Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent 3--Renewal

Steinbach Mennonite Church
Sunday, Dec 16, 2012—Advent 3: Renew

Renewal: Being and Doing

We are waiting for the coming Messiah. What do we do as we wait? How do we wait? I remember in seminary we were told periodically about being and doing. We were instructed: Mennonites like to do things; but it is more important to be! Be in Christ. Be present with God. Be fully present in this moment. Stop trying to do what needs to be done, and be. Those who spoke to us were right of course. Endless activity without a real identity rooted in Christ is wasted, a sure path to frustration and failure.

But our desire to do something is rooted in more than just a Mennonite background that emphasizes the value of hard work. Once we find ourselves in God, once we come to Christ and are cleansed and ready for his coming into our world, we live on the basis of that new identity in Christ. So, what do we do?

We heard the theme in Zephaniah: God has removed the punishment of Zion—which means that Israel and Judah have suffered in Exile long enough and will be set free. Cf Isaiah 40: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her punishment is ended, because she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (that is, full payment, covering all that she owes because of her disobedience) [my free paraphrase].

We heard the theme in Philippians: Live God’s life with God’s peace alive in your hearts in all situations. The shooting in Connecticut reminds us that we live in a world filled with pain and distress. Paul reminds us that God lives within each one of us, even now.

And so to Luke’s gospel, where we hear John the Baptist preaching repentance and renewal.

Read Luke 3: 7 to 18.

In this third Sunday of Advent we lit the third candle, a candle of Renewal. The second candle last week was for Cleansing (the cleansing we receive when we prepare to stand in God’s presence). The first candle two weeks ago was for Reflection. You see the progression. Reflection leads to an awareness of ourselves standing in God’s presence, aware of our need for Cleansing; Cleansing leads to new lives filled with God’s Holy Spirit, which brings renewal. Next Sunday culminates with the candle of commitment. But today we ask what it means to be renewed. What does God do in our lives? What does renewal look like?

The Gospel
At the beginning of chapter 3, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That is the cleansing of last week’s theme—echoed profoundly in Malachi; “For he is like a refiner’s fire … and he shall purify the Levites that they may offer offerings of righteousness.”

The people kept coming out from the city centre to see and hear John. His response? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Produce fruit—Randy may deal with that idea more next week in “Commit”; but it comes in here as essential to renewal. We may want to focus on “being” to the exclusion of “doing”, or vice versa; but they go together. We do what we are, so being renewed requires action: Produce the right fruit!

Then the people coming start asking questions: How do we do this? The crowd (ordinary people—Am ha’aretz—the people of the land) ask, “What should we do?” John answers: Share anything extra you have! Sounds a bit like Irene wondering what people might give to Community outreach at Christmas.

Tax collectors ask, “What should we do?” This may seem like a harder question. The people of the land are outside the community of righteous people in Judah—that space is reserved for Pharisees and Scribes and the religious elite. But tax collectors are really outside! John could say to ordinary people, be generous; but what can he say to tax collectors? Perhaps he should tell them to leave their profession and find something better to do with their lives than participating in the evil Empire of Rome and cheating hardworking people in their own homeland.

John’s answer is much simpler: Don’t cheat! You can keep on doing your work, but don’t cheat the people. Collect only what you are supposed to collect for taxes. Stop taking extra to augment your own income.

Then come the soldiers. I wonder if this means that even non-Jews were attracted to his teaching. It could mean Jews who have signed up with Rome for military service, or it could mean Roman soldiers serving in a foreign land. In either case they ask, “What should we do?” John replies: Don’t extort money from people, and don’t accuse them falsely. The two actions may be connected: A soldier stops someone with a false accusation, and then offers to make the charge go away for a small fee. John tells them to do their job properly and fairly.

Being and Doing again
Do you remember how this section begins? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Wow! Can you imagine if someone would say that to the congregation from this pulpit? Why do you think John spoke that way? He knew why many of them came out to the Jordan River to hear him and seek his baptism. They believed that God would indeed punish his people—was actually punishing them at the time by allowing Roman Occupation to continue. So they thought they could avoid further trouble by taking a sort of magic bath, “the baptism of repentance”. John says, “Not so fast. If all you want is protection against trouble, you are worse than I thought. If you want this baptism, show it by changing the way you live.”

This idea echoes what we heard last week in Malachi. Malachi says: ‘The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the Messenger of the Covenant whom you delight in. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears?” Now this sounds like a rhetorical question to us. We may think that he means simply: Nobody can stand before God. But he means something else.

