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January 4th, 2009

“What Should We Do?”  (Luke 3:7-18), January 4, 2009

Speaking of Catholic priests, I had an interesting phone conversation with one this past week.  He and I have both been counseling members of the same family, and we needed to consult.  He rather shattered my stereotype of Catholic priests, perhaps reinforced by my recent review of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.  I was frustrated and angry the day of the conversation; my colleague was both respectful of me and full of gentleness and faith.  He reminded me that we needed to find ways to bring Christ into this complex dysfunctional family.  And he really surprised me when he was the one who closed our conversation by saying, “Perhaps we should pray together over the phone for this family.”

Spiritual direction

Something about the beginning of a New Year makes us more reflective.  We could make new beginnings just as easily on March 17 or November 1, but January offers an unrivaled freshness.

The final week of last year also offered me more opportunities for reading, reflection, and prayer.  On Friday I sorted through a large stack of books at home that I intended to read in 2008 but somehow never did. I set aside a few that are still on the priority list.  One of those is In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen (1932-1996).

Nouwen was a Catholic priest, a psychologist, a professor, and an author.  He wrote this little book shortly after he gave up a public career as a teacher at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale, to live and minister in relative obscurity among physically and mentally disabled people in Toronto, Canada.  In the introduction to the book, Nouwen says that he had to walk away from the temptation to be relevant.  He asked himself the question, “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”  After a quarter-century of ministry, Nouwen said, “I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues.”

Speaking of Catholic priests, I had an interesting phone conversation with one this past week.  He and I have both been counseling members of the same family, and we needed to consult.  He rather shattered my stereotype of Catholic priests, perhaps reinforced by my recent review of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.  I was frustrated and angry the day of the conversation; my colleague was both respectful of me and full of gentleness and faith.  He reminded me that we needed to find ways to bring Christ into this complex dysfunctional family.  And he really surprised me when he was the one who closed our conversation by saying, “Perhaps we should pray together over the phone for this family.”

It was a wonderful example of what is sometimes called spiritual direction.  Spiritual direction flows from the heart and life of a person who is himself or herself spiritually strong and secure, in touch with Christ from the inside out.  Such a person instinctively turns a conversation or a relationship toward to the Henri Nouwen question: “Am I drawing closer to Christ?”  Are you?  Am I representing him well right now?  What are his thoughts and priorities in this situation?”

Richard Foster writes about spiritual direction in the current issue of Christianity Today – another of my recent readings.  Foster notes the busyness and hurriedness of our church life, where we seem to measure our spirituality by “church work” or “social service projects.”  It’s not that these are bad – it’s just they are often a cover for what he calls “heart work.”  He says our true calling as Christians is to “lovingly come aside precious people and help them discern how to walk by faith in the circumstances of their own lives.”

It is so easy for me to do a lot more “church work” (planning, writing, preaching, meeting, counseling) than “spiritual direction.”  What if 2009 became for you and me a year of giving and receiving spiritual direction on a new level?

Those three personal experiences feed naturally into Luke 3, the preaching of John the Baptist.  The first few verses of this chapter set the ministry John and Jesus in a particular time.  Luke couldn’t say, “In the year 2009” – the Gregorian calendar wouldn’t be invented for more than 500 years.  Dates were assigned based on leaders.  “In the eighth year of George Bush,” or “In the first year of Barack Obama,” would be a common way of dating events.  Luke offers several markers that place John’s ministry in about A. D. 27 or 28 on our calendar.

Luke also places John geographically out in the desert close to the Jordan River.  He uses Isaiah’s prophecy to show that John is preparing the way for one greater than he.  He says nothing about John’s strange diet and dress, as the other gospel writers do.  What he does is give us more detail about John’s preaching.

What doesn’t work

John’s preaching does not start out very nice.  “You brood of vipers!” he says in verse 7 to the crowds thronging toward him.  “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

These multitudes have abandoned their village homes and farms and come looking for spiritual direction.  John doesn’t say, “Welcome, friends.  I’m really proud of you for your spiritual interest.”  His approach sounds more like, “You hypocrites!  What are you doing here at church the first Sunday of the year?  Where have you been?”

Desert vegetation is mostly dry stubble, and a spark or intense ray of sun could ignite a ground fire rapidly spread by wind.  The result would be a frightening display – poisonous snakes, usually in hiding, slithering en masse across the hot sand.  That’s the metaphor John uses to describe this crowd.

