Crowds, Taxers and Soldiers

  • Luke 3:7-18

Another very un-Christmas-y text. It does not seem in the right spirit of the season to read a passage that begins “You brood of vipers!” Christmas is in 8 days. Shouldn’t we be hearing glad tidings of great joy? And yet, if anything will wake us up in this season when we are to be expectant and alert, it is someone insulting us. I have no doubt that this is exactly John’s intent. He does not couch his prophecy in kind words. He does not spare people because of their situation or place.

We heard the beginning part of this text last week. John came crying in the wilderness a passage from Isaiah – ending “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” These are hopeful, glad tidings. Exciting – anticipating a Messiah.

Some people think that John IS the Messiah but he disabuses them in short order. There is one coming will be much greater –

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I us coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John did not necessarily know for sure that Jesus was the one, but as Jesus’ ministry continued, he had him messengers sent to Jesus to ask him if it was true. (Luke 7:18-23.)
But Jesus knows John, and knows that his ministry is prophetic. He continues to talk to the people around him about John. (7:24-30)

God’s purpose for humanity is begun in the preaching of John because John is announcing a way made straight for the Messiah – a messiah who will be unlike the military commander and prince that the establishment expect – a messiah who heals, who frees captives, who banishes evil spirits, who brings life to the dead, and who teaches that the least will be the greatest. In Weldon’s words from last week, a messiah who right-side-ups the up-side-down world.

If you read Luke as compared to the other Gospels that describe John, you will not see a description of him that we heard in the children’s story. You will not read that he ate locust and honey or that he wore rough cloth. For Luke, the content not the package was important. It was John’s message that people flocked to the wilderness to hear. His message pointing to Jesus, and some instructions about just how people preparing for the Messiah should act.

When John began preaching repentance in preparation for the messiah, he addresses the real ethical and practical questions that people have. What are they to expect, how are they to act. What is the Messiah expecting of them. But in a way, he gives each of his questioners a step one – in readiness for further steps that the Jesus of Luke’s gospel will be further defiant of expectation.

Three groups: crowds, tax collectors, soldiers might not be the answers that we are hoping for or expect from a social justice gospel: doesn’t say give away all that you have, don’t say give back everything you collected, doesn’t say put away your arms and leave the army

John is the one who prepares the way – we are building up to the Jesus who stands in the temple and pronounces freedom to the captive and sight to the blind

To the crowd: if you have two coats/tunics – give one to someone who needs it and if you have food, do the same.

Luke gets us ready for the teaching of Jesus through John – and John is not slouch in what he is asking. Here at SMC we have been asking folks to bring warm clothes and blankets and sleeping bags for our friends who sleep outside. As I write this on Thursday with the rain pouring out of the sky, I have no doubt that this is a worthy and wonderful thing for us to be doing. For most of us in this congregation it is very little hardship to put something in the warm clothing box. Not necessarily so for those listening to John.

That word I used, “coat” might better be translated shirt or tunic. It’s the main garment of the person. They are to give that up even if they have only one extra. It is difficult hospitality to follow. Yet does not Jesus go further still. It is he who preaches about the lilies and the birds and encourages his disciples in Luke 12:32 and following, “Do not be afraid, little flock. For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven.”

So after the crowds ask, Luke gets more specific…The tax collectors ask, “Teacher what should we do?” And he tells them not to collect more than what is prescribed to collect. This may seem obvious. We certainly become outrages when taxes are imposed unfairly. Officials who take more than what is owed them would be considered embezzlers and people withholding taxes would go down for fraud or tax evasion. That’s what passes for logic in our system.

Yet the tax collectors who ask John this question, teacher what should we do, might have found it difficult advice. They often had to bid for the spot and pay their local officials for the right to do their job. They would make up for the bribe/payment by gouging the citizens.

And John’s advice is only getting Luke’s readers ready for the story of Zacheaus, who waited for Jesus in the tree, who welcomed Jesus into his home, who responded to his Messiah by giving back not only what he’d taxed but also four times more.

And then the soldiers. This is perhaps the hardest to hear for me. I want to hear John say – put down your weapons and leave your posts. Become deserters and pacifists. Instead he tells them not to take money unfairly, and to be satisfied with their wages. Not a sword abandoning lessons in sight. Yet his advice is difficult. These centurions would be protecting the same tax collectors. Their orders would be to unfairly collect money and they would not be admonished for supplementing their meagre incomes by use of threat and violence. It readies the reader for Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount that it is the peacemaker that is blessed, for the Jesus who refuses to be defended by violence and heals the victim of his disciples hasty ear-slicing.

John begins to make way, to make room for the new. He begins in his listeners the process of self examination. They need to determine how they are to change, what shall stay in their lives and their actions and how they are to live. John helps them sort out the wheat from the chaff in themselves so that when they are presented with the Messiah that John is proclaiming, Jesus can burn out what is useless.

If you were here last week you heard Kent imaging a campfire that cleans out the germs from the river water making is safe to drink – pure and clean. Fire plays this role, but it also destroys. It can be painful, it can be devastating. We cannot be protected from it by our ethnic or religious heritage…John says, don’t you even say ‘we have abraham as our ancestor’ or we have menno as our ancestor. No matter who we are, there’s no hiding from what is expected of us.

I have lived with an image this week that I was given by Annelise in Sunday school last week. As Dirk led us in a discussion about making room for God during this season, the very thing that John in urging in his disciples, Annelise described us each as a house that is full of stuff. If we are so full of stuff that there is no room for God, then what. John would have us clear out. What is the garbage in the house than need to head for the recycle bin, the thrift store or the incinerator. Because Jesus is heading in like wildfire and we could be destroyed by our preoccupation with the stuff – the material and other distractions, that cause us not to pay attention to the one who can really make us clean

It’s Advent. The next time we gather it will be Christmas Eve! We are coming ever closer to the great event of Jesus coming into the world, and yet we have the awesome advantage of already knowing what to expect. Let John help move into greater alertness and preparedness for the fire that will sweep down in only 8 days.

Not to be out rock-and-rolled by Weldon, I would like to offer this very advent prayer as a closing. In the words of Bono, who wrote in the song rejoice from one of his first albums,

And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me.

I rejoice.

From the perhaps prophetically titled album, how to dismantle and atom bomb (U2’s most recent studio album) Bono penned the song/prayer “Yahweh.” He is a cynic about the world, and yet he expects God to work both in him. He waits for the light.

Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don’t make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticise
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Still waiting for the dawn, the sun is coming up
The sun is coming up on the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?

Take this city
A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city
If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break