash any rising tide of nationalistic feeling among the Jews; who ensured that the Jewish people would never be in a position gain anything that looked like sovereignty or independence. These were the predecessors of the army that would, about 40 years later, starve Jerusalem under siege, then flatten the temple and wipe out all resistance and destroy any hope of Jewish nationhood for nearly two thousand years.
The soldiers who came to John may have been Jews, in which case they were even more guilty of collaborating than the tax collectors were. Or they might have been gentiles who had been attracted to the Jewish religion while stationed in Palestine. Either way, the answer to their question, “What should we do?” was obvious: Leave the Roman army. It is not possible to serve both God and Tiberius. But that is not what John said.
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Is that all? Is God really so easily pleased?
Is it really possible to stay intertwined in an evil, God-denying system and yet be OK with God just by doing minimally the right thing within that system?
I am not an ethicist, but looking closely at this passage has been a huge challenge to my thinking about ethical living. Our generation of Christian ethicists has – rightly I think – been calling our attention to the systems in which we live and work and purchase. When we buy chocolate, for instance, we are confronted by all sorts of ethical considerations – even if we put aside the impact of the chocolate on our health. Are the growers properly compensated for their work? Are the proceeds being used to support violent or unjust regimes? You are familiar with all those questions.
But John’s words seem to undermine all that by expressing morality in such simple, naïve categories. Just make sure you pay for the chocolate bar rather than stealing it and you’ll be fine.
And would Jesus give the same advice, or would Jesus say, “Give up chocolate for the rest of your life and give all the money you save to the poor”?
So, on the one hand we have ethical advice from John that is so basic and obvious that we might as well not have asked, and on the other hand we have advice from Jesus that is too hard for us to follow. Where do we go with that?
Here’s where I admit that I don’t have a clear and unambiguous answer. I just have a couple of thoughts about possible ways forward.
My first thought is that we can take comfort from John’s assurance that it is possible to live a good life even when we are part of a sinful system. That is an important assurance because we all have to live in this world. And in this world there is very little we can do that does not threaten to taint us ethically in some way. We don’t have time to scrutinise every link in the chain of production of every single purchase we make. Most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing workplaces where there is guaranteed to be no hint of exploitation, abuse or corruption at any level. We cannot and should not cut ourselves off from friends and family members who are living immoral lives. We have to live in this world! And John assures us that we can live in a compromised world with confidence. God will not be angry with us because of our association with sinful humanity.
Like the Old Testament prophets in whose footsteps he walks, John reminds us that God is slow to anger and is not at all unreasonable.
That is my first thought and a second is to recognise that Jesus and John were answering different questions. John is answering a question about how to avoid God’s anger. And it turns out that that is easier than we might have thought.
Jesus’ answer to the rich man, though, was a response to the far more challenging question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And that, it turns out, is far harder than we might think. As Jesus also said, the road to life is narrow and few find it. To travel that road you need to travel light. So Jesus invites us to set down our suitcases. The rich man was weighed down by too much money. So Jesus invited him to get rid of the money. But it isn’t always money. Sometimes it is guilt. Sometimes it is shame. Sometimes it is the belief that we are responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. Those are the most common forms of baggage I see among the women I work with. But all sorts of things can weigh us down and make it hard for us to walk along the path to life. So each of us needs to go to Jesus for ourselves and ask, “What must I do?” If we have the courage to hear his answer.
But that is for another sermon. This morning we are looking at John. And if your question this morning is: how can I approach Christmas with a sense that God is not angry with me, that is a lot less complex. Don’t defraud or intimidate anyone. Be honest and content in your dealings. And if you have failed in those things, then repent. Change. Accept God’s forgiveness and try again to live an honest life.
That’s all. Scandalously easy, really.
But then, God has always been reluctant to get angry, and ridiculously excessive in love.
Lord, we come to you as a One who is slow to anger; one who understands all that constrains us and who does not ask more from us than we are able to give.
We rest in that assurance, and trust in your love.
And in that way we stand beside your servant, our brother, John the Baptist, and prepare to meet Jesus. Amen.
First preached by Margaret Wesley at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill December, 2012.