December 16, 2018

Luke 3:7-18

“What Should We Do?”

I like how specific John the Baptist gets in his instructions for the crowds of people who came out to the wilderness to be baptized by him and change their lives around. He gets specific about what these people should do, about how they should live, about how their lives should bear fruit worthy of the repentance that they have just professed.

I can imagine that John has been preaching for a while. “Fire and brimstone” kind of preaching in which he’s been warning the people that they better repent now or it’s going to be too late.

The Messiah is coming soon. The judgement day is drawing near. He says it’s like there’s an ax lying at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. What a way to motivate your listeners to change their lives! Essentially, it’s change or die!

But when he finishes his sermon – or perhaps they even interrupt him in the middle – they call out “How?” How do we change? We understand this urgent call to change our lives and get right with God. We understand that the judgement is coming soon, and we want to be found worthy. But specifically, practically speaking, “What should we do?”

It’s a question that modern preachers should keep in mind as well. We can theologize all we like. And we can encourage, inspire, and even warn our listeners to get right with God. But what good is that if we don’t know what that repentance should look like, if we don’t know what we should actually be doing today, or tomorrow, or for the rest of the Jesus-following days of our lives.

The crowds listened to John’s sermon, and then they 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.” Good, general advice… If you have a little more than you need, share it with people who are lacking.

Just yesterday, a bunch of us from the church were over at the apartment of one of our church members. She recently moved into a smaller place, so she had a lot of good, extra household items and furniture that she wanted to give away. Boxes were packed. Trucks were loaded up. And a good collection of useful things were transferred to a room downstairs in the church – all ready for when our refugee family arrives from South Sudan. It seemed like a good response to John’s preaching to me.

But John gets even more specific, because specific groups of people come to him and they want to know how his instructions would apply in their lives. The story continues: “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.”

Do you notice that John’s instructions to these newly-baptized people are not particularly spiritual? He’s not telling them to study the Scriptures every day, or learn more about the coming Messiah, or pray fervently, or gather together in synagogue communities for worship on a regular basis.

John’s telling them to make different choices about what they do with their possessions and their money. If you have more than you need, share. Be satisfied with what you have, and don’t hurt others by trying to get more for yourself.

These are instructions that most of us can probably apply to our own lives and decisions about how we keep, and spend, and share the resources with which we have been blessed. And I think that they are particularly good instructions to keep in mind at this time of year.

A number of years ago, I remember preaching something of an anti-consumer sermon after reflecting on John the Baptist’s message. I was feeling rather overwhelmed by the push in our society at Christmas to buy, buy, buy. It felt like the “reason for the season” had shifted from being Jesus’s birth to helping out the economy by buying a bunch of expensive stuff for each other that we don’t really need.

I was pretty down on “Santa” and his sleigh brimming with toys, and I suggested to my husband that we didn’t need to buy each other presents at Christmas. We celebrated through our worship and service in the church, and we spent a quiet, peaceful time together at home, and that was enough for me.

Now, I haven’t completely changed my mind about that, but I guess I’ve mellowed a bit. Because I think that giving gifts can have an important place in a season that’s all about repentance – about turning our lives around so that we become people who are more generous and more just – sharing from what we have and not aiming just to look after ourselves first.

Even if Santa has become rather commercialized, he was inspired by a faithful and generous saint of the church – St. Nicholas. Nicholas was a priest, abbot, and then bishop of Myra who died in the year 346. He was generous to the poor and was known as a protector of the innocent and wronged. Many stories grew up around him, including this one that inspired the Santa Claus legend with which we are most familiar.

Nicholas heard that a local man had fallen on such hard times that he was planning to sell his daughters into prostitution. So, he waited until night and went to the man’s house. He took three bags of gold and threw them in through the window, saving the girls from lives of prostitution.

What has bothered me in the past about Christmas gift-giving is the sense of obligation to give even when nothing is needed, and I don’t like what sometimes looks like a celebration of material things instead of the gift of God’s coming into our world as a tiny human person.

But I wonder if this season could be a time to practice generosity and gift-giving as a way of growing into our call to be God’s loving and generous people. Nick pointed out recently that Christmas gift-giving shouldn’t be about buying the most expensive thing, but about taking the time to choose just the perfect gift for the person receiving it – showing thoughtfulness and care for that person through the time and attention given to the process.

Can we teach our children and grandchildren not to anticipate Christmas as a time when Santa will magically deposit a bunch of great gifts for them to enjoy on Christmas morning? Can we instead lead them to get excited about how their loved ones will react when they open the gifts carefully chosen, saved-up for, and wrapped by them?

