Out in the world the emphasis right now is to some extent on human relationships and largely on stuff. On the radio the other day, I heard a lengthy discussion about making sure your unpleasant relatives don’t spoil your Christmas party. That was cheery. But mostly we hear about stuff. I am always surprised by the way some automobiles are advertised this time of year. It’s somehow as if God became incarnate so that we could all have really nice cars.
But in the Church, alongside all this we do worry about because we live in the world, we also hear the call to listen and to wait. We are being pulled out of ourselves into the mystery of the love of God.
In today’s lesson (Luke 3:7-18*), John the Baptist shows up as the voice that cries in the wilderness in some very specific terms. His mission is to destroy the people’s confidence in themselves. He takes people down for presuming on their status as children of Abraham. He tells them that this status is no big deal; God can make children out of rocks if it comes to it. There is something beautifully ironic about the way that St. Luke reports that John laid his listeners out, then sums up by writing, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
At its heart, it strikes me that the message of John the Baptist is sane and reasonable and loving. John has told people that they live at the great turning point of God’s history. Something is going to happen that is so dramatic that John’s fiercest language only begins to do it justice. But John is not saying that his listeners should respond to the moment at hand with anxiety or distress or really anything out of the ordinary.
When people asked John specifically what they should do in response to his message, he spoke to them in terms that make perfect sense. “Whoever has two coats among you must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise,” he said. To tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” What is being asked of people here is not heroic self-renunciation or self-sacrifice. If you see someone who needs help and you can help them, do it. Do your job honestly. Don’t be a bully or abuse your power just because you can.
At this crucial turning point in human history, John says people’s behavior should be calm and kind. Their neighbors need them. The world needs them. Share. Do your job.
It seems to me that this year this message is worth emphasizing, because we live in such difficult, really dramatic times. So much frightens us now. There is so much anxiety out there. And we are not immune to any of this. “So what then should we do?” It’s a legitimate question.
Of course the fact that there is a national election coming up has made all this worse. There are lots of people writing and speaking and shouting in ways that are intended to make us more afraid, hoping that eventually we will ask them to protect us and lead us to any policy or any course of action that makes the fear go away.
Our call is to be faithful and practical and direct. We can’t shout down the people who are shouting. The culture is not going to change right away to make us happy. But with the grace of God helping us, we can live in ways that show we are not terrified or overwhelmed by what is happening around us.
As followers of Jesus we can serve as examples of what it means to try to think clearly. We can share, and do our jobs, and refuse to follow along when we’re invited to bully people who are different than we are. We can speak up for the suffering with courage, and treat with respect anyone who disagrees with us.
Anxious and distressed as we are, we can refuse to let anxiety or distress disable us. We can expect to be transformed into better people than we have been. We can remind each other to trust that in this very world, God is at work in ways we can see if we look closely, and in other ways we will never be able to fathom.
For now, in this time being, our gracious sanity is what our world needs. And the witness we are being called to is letting others know we find the courage to do this in Jesus. Jesus, whose birth hallows this planet and lays a claim on every human being. Jesus, whose death and resurrection have set us free from every fear and invited us to live now as though what is present and passing away is the gateway to what lasts forever.
In this Advent season may we be waiting in joy and hope to celebrate the Lord’s birth that will transform us and the lives we touch around us.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, in these days and always. Amen.
* This “From the Bishop’s Desk” post is excerpted from the sermon preached by the Rev. Richard H. Graham, presiding bishop of the ELCA Metro D.C. Synod, at the Bishop’s Advent Eucharist on December 9, 2015. The text for the day was Luke 3:7-18.