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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fruit Matters.

Luke 3:1-14.

            Having following the conception and birth of John and Jesus in the first 2 chapters of his book, in today’s reading Luke jumps forward to the ministry of a now adult John the Baptizer.  He sets the stage by going into some detail about who was in charge at the time, beginning with the Roman Emperor, Tiberias.
              The people of the Mediterranean basin had no extensive calendars based on meticulous observation of the heavens like, say, the Mayans.  They identified what year it was by measuring from some commonly accepted date, usually a natural occurrence like an earthquake or a political event.  Years were often identified by the length of rulers’ reigns.  This is what Luke does. 
            So Luke’s first point is simply to tell people, using the most accepted standard of the time, when the events he is about to recount took place.  By our reckoning, his story begins in the year 29 AD, maybe 60 or 70 years prior to Luke’s writing. 
            Luke has two other points to make, however.  First, starting a story with “in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberias” is very different from starting with “once upon a time,” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  Luke wants to make sure we know what world this story is about.  It relates to our historical existence as temporal, physical, mortal beings dwelling on planet Earth.
            As such, it means this story has to do with the kind of outward, relational, historical, political life we all live.  This story is supposed to impact what we do with our bodies on the Earth in time.  It will be about real relationships and actual communities.      
            He also situates the story in an overtly political context, by mentioning several specific rulers.  The subtext here is a reminder that the Jewish nation was at this point broken, divided, and conquered.  There are 4 rulers of separate Jewish territories, including a Roman governor, all under the Emperor.  Plus two collaborationist, puppet high priests.  The political and religious life of the people was thoroughly corrupted.
            Luke makes a point of naming these political leaders, some of whom will be involved in the story later, as a way of saying that these are the people whom everybody thought were in charge, but a new and very different kind of King now emerges, one who will overthrow the power of these other kings over human hearts.
              These rulers show up in the text like Pharaoh at the beginning of Exodus.  Luke wants us to know who is going to be defeated.  He wants us to know from whose power the people will be liberated.  These are the rulers, says Luke, whose days are now numbered: Tiberias, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas.

            At that time and in that place, a situation of abject subservience, Luke tells us, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”  We’re supposed to be reminded of several things here.  First of all, John is like the classical prophets of Israel to whom the word of God also came.  Secondly, this is the son of Zechariah, the priest, whose birth was so portentous in chapter 1. 
            And finally, John is out in the wilderness.  The Israelites had spent a couple of generations in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt.  The wilderness is where people interacted most intimately with God.  John goes down to the Jordan River, which also has profound connotations for the life of the people as the symbolic boundary of the Promised Land.
            What John proclaims is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It is a way of preparing people for the Lord’s coming by straightening out what is crooked and leveling what is uneven, according to a prophecy of Isaiah.  John is saying that we have to get our lives in order so we will be able to see and receive the new thing God is doing.
            Baptism is simply a ceremonial immersion in the water of the Jordan, symbolizing the washing away of impurities and a second birth to new life.  It is a way for people to express their wish to wipe the slate clean and begin anew.  John’s message is that of the “second chance” at life, that we can be free of our bad decisions and the weight of our guilt for past actions.  We can start over; we can have a “do-over.”  We can press the reset button of our life.  Things don’t have to stay the same.
            Repentance means turning in a new direction, having a new way of thinking and seeing things.  It means we turn away from our old habits, practices, prejudices, commitments, allegiances, and turn towards the life prescribed by God.  This is a life characterized by equality and justice, fairness and honesty, humility and love.
            Forgiveness is a letting go of sins, which are the products and evidence of our separation from God and God’s ways.  The whole point is that we are able to move in a new direction unencumbered by the defilements we have brought upon ourselves by decades of selfish, violent, fearful, hateful, and angry behavior.
            We don’t look for forgiveness, release until we have a sense of being intolerably burdened and crippled and crushed by the weight of our sins and their consequences.  People do not change unless the alternative is death, and even then some would rather die than change.  You don’t venture out into the desert to hear John and be baptized by him unless you have hit bottom in some way.  When your life has become unmanageable and intolerable and unsustainable, that’s when you realize a need to turn your life around and find some kind of release.  That’s when you’re willing to let the guy who wears camel skin and eats bugs dunk you in the river.  You’ll try anything.

            People would come to John conscious of how bad things had become with them and with Israel generally.  Knowing Scripture, they are aware that injustice and disobedience have dire consequences, that God does not let faithlessness and corruption pass, that disaster is imminent.  They want to know if there is for them any way out of this brewing catastrophe.
            John sees this and asks them where they got the idea that “the wrath to come,” God’s final judgment, is something they could escape from at all.  He calls them vipers, snakes, probably meaning treacherous and violent.  And he warns them not to depend on being a descendant of Abraham for their salvation.  John’s ministry is not to reassure them of their salvation if they just hold on to their traditions.  God is not going to regard their genealogy or their ancestry.  God will not even regard their change of heart in coming out to be dunked in the river, if that’s all it is, showing that they have a different opinion. 
            No.  If you do not produce good fruit, he says, you will be thrown into the fire like the wood of an unproductive olive tree.  God doesn’t want more people hanging on to Abraham.  What God is going to recognize is changed behavior.  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he says.  When people emerge from the water, they immediately ask John what they should do.  How do we live out this new life?  How should we behave differently now?
            Neither is God concerned about our creeds, our faith-statements, our church-attendance records, our theological degrees, or our reliable repetition of church traditions.  A heart ready for God is one that has demonstrated a trust in God by acting differently. 
            John is not shy about telling them what to do.  First, he tells the crowds, share.  Those who have more should share with those who have less.  The value here is economic equality. 
            The problem John identifies is a disparity in wealth.  When some have more than they need, and others have less than they need, God is displeased.  This is not the plan God gives them in the Scriptures.  The consequences for sustaining this kind of injustice are severe. 
            If you have more that is not because God is rewarding you for being such a great person.  If you have managed to accumulate more of God’s resources than others, that could happen for any number of reasons, from good luck to hard work.  No matter.  God values equality such that all have what they need.  God does not incentivize productivity or some such self-serving nonsense.  If you have more, you share with those who have less.  Period.  Next question.

            Some tax collectors went out to see John as well.  This was an inherently corrupt profession in those days because tax collection had been “privatized,” as we would say today.  Independent contractors were assigned a certain amount of revenue to collect for the government.  Their profit was whatever they were able to collect above that.  Some of these people got very rich.  All of them were wildly unpopular, as you can imagine.
            To them John says, “Don’t make a profit.  Just collect what you are assigned to collect.”  To do this would mean some kind of reliance upon the trust and goodwill of the people.  Instead of pitting people against each other, which is part of the way the Roman government maintains control over them, this method actually brings people together in such a way that all suffer together and no one gets rich by impoverishing their neighbors. 
            John reflects Scripture in desiring that the inequalities in society be diminished.  There is to be no hierarchy, no classes, no bunch of people that has a license to loot or oppress others.  Your neighbor is not your enemy or your competitor.  That’s what the Romans want: conquered peoples divided by suspicion and resentment, competing for regulated resources.  It is not what God wants.
            Soldiers came to John as well.  These were probably more like local police, not Roman soldiers, who were foreigners with no understanding of John’s ministry.  And he has the same directive for them.  “Do not Lord it over others, do not abuse your power or privilege, do not take bribes or kickbacks, live on your pay.  You’re supposed to serve and protect the people, not fleece them.  And you’re certainly not supposed to be in the pay of those with the most resources.”
            This new community of repentance and forgiveness is going to be about equality and unity.  We are to live like sisters and brothers, not enemies or competitors.  We are to support and be generous with each other, not trying to soak each other for whatever we can get.  We are supposed to embody the leveling, straightening action of God in human life, reducing the domination and superiority of some over others. 
            In this way we counteract the forces that want us mired in hostility, suspicion, and competition, individuals scheming for a bigger slice of an intentionally limited pie, at the expense of our less fortunate neighbors.        
            The words Luke quotes from Isaiah are about preparing the way of the Lord by anticipating in advance the salvation and justice that God is bringing into the world.  The point being that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  In Isaiah’s context, it was a globally visible demonstration of God’s power by the liberation of the people from exile and their return home to the Promised Land.  The whole world will see God’s deliverance. 
            In the same way, the ultimate and final miracle of Jesus’ coming into the world to save is something we have to prepare for.  If we don’t prepare for it, it is very unlikely that we will see it.  We could remain stuck in our bondage, if we do not start now in reshaping ourselves, our communities, our world according to God’s Word.
            Once again, we see a gathering of people who are prepared to welcome the Messiah into the world.  This preparation has to do with breaking down the barriers and hierarchies, bridging the gaps and bringing people together in sharing, generosity, trust, service, and humility.
            When Isaiah proclaims that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” he means that this salvation is not a private, internal matter.  It’s not something that just happens to one group of people.  But because it does happen for one group of people it is something the whole world can see and participate in.  Now, when people look at us, just as when they looked at the returning Jews from Babylon, they see God’s salvation at work in the world.  They see God’s transforming presence.  They see God’s transcendent love shining in the lives of a gathered people.
            May the people we meet and know see us as well, and in us see the love and goodness of God.  This is a message for everyone.  The crooked places are made straight, and the rough ways smooth, and the low places lifted up and the high places brought low.  May this happen first among and with us, and then through us to our whole world, radiating out from this place an attractive beacon of hope, based on the knowledge of the One who is always coming into our lives to save.    


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