In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. –Luke 3:1-2
Notice that the word doesn’t come to those who claim worldly power, but to some guy named John. The word doesn’t come to Rome, or even to Jerusalem, but to the wilderness. Luke wants us to understand—in no uncertain terms—that Jesus, as Messiah, holds a power that is greater than—and other than—worldly political power. Those who are searching for the Messiah, who want to find the true way of God, are not drawn to the power center, but to the River Jordan. They are not fawning all over political leaders, but listening to a prophetic outsider.
A prophetic outsider whose first instruction to this crowd is to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
I’ve been thinking about what kind of fruit we witnessed on Wednesday—fearful fruit, violent fruit, racist fruit, false fruit. As shocking as it was to see the U.S. Capitol invaded, we really shouldn’t have been surprised, because this is exactly the fruit that has been planted and fertilized and cultivated for years. Politically, of course, we can point fingers in many directions. But there has also been a disturbing spiritual cultivation.
There seems to be a too-prominent message in the U.S. that being a Christian is about having power; it is about claiming privilege; it is about not having to listen to anyone else because you are always right. And I’m not exactly sure where that comes from. Historical and political and cultural scholars can certainly help us understand this. But my scholarly expertise is the Bible, and from a biblical perspective, this version of Christianity is baffling.
John is certainly not coddling people’s desire to always be right—he begins his sermon by calling the crowd a “brood of vipers.” And John tells people to give up power, not claim it.
And here is what John has to say to people who think they hold some sort of privileged position by virtue of their ancestry and ethnicity: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
It makes sense that people would assume God has favorites and grants privilege in the same way emperors and governors and presidents do. But John tells the people that, unlike worldly leaders, God does not play favorites. For God, it is about the fruit—about what you do—not about a birthright.
This is an important part of the Good News of Jesus. But it is not heard as good news by many people who have assumed they hold a privileged position. I believe that much of the fear and rage and violence we witnessed Wednesday is rooted in a sense of white racial superiority—the kind of superiority that John and the prophets before him and Jesus and Paul and others after him insist has no place in the kingdom of God.
This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon that you can find here.