Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
This past Friday, my family and I ventured out to procure our Christmas tree. We were in a festive mood: we had a good friend in town, our 17 month old was happy and well-rested, and everyone was finally ready to decorate the house for Christmas. But when we got to the tree farm, our holiday spirit vanished pretty quickly. The weather was clammy and uncomfortable, the ground was muddy and covered with forsaken tree limbs, the remaining trees were scraggly and hard to come by, and somehow there were gunshots in the distance. It was a little like looking for a tree in a Cormac McCarthy novel. By time we had acquired our tree, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling not at all festive. As it turns out, my Christmas spirit lasts only as long as it is convenient.
Or perhaps, that experience was preparation for this morning’s gospel reading. Today we return to the banks of the Jordan, to hear John the Baptist angrily call his people to repentance. In the gospel according to Luke, John’s wrath is particularly evident: “You brood of vipers!” he charges. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance, because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John, like the fire and brimstone prophets of old, is putting the fear of God into his audience, which is further illustrated by his chilling depiction of the coming Messianic judge: “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.” This fear-based evangelism is not an unfamiliar strategy, and it seems to have been effective for John. Luke tells us that the people who gathered at the Jordan, even the tax collectors and soldiers, were moved to ask what they should do, how they might forestall the coming wrath. Given John’s rhetoric elsewhere, you would think that he would prescribe dramatic acts of contrition. Instead, John’s instructions are astonishingly straightforward. To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to everyone else, John the Baptist says simply, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.” The juxtaposition is startling. Here’s John the Baptist, in a pique of prophetic rage, telling those he has just warned about divine judgment that discipleship isn’t all that hard. In fact, there’s a level to which it is convenient: if you have extra, share what you have left over. It’s really that simple. If John were writing a self help book, it might be titled, “How to succeed in discipleship without really trying.”
John the Baptist shows up in our lectionary fairly regularly, especially during the season of Advent. This is interesting, because this season reminds us that there’s a level to which John got his prediction wrong. At the very least, he seems to have misunderstood the nature of God’s judgment. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, the one John was preparing us for, wields neither a winnowing fork nor an ax. Later on, in fact, John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is indeed “the one who is to come,” implying that John was disappointed with how the ministry of Jesus was unfolding. In the other gospels, Jesus picks up where John left off, telling parables about separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. But in Luke’s gospel judgment occurs not when God separates the wheat from the chaff, but when people are confronted with and indicted by their failure to apprehend the grace made known in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is fundamentally different than that of his cousin John.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than their different approaches to generosity, particularly when it comes to coats. When John exhorts the crowds who come to be baptized, he tells them that discipleship isn’t all that complicated; it’s as easy as giving away your extra coat. But a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” The implication is that as the person who stole your coat is running away, you should call out and say, “Hold on; you forgot something.” John frames generosity this way: if you are warm and your sister is cold, you should do whatever you can to make your sister warm, as long as that does not make you cold. Jesus, on the other hand, frames generosity in a far more dramatic way: if you are warm and your enemy is cold, you are called to do whatever it takes to make her warm, even if you end up cold. For John the Baptist, generosity is about common sense; it’s about doing what anyone an ounce of compassion would do, about sharing what wouldn’t be difficult to part with. For Jesus, discipleship is an inherently risky proposition; it requires us to become vulnerable, to give of our very selves. Jesus calls us to look beyond what is convenient or safe and risk ourselves on behalf of others. This risky model of discipleship asks us to think about the humanity of Syrian refugees before we think of them as potential enemies. This is an inconvenient discipleship; it transcends common sense and fundamentally changes the way we understand the world.
One night in 2008, Julio Diaz got off the No. 6 train in the Bronx. Suddenly, a teenager brandishing a knife stopped him and demanded his wallet. Diaz immediately complied with the young man’s request, but as he ran away, Diaz called out and said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” As Diaz removed his coat, the teen asked him what he was doing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” Bewildered by this astonishing demonstration of generosity, the would-be mugger accepted Diaz’s invitation to have dinner at the diner he visited every night on his way home. When the bill came, Diaz said that he would be happy to treat, but that the young man had his wallet. Diaz made him a deal though: he would pay for dinner and give the teen $20 in exchange for returning his wallet and handing over the knife. The young man complied without hesitation and went on his way. By risking himself, Julio Diaz saw the humanity of someone who had made himself an enemy. By thinking beyond safety and convenience, Julio Diaz was able to see the young man who robbed him, and indeed the world, in an entirely new way.
In these final weeks of Advent, we are called to reflect on the risk inherent in the incarnation: the fact that God came to what was his own, and yet God’s own people did not accept him. Yet in spite of this rejection, the Word became flesh, dwelled among us, and became the means for our redemption. When we recognize that the entire world has been and will be redeemed through the supreme risk at the heart of the gospel, we can see the world in an entirely new way.