Riffee Sermon – 12/16/12 – John the Baptist – Advent 3 – Luke 3:7-18
May I speak in the name of the One who was, is, and will come again. Amen.
About a week ago, my wife, Yinghao, saw that I was trying to grow a beard. Upon her observation I replied, “As you can see, I am trying to channel my inner John the Baptist.” Before the blink of an eye, she quickly retorted, “Yes dear, but please remember, John the Baptist was never married.” Her quick wit and observational humor is one of the many reasons I married her. And, at least, for today’s purposes, she let me keep the beard.
Today, as we look at our gospel reading about John the Baptist, I want to talk with you about living in right relationship. How do we live in right relationship with God and, more importantly, in this gospel, how do we live in right relationship with other people? Now, many of us already know the story of John the Baptist. He was born to be a great prophet making way for the anticipated hope of the messiah found in our Lord, Jesus. To prepare for this great task, John was set apart. He lived in the wilderness. He lived a meager and unorthodox life in order to purify himself from the pressures and temptations that are often found in human society. My guess is that John hoped this lifestyle would keep his focus more on God, providing his message greater authenticity to those who would listen.
As we can see, his words reflect his wild upbringing. John’s words are all over the place with a tone of great urgency. Sometimes his words are harsh and sometimes his words are encouraging. As a result, it can be rather difficult to discern what he hopes we take away from these words. When he calls his followers broods of vipers and uses words like repent…does John want his audience to be filled with pity and self-condemnation? Or is there something more to his message?
Well, I for one believe there is something more and I find it in the last line of our gospel reading, which says, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
John’s message to the people of Israel standing at the bank of the river Jordan was good news in its entirety. It was good news because he didn’t sugarcoat the life we have to endure.
John knows there are things in life that are unfair. John knows that sometimes bad and incomprehensible things happen to us, like the terrible tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He even knows that we can cause bad things to happen to other people. It is the broken world we live in and no one will disagree that this is true.
But, John doesn’t stop there. No, in spite of these things, John says there is one coming to help set things right. There is one who can bring our attentions back to the things God wants for us. And, John’s task was to help prepare us to recognize the messiah upon his arrival, whether it was in ancient times or in our hope for the second coming. In his mind it required repentance or a time of reflection to turn around those things and attitudes that cause us to stray from God, those things that keep us from living in right relationship with others.
In today’s gospel, he talks to the crowd on an individual level, knowing that what causes us to stray differs from person to person. In today’s gospel, he gives advice to certain individuals on how to best prepare their hearts. The first individual who seeks John’s advice is a tax collector. He is a person who is pretty secure in his finances. As such, John tells him to collect no more than the prescribed amount. The second example involved soldiers, who often made a very meager wage. John told them to be satisfied with their wages…not to extort or threaten others for money. These two examples offer two different types of people with different economic backgrounds, but the message is the same. Do your duty, be satisfied with the things that God provides and know that God will provide if more is needed.
Now, John could have simply told people that what mattered is that we follow the various responsibilities placed on us. He could have told the soldiers to make sure they took care of their gear and promptly reported to their superiors. He could have told the tax collector to make sure his forms were in order and made in triplicate. But he didn’t.
John told them to follow their duties that would most affect the human relationships they encounter when doing their jobs. He wanted his followers to remember that we aren’t supposed to live our lives simply for ourselves, or for the job, or for the ethics we learned when growing up. We were to live for others, which is why our jobs and our ethics exist.
We are a God made people. And we are called to remember God’s people when we live out the various tasks of our life.
When I look at my past, I recount multiple times when I was not living in right relationship with God’s creation. But, today, I want to share with you a time when I truly felt that I was in a relationship with another that God truly intended.
When I was a boy, maybe 10 years old, I remember going to church every Sunday. I never much enjoyed leaving the church service…for some reason I always liked staying in the pews, whether I was paying attention to the preacher or not. At that time, however, there really weren’t many kids my age that I could play with or consider friends. I needed a friend. By chance, I found one in a boy who was older than me, who recently joined our church. His name was Christian and unlike the other children his age, he was born with many developmental disabilities. His ability to speak and process information was not the same as it is for many us. As such, none of his peers would spend time with him.
One Sunday, during the peace, I remember Christian walking over to me and asked if I wanted to play a game. Naturally, I said yes and we soon became fast friends. Now that I consider it, I think maybe Christian noticed the loneliness I was feeling and, in turn, I noticed his.
For many years before moving, Christian and I would spend most Sundays sitting together in the pews of the church. We would play games and often be shushed by the adults in front of us. Other times, we sat and listened to the preacher. He was the friend I needed and I was his.
At such a young age, I believe God sent Christian to me and when we were together, we were living in right relationship with one another as creatures of God who had a lot of love and friendship to give. I can’t help but think, however, if I had been a little older, would I have done the same things as his peers? Would I have been afraid of him, because of his differences? Would I have considered myself too mature to form a lasting relationship? Would I have talked down to him like so many adults do with children? I don’t know, but I do realize how easy it can be for all of us to forget what joy and meaning we can encounter when we unapologetically seek relationships with other people. Just look at children for your example.
This past week I went to the Children’s Center Christmas Party. The very instant that Mr. and Mrs. Claus entered the room, the children shouted with such joy that it rivaled the screams one heard for the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. The same joy was found in the eyes of the teens who volunteered their time in yesterday’s Christmas party at the Peter Paul Development Center. They didn’t simply provide children with gifts, because it was the right thing to do. They sat with them, ate with them, and played with them, because they were beloved children of God.
When I look at these examples, I see glimmers of how humans are to be with each other rather than how it often is in the world around us. There is a lot we can relearn by watching the interactions of children…where culture and peer pressure is yet to shape who and what they will encounter. By their example, I see hope. By their example I see the path to repentance. I see the way we are to reorient our hearts when going about our duties in life.
Today, as we continue our time of reflection and preparation for the coming of Christ, I ask you to look at your various tasks, your works, and your charities. Refuse the inclination to simply do them because it is what you have always done or what you think ought to be done. Reflect on those tasks and dare to put a face to them. In-flesh them, with the knowledge that they are done for someone, who like you, is a creation of God. When we keep others in our heart, our paths will be made straight, and we will be made ready to receive the joy that is Christ returned to us in love.