Compare Psalm 24: “Who may ascend into the Lord’s Mountain (that is, Zion), and who may stand in his holy place (that is, the Temple)? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, those who have not lifted up their souls to empty idols or sworn by those idols.” Malachi means the same thing. Who can endure or “abide” when God appears? Who can stand in God’s presence? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart. That is why Malachi says that God will purify them—so that they can offer righteous offerings to him and experience his presence with joy.

But being cleansed—purified—is not a magic process. It is rather a process in which the central organizing principle of our lives changes. Someone (I have no idea who) posted on Facebook some time ago that cleaning with children around is like “brushing your teeth while eating Oreo cookies.” The comparison works here: Repenting without changing (being without doing) is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreo cookies. And John tells the people what changing, the fruit of repentance, looks like.

The Fruit of Repentance
So what do the fruit look like? What does renewal look like? Soldiers do their jobs properly. Tax collectors do their jobs properly. Ordinary people share what they have with those who don’t have. If we think of it in today’s terms, you and I have job descriptions. We go to work and are expected to do something there. John says, “Do it. Don’t cheat. Don’t take shortcuts. Do your job. Do it right. Do it well.”

I was talking recently with a friend about what God’s call in our lives means. I said that sometimes God calls us to go into full-time Christian service. He said that he understands God’s call to mean: Do your job—whatever it is—well.” I think that we are both right (and on another occasion I can talk about God’s call to different specific vocations—Christian and secular). But Luke 3 could be my friend’s text, because that is exactly what John says here: Do your job and do it right.

When you do that you may find over a period of time that you can’t stay in the job you have. Perhaps your boss will fire you if you won’t cut corners. Well, stay honest, don’t cut corners, do it right and do it for the Lord. If you have to change jobs, that’s not nice, but that’s part of renewed living.

You may find something else too. People get into the habit of accepting what is not right because no one protests, no one swims against the current. When you do right, you may find that others join you and the whole organization changes. John doesn’t promise anything like that—he just tells you to get on with it.

I thank God that I had a boss many years ago who treated me as if John the Baptist was watching. It was my first summer job in college, the summer of 1968.  I worked for a tree trimming and lawn care service in York, Pennsylvania. I remember my first chance to climb a tree and cut off a branch—handsaws in those days! I cut off the wrong branch, and the foreman spent the next five minutes explaining to the owner that the big hole in the top of her tree would disappear when we got the whole branch out. It did, but I wasn’t allowed into any more trees!

After about three weeks my foreman came to me and said that the boss was unhappy with my work generally and was ready to lay me off. Then he put me on the lawn mowing crew with his brother, a good friend of mine. We were out early, mowing lawns by 7 am and stopping only when it got dark. I worked 60 to 70 hour weeks pushing a lawn mower, and at the end of the summer the owner of the business gave me a good reference for my next employer. The fact is, he could have made my life much harder by losing his temper and blasting me; instead he had my foreman talk with me straight, but gently, and I had a good summer. There is more power than you know in simply doing what is right.

Some Closing Words
John the Baptist says one more thing that is vitally important. When the people ask if he is the Messiah, he replies: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

He knew well that he could not give the people what they needed to produce the fruit of repentance. He could call them to God, but he was not himself God. He could tell them how to live, but he could not give them the ability to live that way. He knew also that the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, was coming. I doubt that he understood all that meant. We talk about Jesus as Son of God, and One with God, indeed as God himself in human form. John the Baptist just knew that the Messiah was coming.

He may have already learned that this Messiah was his cousin—a hard concept to grasp! But he knew the most important thing: The Messiah would cleanse people and empower them; he would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

So we close the circle of being and doing. You can’t talk about being (repentance and renewal) without doing (the fruit of repentance), and you can’t talk about doing (the fruit of repentance) without being (filled with God’s Holy Spirit). This Advent we wait for the Messiah, just as John was waiting for him. And when he comes? Well, that’s next week’s message. For now, we wait, and get ready for the birth of the baby.

Or as Paul puts it in Colossians 3: “Let the power of Christ rule in your hearts …. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly …. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”


Old Testament: Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20
14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
18 “I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.

Epistle: Philippians 4: 4 – 7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 3: 7 – 18
 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

1 comment:

KGMom said...

Interesting that you worked in all three of the lectionary selections. Our associate pastor, who preached this past Sunday, omitted the Gospel lesson. Maybe because it is such a tough section.