12.13.15 Sermon (December 13, 2015) “What Should We Do?”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 4:02 PM by David Hawkins
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:7-18

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? 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. 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."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 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."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Sermon: "What Should We Do?"             Rev. David Hawkins

As I have mentioned before, the church season of Advent seems to be a little bit out of step with the rest of the world’s march toward Christmas. Most of the world is anticipating an infant, meek and mild, a baby in a manger, while the church is looking forward to the return of the Messiah, the judge of all the nations, the redeemer king. 

There’s no way to make this dichotomy easy; they are two different kinds of things. One is serene, peaceful, the other is apocalyptic.  Both are true, both are important, but it seems like only the church remembers the second part of Advent.

And today’s scripture has some pretty hard-hitting stuff for us as we look forward to the return of Jesus, but I fear that time and distance has diminished its impact. So, in order to hear John the Baptist’s words the way they may have sounded to his original first century audience, I’ve invited some friends to help me bring this passage into our own time, in our language, in our context and situation. You might want to have your Bibles open to our scripture as I paraphrase it. It’s on page 60 in your Pew Bible. 

Just a warning: Things are going to get a little bit brutal. But then again, John the Baptist didn’t pull any punches.

Pastor: You bunch of snakes! You children of sin! So, you’re here today, hoping to avoid judgment. Why do you think you’re exempt? Do you really think that because you call yourselves Christians that you won’t be called to account for your lives? God doesn’t care what you call yourselves. He created the world from nothing, he can make new Christians from worse than nothing, from rocks, from trees, from drug addicts, from enemies, from anybody. 

Your sense of who you are, your complacency, your easy theologies mean nothing to God. And the time is coming, sooner than you think, when you will stand before him, with nothing more than rationalizations and excuses for why you have not done what he asked you to do. Do you not know this? Do you think that maybe God has forgotten us? Do you think he has abandoned the world? Far from it. He is coming again, and there will be an accounting. Are you ready for that? Are you sure?

Crowd (from the pews): What should we do?
(Tax collector starts making her way to the pulpit)

Pastor: Why would it matter what I say? Have you never heard the prophets? Have you never paid attention to what our scriptures have said? Will what I say make any difference if you have ignored the words of Amos, Micah, and Zechariah? Why would my words carry more weight than Hosea, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah? 

You know what do. You’ve heard it said a thousand times. 

If you’ve got more than you actually use, give it to someone who has nothing. If you’ve got two coats, and you use one, give the other away. If you’ve got three cars, and you use two, give the other one away. If you’ve got ten pairs of shoes, and you use nine, you use too many shoes. Give some of them away. If you throw food away, then you’re buying too much food. Help someone who is starving. 

Come on, you all learned this stuff in kindergarten! Do I really need to spell it out for you? Share what you have with others! Feed the hungry, help the poor. It’s in your job description, for crying out loud!

Tax Collector (from the pulpit): But what about me? I’m a bureaucrat, and I have responsibilities. I need to make sure people pay their taxes, pay their fines, pay their dues. The government counts on me to fund their excesses. I’ve got quotas, expectations. Besides, you know that everybody hates me. I deserve some respect, and if I’m not going to get it, well, at least I should get paid a little extra for my time. What should I do? (after question, tax collector goes back to the pews, soldier begins to make his way to the pulpit)

Pastor: Listen, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m going to say, but I guess you need me to say it anyway. Stop cheating the people! The reason everybody hates you is because you’re corrupt! You put your thumb on the scales of justice, and you steal from your own constituency. Your job doesn’t give you the right to take money that doesn’t belong to you. You have a job to do, yes, but you chose this job, and you can’t simply make up your own rules as you go along. You are a representative of the government, and you are only given the right to collect the amounts prescribed for you. No more. 

Soldier (from pulpit): And what about me? I’m a soldier, working long hours, with little pay. I protect the people from threats. They owe me their security, their very lives. For what, nothing? How am I supposed to live, feed my family? What should I do? (after question, soldier goes back to the pews, politician begins to make his way to the pulpit)

Pastor: You have been entrusted with the protection of the people, yet you have broken that trust by using your power to intimidate and threaten. When the trust between a community and its protectors is broken, whether they are soldiers or policemen, there can be no expectations of civil order. Stop abusing your authority. Stop abusing those under your protection. Be content with your wages. You have a difficult job, no one denies that. But it doesn’t give you the right to treat others with anything less the dignity you yourself deserve. 

