The third Sunday of Advent is when we light the candle of Joy. Our gospel reading this week continues to deal with the ministry of John the Baptist. We receive a harsh message from John followed by some instructions that we might find peculiar.
Text: Luke 3: 7-18
What is it all About?
Have you ever watched one of those really bad television commercials? You know the type that talks to you about how you wish you could something better and then ends with a catchphrase like ‘Just buy the wonder widget! It will fix everything?’
I was thinking about commercials like that as I was preparing for this Sunday. No I wasn’t watching bad late night TV and no I wasn’t watching the Shopping Channel hoping to find a gift idea for Kate. But this idea of really bad, really cheesy TV commercials just stuck with me this week. It got so bad that I wrote my own commercial and I’m going to share that with you right now.
Have you ever wished you were a better Christian? Have you ever wished you had the time to work in the soup kitchen, participate in the mission team, sing in the choir, teach Sunday school or some other activity. Have you ever wished that when people asked about your faith you could answer with a clear voice, instead of being afraid of being judged? Have you ever wished that you found it easy to invite people to church or other activities?
If you have ever wanted to be a better Christian and wondered how it’s done, don’t worry. The answer is closer than you know and easier to obtain than you might realize. Simply keep doing what you are already doing.
Our gospel reading from Luke today is a continuation from last week’s text. We continue to learn about John the Baptist and his ministry of repentance. Last week we were introduced to John the Baptist and his proclamation that the Messiah was coming. This week we have John’s speech to those who came to be baptized and at first look it’s not a nice message. John’s first words are to call those who have come a ‘Brood of vipers!’
A brood of vipers! Can you imagine coming to your pastor, that’s me by the way, looking for repentance or forgiveness and me saying to ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from your sinful ways. How dare you rest on your laurels, how dare you say we’ve always done things this way. Do you not know that if you don’t bear good fruit you’ll be cut down and cast into the fire!
You wouldn’t like it too much if I said that to you. Which perhaps means one of two things: Either I shouldn’t say things like that or we are too accustomed to hearing what we want to hear. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
But let’s assume you did come to see me. And let’s assume that I assailed you with a speech full of fire and brimstone similar to the words of John the Baptist. You might very well ask the same question the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”
That is the question that they ask John the Baptist, what do we do now? John’s response and this is where we get back to my late night shopping channel commercial, is to tell the people to continue doing what they are already doing. That’s right, keep doing what you are already doing. Only do it better.
John says if you have two coats, share with someone who has none. The same with your food, share it. Don’t collect more than is owed, don’t threaten someone and be satisfied with your wages. That last one is a tough one in the world we live in where we all want just a little bit more so that we can enjoy life. John says, be satisfied.
Keep doing what you are already doing, only do it better. Is that what it is really all about? Is it really so simple? Surprisingly, yes it is really that simple. What does God want from us? God wants our devotion, God wants us to worship and pray. But God also wants us to give the best of ourselves to others.
So if you have ever wondered how to be a better Christian, keep doing what you are doing. Seek to improve here or there, but on the whole you’re doing all right. It really is a remarkable message that John the Baptist was preaching to the people in those days. They came to him for repentance, they came to him for a baptism. They were so eager for a change in their lives. When they ask John what they should do the reply they receive is “to return to their ordinary lives as changed people.”
To go back to what they were doing before, but as changed people. When we have an encounter with the divine, when we encounter Jesus Christ we are changed we can never be the same again. But John sends them back to their ordinary lives. He doesn’t tell them to remove themselves from society, he doesn’t encourage them to become hermits like he is. John doesn’t tell them to become academics to study Holy Scripture. He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs and start up an orphanage, homeless shelter or soup kitchen. John tells them to go back to their ordinary lives and to do what they have always done. Only to do it a little better, because they are a changed people.
I have a term for what John is describing. Those who participated in the Bible study we ran in the fall will find this familiar. The term is Holy Subversives. John the Baptist is asking us to be Holy Subversives.
Subversive is defined as one who is seeking or intended to subvert and established system or institution. Its synonyms are disruptive, troublemaker, dissident, agitator, rebel and revolutionary.
Did you know that as a Christian, as a member of this community of faith you are part of a movement which seeks to subvert the established systems of our society and remake them for God’s kingdom? Once upon a time as a follower of Christ they would have arrested you and perhaps even executed you for that.
Friends, the Kingdom of God is not of this world and as followers of Christ we are a part of that Kingdom. And we seek to usher it in. We are, you and I like it or not, revolutionaries. Political and social dissidents who believe that the world is not as it ought to be. That the morals and ethics which should be upheld, the purposes of creation and the story of eternity are found in this book. Now we aren’t exactly a secret club and anyone is welcome to join us. But make no mistake, we are asked to do things which others might find troubling.
Like helping the homeless, feeding the hungry. Treating people with respect and not abusing our position in life. We are asked to be charitable and to provide shelter for those fleeing from war and persecution.
You have heard me comment before that we live in a post-Christian world. That the time known as Christendom is behind us and that the church is now being pushed to the periphery of society. That this is actually a good thing as it lets us rediscover new ways to proclaim the gospel. One of those ways is by being a Holy Subversive.
Once upon a time the church would have formed a committee, to write a petition about a social ill. Think of the prohibition era and the Temperance movement. Large public campaigns that were led by the church, mostly the women in the church to stop the sale and consumption of alcohol. The stories that are mostly told of that era today are gangster movies and Sleeman beer commercials. Today, large scale social and public change initiated by the church might not be met with the same level of approval.
And that’s okay because the Temperance movement happened in the 1920s, we are almost a full century in time from it. The Temperance movement happened during Christendom. Today we make change in a more subtle and subversive way. We do as John the Baptist asked us. We do what we are already doing and we do it better. We do that at work, we do that when we are out for coffee, while walking the dog, and when we participate in social and service clubs.
It all comes back to those two questions: What do we do now and what is it all about? To that I would add, what is the mission of the church? The mission of the church is to see lives changed one at a time. To point people towards God.
Pastor Tom Long tells us a story about a church he joined in Atlanta. It was a new members’ dinner, the pastor had people go around the table to introduce themselves and say a little something about why they had joined the church. Some noted the good children’s programs that gave their kids something to do after school and for a week or two in the summer—that kind of thing helps out Mom and Dad, you see. Some noted the convenience of the church’s location, the proximity to their home, the good parking. Still others appreciated the organist and the lovely music. Finally it came around to a man who told the group that for more years than he could remember he’d been a crack addict, a drunk, and a derelict but that through that church he found the power of Jesus to turn it all around and that’s why and how he became a member.
As Long tells it, there all those new members sat, feeling sheepish. “We came for the good parking. He came for the salvation!”
It’s so easy to forget that at its core, the mission of the church is to see lives changed one at a time. That is the churches mission and that is your mission and it includes the change that will happen in your own life. We don’t enter into a perfect state of being when we become Christians. We just recognize and believe that there is more to this world than meets the eye and we want to do something about it.
Do so by being a Holy Subversive. Do so by doing what you are already doing, only better. Amen.