“What Should We Do?”
December 13, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
John the Baptist was a great many things, but subtle was not one of them. From the very first account of John in action we hear of him moving about in his mother’s womb to alert her to the presence of Jesus growing within Mary. And this action is echoed throughout the rest of his life as he is always making a ruckus demanding that people pay attention to the presence of Jesus.
In our text today we hear him confront those who have just been baptized in a very unsubtle way. Keep in mind these are the ones already seeking Christ, who have sought out John specifically so they may be baptized into this new way of being. But John doesn’t want them to use their baptism or God’s grace as an excuse to become complacent. Now that they have this new life they are to bear fruit, they are to thoughtfully and passionately follow the life that God has set before them.
“What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question.
They were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.
But the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of everyday life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives. It required some serious discernment about what their lives would look like now that they had been so utterly transformed.
Discernment is one of those words that we tend to use in pivotal moments in our lives. Figuring out where to go to college, what career path to take, who to marry, all of these decisions are best made with serious discernment. Which means taking the time to figure out what is best, not just financially or logistically, but spiritually. What will bring you deepest joy? How can you best glorify God?
But discernment should not just be limited to those big decisions, rather our understanding of God’s desires for our lives should inform our every action.
The youth of this church are used to doing “highlights and lowlights,” as a way to reflect on their lives, where they experience joy, and where they experience sadness. In spiritual discipline terms this practice is called “examen.” Another way to look at this is what is life giving and what is depleting? Or what makes you feel closest to God and what makes you feel far away?
There is a book I’ve read about examen, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
The authors of the book use this story as an example of how clinging to the things that give us life help us to be better equipped to serve God and others. And the way that they discern what is life giving is through the examen process, pausing to take account of what has made them feel close to God and what has made them feel distant, keeping track of these patterns throughout the weeks, months, and years, and working from that full knowledge of their relationship with God to shape what direction they should take in their lives.
In our passage today, John shares with those gathered in no uncertain terms that now that they are baptized their work as Christians is by no means finished. They must now live lives of fruitfulness. Using examen and prayerful discernment, we become attentive to God’s presence and direction, which can help us figure out what to do, as well how we may best live into our baptized lives.
In Luke 3, verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked [John], ‘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.’”
“What should we do?” This is the same question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message, “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While John the Baptist begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.
Through this, John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.
Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?
Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits. Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism. Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions. By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”
So, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully? What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?
You are tasked with paying attention to the ways God is directing your life, and responding in ways that further God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.