Who We Are Is What We Do

December 16, 2018 (Advent 3)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Luke 3:7-18

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

3: 7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (Luke 3: 7-18, NRSV)

Let us Pray – O God of the exiles and the least, the last and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness through the power of Jesus Christ. So, in the sure confidence of your promises we pray that you will fill us with faith to live joyfully, sustained by your grace so that we may eagerly wait for the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have recently become fascinated by my family tree.  It began as an assignment for a continuing education course I was taking.  The assignment was to learn more about my family history so that I can better understand myself.  I researched, and I found that I have some rather plain in-laws and some colorful outlaws, I have a Vietnam war hero as well as a draft dodger, I have civil war veterans from both the north and the south.  My mother’s family was from Blair County Pennsylvania and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.   My father’s side of the family is from Columbus, Mississippi and Guntersville, and Green County, Alabama.  It has been fascinating to learn about my family, the titans of industry and the school delinquents, the beauty queens and the librarians.  For example, my mother’s side of the family is from London and my father’s side is from the Isle of Man, Scotland.  My mother’s side of the family was Anglican at some point because I have seen that my great, great, great, great (that is 4 greats) grandfather was Baptized in the Church of England in the 1720’s.  One my father’s side of the family one of my great, great, grandfathers was married to a Cherokee Indian Princess in Alabama, while great, great, great grandfather was a Primitive Baptist preacher, so I guess it is in my blood.  So, what does this have to do with anything, nothing really, at least that is what we hear from John the Baptist, in the passage for today. “Don’t say to say to yourselves, that We have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  It is as if he is saying, that ancestry, family tree stuff might look good on paper and make you sound important, but it won’t mean anything to God.

Ah, yes, John the Baptist, he makes his annual appearance into the liturgical season, always on the Third Sunday of Advent.  And he makes bold and challenging statements that often make us nervous, but they are supposed to grab our attention.  Here just ten days from Christmas, right in the middle of our advent build up to the birth of Jesus, comes John the Baptist.  I don’t know about you, but he makes me feel guilty.[1]

He goes on to say, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”   Then he gets even more serious, saying that the one who is coming after him (Jesus) will be even more judgmental than he is, for he will come with a winnowing fork in his hand, and he (Jesus) is going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff in the fire.  I have an uneasy feeling that I am probably chaff.  What about you?  Before we get all defensive and down on ourselves, I think this passage has some redeeming qualities. I believe it is more about how we respond to the challenge than it is about trying to figure out if we are wheat or chaff.

This is the sort of message we have come to expect from prophets, fire and brimstone, and John the Baptist, is no different.  Repent, change, turn back or else.  Fear inducing, guilt producing transformation.  Turn around on the road of life.  This sort of rhetoric has been a cornerstone of the Church for centuries.  You know the message, people are bad and sinful, and God is good and loving, so as God’s people, we must change our behaviors or else God will get us.   This is what the crowds hear from John the Baptist, so they ask him the obvious next question: “What then shall we do?”  Please, notice John the Baptist’s response, he gives tangible and concrete ethical instructions, that are surprising simple. 

He announces changes to our behaviors, actions that we can do.  Not impossible and difficult but instead, simple, mundane, and everyday: “Share, Be fair, and Don’t be a bully.”[2]

It reminds me of the recent funeral service for President George H.W. Bush. I was not able to watch it live but I have seen clips and heard about how moving the tribute to our 41st President was.   He was clearly loved by his family, his son, President George W. Bush publicly sobbing about the example his father was.  I watched 60 minutes, last Sunday and learned about the deep and abiding friendship the elder President Bush had with James Baker.  It was such a supportive and dear relationship that Baker actually rubbed the Presidents feet just before he died. Great comfort was shared in the moving yet familiar Episcopal funeral liturgy that refers to Presidents, princes and paupers by our first name, was used and our 41st president simply became known as “George,” a sheep of God’s own flock.   Then in a brilliant and profound statement, the officiating priest, The Rev. Dr. Russell Jones Levenson, Jr. of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Houston, said: “Some have said in the last few days, ‘this is an end of an era.’  But it does not have to be.  Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”[3]

          Now, it is not my intention to make a political statement, but rather inviting us all to think about how we live and how we treat other people.  Are you fair and just in your daily life? Do you share from your abundance? Are you a bully?

If you are, why?

What would it look like, what would it feel like to live lives worthy of repentance?  What would it look like to treat others fairly? No matter their importance, power or worth to you?

This is preciously how John responds to the question, of what shall we do?   Each of us is invited, where ever we find ourselves, whether at work, or at home, at paly, or at school, with your spouse or your children, in whatever role or position we occupy, to answer that question by doing, by living, by exhibiting grace, mercy, kindness, love, honesty, humility and love.  Simple, profound and the way of God.  In doing so, we will, through the power of God, participate in God’s transforming love for all the world.[4]

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr.  A Homily on Luke 3:7-18 for the Third Sunday of Advent December 14, 2003

[2] Reverend Dr. David Lose, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=511

[3] Reverend Jill Duffield, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18 2018 www.pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary

[4] Reverend Jill Duffield, Commentary on Luke 3:7-18 2018 www.pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary