Saint Luke, 1360–64
Attributed to Master Theodoric
Attributed to Master Theodoric
Introduction: God Is on the Move ... The Time Is Now
The Bible is a book about a movements. To be more precise, it's a story of God's movement. God is always the first mover, whether we are talking about the work of creation or the work of re-creation/salvation.
The opening movement is clear. God moves in Genesis 1 & 2 to create and establish beauty, order, abundance, life, harmony in relationship, and the opportunity for us to dwell with God. God's intention is for us to live in a creative, dynamic and open relationship where God is still and always Lord, but where God also enables us to utilize and enjoy our God-given freedom and power. Long before we encounter our "original" sin, "grace -God's presence in our lives - is even more 'original,' or fundamental, to our existence ... Grace prevails, if we allow it to." (Kevin O'Brien, The Ignatian Adventure, pg. 97).
Unfortunately, our spiritual parents chose not to remain in this state of "original" grace. They openly defied God's orders (Gen. 3). The effects of this original sin were disastrous. All that we know to plague us as humans was introduced by Adam and Eve's rebellion. Suspicion crept into our hearts and minds. Rather than relating to each other in openness and with a spirit of love and trust, we began to blame and find grounds for accusation. Enmity was introduced between ourselves (Adam against Eve) and between us and God's creation (humanity vs. creation). Loving trust gets replaced with fear. Living in the confidence that we are God's beloved gets replaced with shame. We go from feeling secure to feeling vulnerable. We go - in short - from life to death.
We can call this the second - unfortunate - movement in the story of the Bible. We can even label it "our rebellion" - our movement away from God. We see this tragic truth play out immediately after Adam and Eve's Fall. We don't just merely make one bad decision. Our enmity leads to open competition and the first murder (Gen. 4). Racism and divisions between our special "clans" are introduced (Gen. 4-5). Led now by greed instead of harmony, we exploit and abuse creation in order to build our own towers of glory (Gen. 11). In all, we set ourselves in direct opposition to God.
Though we were created by God to enjoy and find favor/life by living in relationship (not just with God but with each other and with creation), sin forces us into all out war. The Lord seems heartbroken and uncertain with what to do, choosing first an attempt at re-creation through the Flood (Gen. 6). Thankfully, though, God turns from divine retribution and begins seeking to reclaim and save us. In fact, the whole rest of the Bible can be seen as God's passionate, loving attempt to rescue a wayward and beloved child.
God's Holy Agents
And just how will God rescue us? Beginning in Genesis 12 we see God's means for reclaiming us and calling us back into relationship with Him. The Lord is going to use specific men and women to become his agents and prophets, his voice to this lost world. First, it is Abraham and his family. Later it will be Moses and Miriam and Aaron. Then Joshua. Then the Judges. Then - for a time - it will be the priests whom God raises up to call God's people back to the Lord, followed by Israel's first few kings. However, from the start, using kings to draw God's people out of the world and back to God's ways is destined to fail. There is too much temptation in the realms of power to return to that second movement. We are too prone to seek to be like gods and to seek our own comfort and satisfaction. We are too prone to set ourselves in opposition to God's rule.
Consequently, God must raise up that other agent. God must use the prophet - the agent, the voice, the chosen one whose voice will speak God's Word. The prophet will have to find a way to break through our resistance and our high walls of pride and sin. The prophet will have to raise his voice as an outsider - telling us to flee from our cities destined for destruction and our lives headed for ruin. The Lord wants to rescue us. The third movement is salvation. But, we have to listen for the prophet's voice.
Political Leaders: Footnotes in God's Salvation Story
This is the situation we are stepping into when we jump into the third chapter of Luke. Humanity is resisting God. New political powers and leaders have established themselves by manipulation and power plays. At the top is Emperor Tiberius, the ruler of the latest version of humanity's rebellious attempts to overthrow and overtake God's rule as Lord of creation. Under him are those men struggling to choke control and power out of Israel's institutions: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius from the political/military world and Annas and Caiaphas from the religious establishment.
By our human perspective, these men were the "big deals" of their day. They were the men recorded in the annals of history, the men whose names are etched into stone and captured in marble busts.
But, Luke, as one of those "other" voices seeking to wake us back up to God's voice, does something beautiful and comic by putting these men at the start of this Jesus story. He is - as others have said - making us realize that the "big" political leaders of the world are mere footnotes in God's bigger and deeper movement of salvation. Though they pretend to be at the center of everything (and though we often make the mistake of thinking they are), they are ancillary to God's bigger drama. What a valuable reminder to us as Christians as we move deeper into this already long election year!
God's Salvation Movement: From the Margins
Since we are in rebellion against God, the work and word of our salvation must come not from the city center or the central bank. It must come from the margins. God must speak from beyond the "powers and principalities" that have become infected with sin and its effects.
