Luke 3:1-22: What then should we do?

Sermon for Peace Mennonite Church from Joanna Harader
January 10, 2021

Video of Joanna preaching this sermon is available here.

You all should understand that part of my sermon-writing process involves checking Facebook. I guess I just want to feel connected to my communities and check out my pastor groups for some wisdom before I hunker down to write. In the end, this compulsive habit really amounts to a thinly veiled procrastination tactic.

Except, this past Wednesday afternoon, when I popped onto Facebook for my pre-sermon check-in, I saw a post from an overseas colleague saying: “I’m praying for all of you in the United States right now.” Which led me to the news outlets. Which meant that instead of writing a sermon on Wednesday I spent the afternoon watching images of angry white people with Trump flags and MAGA gear and Confederate flags storming our nation’s capital building.

And in the midst of this there were many people flying the banner of Christ—both literally and figuratively. All of those people wearing “You need Jesus” shirts, flying the Christian flag, carrying crosses that said “Jesus Saves,” chanting “Give it up if you believe in Jesus. Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump,” holding high signs that said “Jesus is my Savior. Trump is my President.” All of those people claiming Christian justification for their violence based in fear and lies have failed to grasp what the Christian story is actually about.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but the beginning of Luke 3 is every scripture reader’s nightmare:

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 rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .

Luke, of course, doesn’t include this passage just to vex future church worship volunteers. I don’t even think he includes it only to indulge his tendency to situate events in a concrete historical context. I think Luke is making an important theological and political statement here. He tells us the names of all the people in power—national and local, secular and religious—and then he tells us that “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”

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 who calls them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, John hardly seems to be trying to win friends and influence people here. He is most concerned about speaking the truth. John’s 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 like our friends Thomas Heilke and Rebecca Barrett-Fox and Ben Chappell could help us out here. 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.”

We know that Emperor Tiberius played favorites. Pontius Pilot played favorites. Herod certainly played favorites. I assume the high priest also played favorites. There is no doubt our current president—among others in Washington—plays favorites. Certain types of people get a head start, can take for granted a seat at the table, don’t have to follow the rules that apply to those other types of people.

It makes sense that people would assume God operates in the same way. Except John tells the people that, unlike worldly leaders, God does not play favorites. 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.

For John’s crowd, the assumption was that the “children of Abraham”—the Jewish people—were the favored of God. Which makes a lot of sense, actually, because the Jewish people do have a special relationship with God through the patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith. And this privileged position with God gave them something important to hold on to as they suffered under the oppressive Roman rule of the first century. I imagine they were not all thrilled to hear John say that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones.

For the crowd that raided the Capitol—and for many in this country—the assumption is that the children of the European colonists of this country—the white people—are favored by God. There are, of course, white supremacists who state this outright; for many people the assumption of privilege is more subtle, but still harmful.

I understand it can feel disorienting, even frightening, when you realize that your assumed privilege doesn’t give you the advantage you want to have; when people who don’t look like you challenge your right to be in charge, take the seat next to you at the table, refuse to go along with your agenda. So 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.

What is commendable about those who gathered around John in the wilderness, is that when they hear this message—that they are not automatically in God’s good graces just because they were born Jewish—they do not protest or riot or even make excuses. They ask John, “What then should we do?”.

And notice how Luke moves us slowly toward political power. First we hear from “the crowds” who have no known connection to Rome aside from being subjugated by them; then we hear from tax collectors who likely work for people who work for Rome; then come the soldiers—we don’t know for sure if they were Roman imperial soldiers, but they were participating in the violence of the state at some level.

It seems like such a simple question: What should we do? But I think it took courage for them to ask John this question, because once they heard the answer they had no more excuses. On the one hand, John’s responses to these questions don’t seem too demanding, but on the other hand they threaten to radically shift the orientation of people’s lives if they actually follow his advice.

For the people of the crowd to share their excess means they are less self-sufficient, more reliant on the community should something happen to their one coat so that they, then, become the one in need.

For the tax collectors, it’s possible they can’t even function as tax collectors if they only collect the amount prescribed to them. It was a corrupt system designed to exploit people. Over-collection of taxes was not an occasional anomaly—it’s how the system worked.

And for the soldiers to not use their position of power to enrich themselves . . . well, then, why even be a soldier in the first place?

“What then should we do?” There are, of course, things we can learn from John’s answers, but for me, this week, the question itself is more important. The question is the loosening of privilege, the admission of sin. The question is the first step in the repentance that God calls us to. The question comes before the baptism, before the forming of the community that will follow John and Jesus during their ministries.

In the wake of Wednesday’s attack, I’ve already read a lot of churchy writing about unity and forgiveness and both sides coming together. And right now, from the bottom of my Christian pacifist heart, I feel obligated to call BS.

John did not tell the Jewish crowds to “come together” with the tax collectors and soldiers who were agents of Roman oppression. The tax collectors and soldier came to John and asked “What should we do?”. Too often, whether in terms of LGBTQ inclusion, racial justice, or even instances of abuse, the church places the burden of forgiveness and unity on those who have been oppressed and victimized.

But as John establishes the clear path for Jesus’ ministry, we see that it is the oppressors’ commitment to change that makes unity possible. John did not turn the tax collectors and soldiers away. Neither did he try to appease them and tell those being exploited by them to try to just get along with people on “the other side.”

So I am not interested in finding unity with white supremacists or their apologists until they recognize the good news that they don’t have any special standing—with God or within America—and sincerely ask “What then should we do?”. And people who have been oppressed and abused in this country because of their race, sexuality, gender, economic status or anything else are under no kind of Christian obligation to bridge whatever gap has been created by their oppressors to give some façade of niceness and unity.

It’s not our job to drag people away from the center of power to the wilderness. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. It’s simply our job to go to the wilderness ourselves and to ask the courageous question of God that just might shift the orientation of our lives: What then should we do?

What should we do in the wake of an attempted coup?

What should we do in the midst of a global pandemic?

What should we do as we start this new year with all of the old year’s problems—plus some new ones just for fun?

First, we check our privilege. If we are operating in our family, in the church, in our community, in the world as if we deserve more than those around us, we should pay attention to John’s reminder that God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones.

And, of course, we listen to John’s answer to the crowd’s question. Some of you saw Wilma’s Facebook post on Friday—she got a new coat and so arranged for Anne Bailey to come get her old coat to donate to Bert Nash. A very concrete living-out of John’s teaching. If you have an extra coat or extra food or extra money or extra sanity or extra love or extra emotional energy—share it! Be generous. Be vulnerable.

I’ve also been thinking of a church email exchange this week. Judy sent the note out to the Wise Women group about their Thursday gathering in the midst of the drama on Wednesday. Rosie quickly responded: “Just turned on [the] tv !! I am afraid of war. Yes, coffee tomorrow.”

That sums it up nicely, don’t you think? We should pay attention to what is going on. We should recognize the danger in the current situation. And we should join our friends for coffee. Right? We have to stay connected to each other—both for our own well-being and for the sake of working together to realize more of God’s justice and peace in the world.

Today’s scripture ends with the baptism of Jesus. Luke tells it differently than Mark and Matthew. We don’t know who baptized him, and Jesus is merely an “also” to “all the people” who were baptized. This baptism is for all of those who ask “What then should we do” . . . and then sincerely listen for God’s answer. This baptism is a reminder that even as we are in the wilderness with our questions—maybe especially when we are in the wilderness with our questions, God claims us as children and declares divine love over us.