The people had come to him to be baptized (v. 7).  They were Jews, proud of their descent from Abraham (v. 8).  John is unimpressed, changing the metaphor to a grove of fruit trees.  “If you don’t produce fruit, you will be cut down and thrown into the fire you fear” (v. 9).

Do you want to get closer to Christ in 2009 or help others to do so?  Start by coming to grips with what won’t make that happen.  Undergoing a religious ritual, like those seeking baptism from John, is not the key.  Resting on your pre-existing heritage, like these Jews, won’t do it.  Getting caught up in crowds of curious seekers, like this mob coming to John, is no guarantee.

2008 was a good year statistically for Corinth Reformed Church.  Worship attendance was up 15%, Sunday School attendance up 8%, and giving to the General Fund was up 10%.  Amazingly, and in an answer to prayer, we met our budget after a furious race to the finish line.

One of the dangers of that outward “success” is exactly what John is pointing out.  Being part of something big and growing doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing – it doesn’t even mean we collectively are doing the right thing.  Coming to church, serving on a board or committee, even engaging in Bible study and prayer – none of that automatically brings you closer to Christ.

Generosity and integrity

The crowd hears John and responds as they should in verse 10: “What should we do then?”

John answers: “If you have more than enough clothing or food, share with someone who has nothing” (v. 11).

Two groups specifically ask for more detail.  The tax collectors, known for extortion (because they can) ask, “What should we do?” in verse 12.

“Don’t collect more than you are required,” John asks.  In a day where we assume the laws of supply and demand allow us to make as much profit as the market will bear or as much wage as we can exact, John insists that we have a higher mindset.

Soldiers ask, “What should we do?” in verse 14.  Again, these men are often tempted (because they can) to extort, to threaten, to bribe.”

John once again makes this general call to repentance personal.  Society will never change unless individuals do.  “Be honest.  Be fair.  Be content.”  That’s his message in verse 14.

Doesn’t it make you wonder how John might answer if you and I were to ask him, “What should we do?”  Our 2009 priority at Corinth is “serving in God’s world.”  What John is telling us sounds a lot like looking for hands-on ways to serve.

There is, however, a certain irony in John’s message.  He rebukes outward conformity as an end in itself – being baptized in a large crowd of seekers – but replaces that with more outward deeds – generosity and integrity.

Maybe it’s because I’m so conditioned by the Apostle Paul’s dichotomy of faith vs. works.  It seems to me that he replaces works with more works and leaves out faith.  Or does he?

A matter of the heart

Look at verse 15.  The people were “waiting expectantly” and “wondering in their hearts.”  His words didn’t settle everything for them.  John only made them thirsty for more.  That’s what a spiritual director does.

In their context, they are wondering if John is the promised Messiah.  “No,” he answers them clearly in verse 16, “my baptism is with water.  The one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  You probably know “spirit” is the same word as “wind.”  John seems to be invoking again this image of wind-driven fire that cleans up the desert of its dry, flammable rubble.  That image continues in verse 17.  It’s an image of coming judgment.

So verse 18 comes as a bit of a surprise – that John’s message is one of “good news.”  I can only conclude that the One John points to is himself the “good news.”  In other words, he is doing what Henri Nouwen was doing, what my Catholic priest-friend was doing, what Richard Foster was doing – drawing us closer to Christ.

There is a difference between the outward actions John’s listeners were engaging in – joining a mass crowd for baptism – and the ones John commended.  Even though they were still “deeds,” they required a change of heart.

How does that change of heart happen?  Richard Foster’s article offers some counsel I leave with you on this first Sunday of the year.

First, he says, “God does not come uninvited.”  If you want to get closer to Christ, you must choose him.  Pursuing him must become more important than any other priority.

Second, we consciously resist the consumer mentality that has pervaded the church.  It’s a mentality I hear both from long-term members and new visitors, traditional worshipers and contemporary worshipers.  “This is what I want, I like, I need.”  And if I don’t find it here, I will go elsewhere to have my needs met.  A change of heart means that we die to self.

Third, we deliberately seek relationships that will challenge us constantly.  This is where spiritual direction comes in – giving and receiving.  We must seek those who will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.  We cozy up not to those who reaffirm our sense of victimization, but to those who challenge us to go deeper.

Finally, we train the heart to let go of serving self and reorient toward others.  This was John’s message.  It’s not about whom you can control, manipulate, manage, and extort.  It’s about whom you can forgive, love, and serve – in his name.  Amen.

(© 2009 by Robert M. Thompson.  Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible,
New International Version, Copyright 1978 by New York International Bible Society.)

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