Welcome, then, John the Bapstist, the son of Zecariah! The son of a priest who was once connected to the establishment, but who also suffered marginalization, John the Baptist is perfectly equipped to carry out this mission.
Luke, like the other gospel writers, wants us to see how John the Baptist is standing in the tradition of other prophets who have come before him to speak truth to power and to proclaim God's saving word over and above the false world of human progress that is actually leading to death and choking out life from creation. We are meant to see that John the Baptist shares a particular connection with Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe (1 Kings 17). Both men begin their ministry near the Jordan out "in the wilderness". Both men begin their ministry living in radical dependence upon God and a restored harmony with creation (fed by Ravens/eating locusts and wild honey). Moreover, both men are charged with a radical message of repentance - insisting that we in general and leaders in particular turn from our hearts of rebellion and pride and open up our hearts, minds and ears to hear God's rescuing word.
Desperate Times Call for Desparate Actions
In order to break through our defenses, John the Baptist must do more than simply be a "good pastor" who preaches on Sunday mornings and tries to fill up the pews. He must come to afflict the comfortable, which is precisely what we see him doing in the first words Luke has him speaking: "You brood of vipers! ... every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Lk. 3:7-9).
Each of us prefers to see ourselves in the best light we can and to pretend that our situation surely isn't that bad. One of the ways we do this is by constantly comparing ourselves to others and by creating class systems. We marginalize and label certain people as "sinners" (or "terrorists") so we can feel justified or safe. For John's audience, they played this game by claiming their special position as God's people and as God's favored nation. Since they were the ancestors of Abraham, surely they couldn't be too bad, was their general thinking. Surely, they were on the right path. Such thinking needs to be immediately undermined and challenged. So long as we are content to rest in our human/cultural given identity, we are not truly free to hear God's saving word.
More than Just Good, Church-going People
The implications of John the Baptist's harsh accusations should hit us hard too. First of all, we must be very careful since we are the good, church-going people of our own community. Too often, we can begin to rely upon our "religious identity" as proof that we are fine just the way we are. One way to translate this passage from Luke is to have it read as follows: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Actually start changing your life. Don't say to yourselves, 'I am a Presbyterian and have been a member since 1954'; for I tell you. God doesn't need your church affiliation and membership. God needs you to cross out of resting in your places of worldly establishment and comfort and to begin living lives that truly are about bringing justice into this world, especially to those who are "left out" and marginalized."
More than Just Good, Patriotic People
We also need to hear John the Baptist's words coming at us in another way. Too often we are prone to idolizing our nation and falling into a type of patriotism that we claim is Christian, but is actually much more like the idolatry occurring in Jesus' day about the Roman Empire. As sinful people, we are particularly prone to mistaking earthly kingdoms for God's Kingdom. We almost can't help falling into this trap. The Israelites did it time and time again in the Old Testament, most particularly in their idolatry with their leaders (Saul/Solomon) but also with the very idea of the greatness and "preferred" place of their nation.
We know that the wider world was falling into this trap during Jesus' time with the Roman Empire. The statement "Jesus is Lord" at the heart of our faith is actually a subversive, counter-cultural truth proclaimed against the other idea that was out there and that people were being forced to say, "Caesar is Lord." John the Baptist's audience was in danger not only of falling into the habit of thinking they were safe because they were good Jews. They were also living in a culture that was begging people to give their faith and trust and control over to a political body that promised to give them worldly security and favor.
The connection is only too relevant for us living in the times that we do and as citizens of the world's most powerful force. Even if the popular spin today from some is to keep highlighting America's supposed decline into weakness or vulnerability to outside threats, the truth is that a vast amount of wealth and power is still heavily invested and controlled by our nation.
And just as we must be always on the lookout of simply relying upon our "religious" identity, we must also be equally vigorous in falling into an unhealthy, idolatrous patriotism where we see ourselves as more secure, more favored or more important than other people or other parts of the world. Here, too, we can imagine John the Baptist speaking to our current situation: "You brood of vipers! Do not say that just because you are an American that you have found God's favor. What God really cares about is not your earthly citizenship. What God cares about is whether or not you are living like you belong in God's Kingdom."
God's Kingdom, God's Ethics
So what kind of world does God long to recreate for us? If God doesn't want us to simply go along with the dominant culture any more, how can we begin to live more in line with God's desires for our world?
These are the next questions that John the Baptist addresses in his sermon. He's gotten his audience's attention. Now he gives him his ethics lesson.
What we get here with John's teaching and ethics is our first taste of what we're going to be hearing from Jesus. We are beginning to hear God's re-imagining of how we are to live our lives in this fallen world. Remember, God wants to rescue us out of this world and bring us back into God's good plan for our new life. Jesus called this next movement from God "The Kingdom of God." We will soon learn that the only way to gain entrance into this "Kingdom of God" is through Jesus, by his saving and gracious work. Still, there are ways we can begin to prepare ourselves to enter into and live in this kingdom.
The essence of what John has to say is simply this: once you have repented and started anew, start living a life that reflects God's original intent way back in Genesis 1 & 2. Live a fair and just life. Work against the forces of inequality that are ever at play in our fallen world. Don't exploit or take advantage of your neighbor, but go out of your way to live in unity with one another. And don't worry about your own image or your own bank account.
Then, after sensing his audience was immediately falling back into their old habit of wanting to classify and start a cult of personality by worshiping John the Baptist as a Messiah (we can't help but be idolaters!), John intentionally resists their hero worship. No, he is not the Messiah. He's just a messenger. All God's messengers must heed this warning continuously. We are not the Savior. All we do is stand and point.
In our sickness, we cannot stand threats to the false identities we have built up and secured through our efforts and our manipulation. So, we are not surprised at all to learn that John the Baptist is immediately targeted and cast as an "enemy of the state." Herod, one of those earlier footnotes, has a big position, but like so many before him, he has a small and wounded ego. Because his identity is not rooted in his image as a child of God and because he has willfully created an image as a powerful ruler who needs and demands respect, Herod sees John the Baptist as a threat.
Doing God's work will lead to deep resistance from the established powers actively working against God. We know that our deepest battle isn't with politicians or with "flesh and blood." Sin is a spiritual reality that is housed in institutions and powers like political and economic systems, but sin can also into our hearts and minds so that we become threatened by God's Word. We feel challenged by the work of the Spirit in the world, and if we are not careful, we will seek to do away with God's messenger.
Jesus' Baptism & Our Baptism: One Final Way to See What God Is Up to
I won't spend much time on this because I'll lift it up more in worship on Sunday, but the final two verses of our passage give us one other great way to see who God is and how God is trying to speak into our life.
Jesus is baptized by John, and in Jesus' baptism we receive some of the most important affirmations we need to hear. We just saw how Herod was not able to rest in his identity as a child of God. He is living into his false or fallen identity. Here, though, we see Jesus beautifully modeling what it looks like and means to return to our original state of grace: that of God's beloved child.
In Jesus' baptism, we see God bestowing absolute favor and love upon His son. We must remember that by grace this same reality now extends to us through Jesus Christ. In Christ, God looks upon you and says in no uncertain terms, "You are my son/daughter; you are beloved. With you I am well pleased." (In Christ, in other words, we are returned to our original condition).
Alan Storey does a beautiful job of explaining just how key this realization/truth is to our being able to live for Christ when he writes:
"Love casts out fear, therefore the second thing God is determined we realize is: 'You are favored.' In other words, we are graced, i.e. - un-deservedly and un-reservedly loved. We live in a world however, where some people are valued more than others. This is the great lie. The Divine wants all to know that our lives are priceless. We are set free from our fear the moment we accept that we are favored, priceless and held in Love. We are invited to trust that nothing can separate us from this Love, because we live and move and have our being in Love - Divine Love. Jesus teaches us that the ultimate authority in the universe (heaven) is a Loving Parent - a Loving Parent who we do not need to fear and a Loving Parent who we do not need to impress in order to love us." (com.org.za, "Conversations with God", July 31, 2016).
Postscript: God's Wrath
A lot of times I get questions about God's wrath or anger in the Bible. God's fierceness comes up in this passage, when we hear about "the wrath to come" and about how Jesus himself will be bringing a "winnowing fork" to divide the wheat and the chaff - throwing the chaff into the "unquenchable fire".
People don't like to think of God as an angry God, and we can all understand why. But I was reminded in reading in Eugene Peterson's Five Smooth Stones book that we often fail to see the good connection between God's personal love for us and his consuming fire that responds to seeing us being harmed or living a self-destructive life.
From our perspective, we often dwell upon the ungodly aspects of fear and anger. Perhaps we had to deal with a parent lashing out in anger in a way that was hurtful. Or, we've all known those who seem to "blow their top" because they are actually dealing with their own deeper issues and insecurities. God's anger is not like this. God's anger and fierce emotion derives not out of insecurity or a hot-headedness that seeks to control. God's anger is rooted in love, and we must always remember that God is not an indifferent being. God is relational has a passionate, consuming love for us. This is why the prophets in the Old Testament often speak about God as a spurned lover, suffering heartache in watching his beloved go chasing after "less-wild lovers". We would be appalled and disheartened if we saw a husband not feeling any sense of anger if he were watching his wife fall into an unhealthy relationship or vice versa. The same goes for parents. We understand and even see it as a healthy thing when a parent feels a great pain and even anger when she sees that her child is being seduced into a life that will lead to a type of imprisonment, perhaps even death. This is godly anger. It is the passion that so desires us to come out of our sickness and death that it will do all that it can to win us back.
God loves us enough to fight for us. God loves us enough to not just sit there and watch us remain in prison.