And if our giving stays within the family, or within our own circles of friendship, I think we’ve missed the point too. St. Nicholas gave generously to assist a family that was in desperate need, for whom he had no personal responsibility. And perhaps this can be a season of practising that kind of generosity for us also?

It can be as simple as writing cheques for ministries and missions that do important work. Many of you have already been doing that through the memorial poinsettias, with proceeds going to the work of the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry. Hopefully most of you will come to our fundraising concert on Thursday evening this week and make donations to assist with our refugee sponsorship.

You may also make a special Christmas donation to the work of the church through our congregation. And I’m sure that like me, your mail boxes have been overflowing the last few weeks with Christmas letters and donation opportunities to give you many options for stretching your generosity muscles.

Even beyond church circles, December is a time for generosity in our society… perhaps because of the thought of tax receipts, or perhaps because of a remembered association between Christmas and giving to others. There are people making special donations to food banks, soup kitchens, and many other worthy projects. And some people even donate their time as well as their money to serve people in need.

But John the Baptist was calling the people to a permanent change, not to a few weeks of generous giving and sharing. The people had come out to him in the wilderness – they repented and they were baptized. And baptism wasn’t the end-point of their religious lives, it was the beginning of a new life in Christ. That’s why they wanted to know what they should do now. They wanted to know how their lives would be different now that they had heard the call of God and repented.

Two years ago in the Season of Advent, I started doing something new. I began the Walk to Bethlehem, a fun little way of marking the season, reflecting on Scripture, and getting some exercise at the same time. When I started, walking 4 km each day seemed really huge. I was pretty out of shape, and I even remember getting cramps in my legs after about 2 km. But the goal was to walk 111 km during the 28 days of Advent – the equivalent of walking with Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus would be born. I was determined, and so I did it.

And then in January when I met with my Session, I told them that I completed the Walk to Bethlehem and I enjoyed it so much that I was just going to keep walking. In the months that followed, my physical well-being was radically improved, and my psychological and spiritual well-being was affected too. I discovered a new normal for myself that includes significant daily exercise, and today my Advent walking goal feels rather easy to achieve at 12 km per day.

I think it probably works that way with growing generosity, giving, and sharing in our lives as well. When we determine to start new practices of generosity, it may seem onerous at first, but you just have to keep going long enough to let it become your new normal – to get beyond the initial pain to the joy that comes from giving.

And before long, your life and schedule will be shaped around what you are doing for others. It will seem odd NOT to make sandwiches for Carmichael Outreach, or bake cookies for homebound church members, or bring your truck and move furniture for refugees, or write a cheque for a good cause that will make a difference in people’s lives.

Now, just as I can’t tell you how many kilometres you could or should be walking every day because the right answer to that question will vary from person to person, I can’t determine exactly how much you could or should be giving to others in terms of your money, your time, and your attention and care devoted to people beyond yourself.

But I want to invite you, in this season, to let generosity and love grow in your life. Grow your giving. Grow your time-sharing. Grow your care for the earth and its resources. Grow your involvement in working for justice for all people. Grow your intentional welcome and embrace of those people who are very often left out.

But don’t just do it for a few weeks. Grow something that can become your new normal – your new way of living in response to the amazing grace and love of God by living generously and justly each and every day.

You may remember that John the Baptist had urgency in his preaching. The ax was at the root of the trees, ready to cut them down if they did not bear fruit soon. There is a sense that this is the moment when God is going to determine who is in and who is out – who will experience the Kingdom of God and who will be left out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But later in the same passage, he uses another metaphor – a grain farming metaphor about wheat and chaff. He speaks of “separating the wheat and the chaff,” including some but excluding others. And he says Jesus will come and make this fateful separation, burning the chaff away in “unquenchable fire.” The good people are separated from the bad, like Santa determining who’s been naughty or nice.

That’s one way of interpreting John’s metaphor here, but a closer look points us in a different direction. You see, every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks – collectively known as “chaff” – from the grain. And the goal is, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain.

This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove is the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less fair, or less respectful of others. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn has it right. He says, “there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person.”

What each of us requires is restoration, liberation from whatever “husks” are holding us back. And that is the promise for us in the Scriptures today. Jesus comes that we might be saved, and also that we might be restored – and this is indeed “good news of great joy for all people.”

On this Sunday of JOY because of the amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ, because the Holy Spirit is still working on us, purifying us, blowing away the chaff so that our lives will bear the fruit of the Spirit.

That’s what God is wanting to do for us in this season. May God bless you as you allow your life to be reshaped according to Jesus’ Way of generosity and justice. May you grow in giving and sharing and living selflessly in these days. And when our Christmas celebrations are over, and the decorations are packed away, may you continue to live according to your new normal.

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