A Challenge from John

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I’ve been diligently drafting posts all week, but not completing them. I’ve been dancing around issues not wanting to write the post I feel brewing. But, here goes diving in headfirst.

As I read this week’s lectionary texts (Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7 if you want to read yourself), I felt an initial sense of joy and rest on my first reading. I was excited to talk about the good news of God.

Then, I came to the Luke 3:7-18 reading. My balloon burst — suddenly and sharply. The tone of Luke 3 didn’t jive with the warm fuzzies of the other passages.  The other passages are about the awesome things God promises and celebrating God. God brings hope; God will dwell among us. God will bring peace. God is our defender. Hopeful things.

The Luke reading opens with John calling the crowds before him a brood of vipers and challenging them about their lifestyle. John’s method of preparing the way for the Lord is challenging people on their actions and hypocrisy. And it culminates with warnings of impending judgment when Messiah comes. John’s message is demanding, not comforting, even as Luke describes John’s warnings as “announcing Good News to the people (Luke 3:18).”

Actions matter. John says, “prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God (Luke 3:8).” This isn’t about earning salvation or grace or favor. As an anxious achiever type person, I can’t stress that sentence enough, particularly since I’ve spent a large amount of my life trying to earn my salvation or at least be good enough that I didn’t lose it.

John’s point is about living as though we are people changed by God. People living with their hearts, words and actions in harmony. Not just people who talk the talk. This is the lifestyle that John encourages in those waiting for Messiah to come. As we hope for Jesus’s appearance and believe God to be faithful to His promise, I’m convinced that this is still a message and exhortation for us who wait for Jesus’ return. The way we live matters to God.

John is sharing the good news with his audience, and his good news comes with warnings of judgment. They’re paired together. Judgment is still good news — even if it brings discomfort with the warning. We can still be excited about what God is up to in the world, even as we feel zinged by the harshness of the message. And maybe the harshness stings a bit more from my middle class white American vantage point.

Rather than running from the ouch, I want to lean into it. What’s the message God has for me here? Not a shame message. But, what if there’s an invitation here that initially seems a little bigger than I can dream of for myself?

We are loved by God. Deeply. Wildly. Delightedly. Beyond what we can even imagine. We are welcome! We don’t earn it or acheive it on merit. And we are not the only ones loved by God. Others matter to God every bit as much as I do. I am not the center of the universe. I have to hold both together.

John called his listeners to live justly. Living justly is the sign that a person takes God seriously. Sharing with others as we’re able. Doing our work ethically — not stealing, cheating, swindling or extorting. Reporting honestly. Learning to be content with what we do have, rather than eternally thirsty for more.

In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, I saw outrage on Twitter and Facebook over politicians saying “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” And I think the point of that outrage ties pretty closely with John’s point: don’t just utter empty words. Let your words and your actions match. It’s not that thoughts and prayers are bad, rather that thoughts and prayers can be empty words requiring no action from us.

I’m guilty of uttering prayers which expect God to work independent magic. God do something big that doesn’t require me to participate. Just make things happen outside of me. And sometimes God does that.

But, most often in Scripture and life, I see God using human hands and feet to make change happen. God uses Moses to lead people out of Egypt. Jesus takes on human flesh and walks among us. God speaks through Deborah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Huldah and Ezekiel. God calls Samuel and has him anoint Saul and David to lead the people of Israel.

What if we began asking God to use us to make the world better and brighter? God, send us. Help us take responsibility. What if we asked God to show us one place — just one — where we could pitch in? What’s one thing we could do? I’m not asking us to be Mother Theresa overnight. But, what is something simple that you could do to tangibly love people? Not just talk about it, but actually do it. And not all of things in the world. You and I aren’t built to carry the world on our shoulders, but we can take on one thing and do that one thing pretty darn well.

Here are some options to get the wheels spinning.

Make a meal for a family in a rough patch. Mentor a kid. Volunteer with an organization doing good work in your city. Pull back from yelling at a store clerk when you’re frustrated. Apologize for the way you hurt someone — whether the hurt was intentional or not. Write a note of encouragement to an acquaintance.

Or, even, send a letter to your congressperson or senator on an issue in which you’re invested; I mean, if it’s a big enough deal to post on Facebook or Twitter, why not write your government representatives? I’m just saying.  And I’ll back down off my soapbox now.

Let’s be a people who move our hands and feet, not just our mouths.


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