Politician: But what about me? I’m politician, and I need votes. People aren’t going to vote for me if I look weak, especially in times of national chaos and terror. And now we’ve got all these refugees trying to get away from a dictator in the middle of a civil war in a country far away. They are completely different than us, they don’t look like us, they don’t speak like us, they don’t even worship the same way we do. I’ve heard that my own religion is somehow based on kindness and compassion and taking risks in the name of Jesus Christ, but, I mean, honestly, I’d be out of office in a red-hot minute if I said anything like that. What should I do? (after question, politician goes back to the pews.)

Pastor: Well, now you’re asking me to meddle in politics. And as you know, there’s really nothing that we prophets can say about stuff like that. And if I actually did say something about this issue, I would be a sympathizer, wouldn’t I? I’d be someone who hates our country, who wants to see it destroyed. This is hardly a win-win situation. We’ll just have to leave it up to the professionals to work it out. I mean, really, our scriptures don’t really have anything to do with the real world, do they? 

Crowd (from the pews): Wait, what?

Does John the Baptist really have to spell it out for us? Does he have to tell his people to share what they have? Does he have to tell tax collectors not to use their position for extortion? Does he have to tell soldiers not to use threats and intimidation to steal from those they protect? Does he have to tell us to remember our basic sense of who we are, remind them of our own faith origin, to remember Father Abraham, who was a wandering Aramean, or to remember that the parents of our savior were once refugees who depended on the kindness of strangers to survive in a strange land?

Does John have to remind us of the basics of their faith? Do we not know them already?

I don’t envy the leaders of our country. They have a tough job. They are tasked with the duty, the obligation to keep us safe. And I can’t even imagine the pressure they must be under with the current threats in our modern world. 

But I cannot for a minute believe that our situation is more dire than that of the tiny state of Israel during the time of the Prophets, as they faced imminent threats from world empires on every side, and yet they still affirmed their own faith to welcome the stranger, to care for the refugee, to provide sanctuary for those who fear for their lives. 

They, too, were afraid, just like us. They, too, had every reason to shut their doors, to build walls, to exclude those who were different. But they didn’t. In fact, they made it an article of their faith, even in times of national emergency, to remember the least, and to provide shelter for them. Over and over and over again, this was the word of the Lord given to them from the Prophets.

Here’s the deal. Politicians will say what they need to in order to survive.  I don’t blame them for that. But the church cannot. We cannot stand by and say nothing as an entire religion is maligned and excluded. We cannot stand by quietly as fellow American citizen’s faith in God and civil patriotism is questioned. We cannot forget our roots because our own sense of security is shaken. 

This question of whether or not we, as a people are willing to take in refugees strikes at the heart, not only of who we think we are as Americans, but also who we say we are as Christians. I can’t, we can’t let this issue go without saying something about it.

I was reading the other day about a church in Atlanta, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, who had committed to reaching out to a refugee family from Syria. The governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, like ours, has pledged to do everything in his power to prevent refuges from settling in Georgia, but here they are, and they need help.

So this 8,000-member church, which is pastored by the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Rev. Bryant Wright, is helping these Muslims settle into their community. They are teaching them how to count American money, how to speak and read English, and where and how to shop for food and clothing. They know that their actions are not universally appreciated, but they also know that they are accountable to a different standard. 

This is what Pastor Wright said about his decision to go against the will of his state’s governor.

“I disagree with Gov. Deal on that decision and at the same time I understand his responsibility as governor is different from mine,” Wright told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I really do understand the responsibility he has of seeking to protect the citizens of the state.

“It was just so heartbreaking to see the humanitarian disaster that is occurring because of the war in Syria. Knowing the United States was going to be taking on more Syrian refugees, we just wanted to be stepping up to minister with the love of Christ to these folks who have often lost everything.”

Obviously, we here in Plainview probably won’t be in the position of trying to figure out whether or not we, as a church, would reach out to a refugee family resettled in our town. But, I would like to think that if we were, we wouldn’t need to go up to John the Baptist, and ask, “What should we do?” 

The answer, it seems to me, is perfectly clear, I hope. We would do the right thing, even if that meant that we were out of step with the world. It wouldn’t be the first time. It probably won’t be the last.