In the Spirit
Week of Sunday December 13 - Advent 3
Gospel: Luke 3:7-20
[3:1(John) went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ]
7 (Greek: Therefore) John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8(Greek: Therefore)(Greek: Do)Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit holy spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
John is specifically introduced as one who "will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."(Luke 1:15-17) He "prepare[s] the way of the Lord" so that "all flesh… shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:4,6)
John is not an optional extra, or someone who can be forgotten. We must walk past him, even with him, on our journey with Jesus. He points the way. If there is no echo of John in our lives then it is fair to wonder if we are missing something in Jesus' proclamation of "the year of the Lord's favour." (Luke 4: 19)
The Greek text of this week's lectionary follows on from last week with the word therefore that is not in the NRSV translation. In fact, there are two therefores:
Therefore John said to the crowds….‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you…?'
Therefore do fruits worthy of repentance…' He has come to prepare the way, therefore…
John's response sets the tone for the remainder of the passage: "Therefore, do fruits worthy of repentance." The word poieo--do, bear--appears throughout the passage (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14) … The "therefore" in verse 8 (again not translated in NRSV) suggests that the "coming wrath" should be met with "doing" behavior that is aligned with God's purpose.
Repentance is not about changed emotions, but about changed ways of living. If they were expecting that a little dunk in the Jordan River would, by itself, get them right with God, then they are sorely mistaken. Rather, they are to "do fruits worthy of repentance." If they really want to be on God's side, they are to "repent"--change, turn--from following the status quo and, instead, change their lives. (John Petty)
In Luke's clear approval of John, in the crowds' immediate desire to know how to "do fruit," and in John's reply, we are told what it means for we Christians to repent. Petty continues:
If you have two tunics, and someone has none, give one of yours away.
This was a somewhat bigger deal than it might appear. Tunics (chiton) were the undergarment one wore underneath their coat. Most people had two of them, one they wore every day, and another they wore for sabbath.
John seems to be saying that the needs of your neighbor outweigh saving the sabbath tunic--or, to put it a different way, deeds of compassion outweigh the practice of religion. The general response of sharing is encouraged upon the "crowd." (John Petty)
This radical sharing and compassion does not apply a means test, or any criterion to identify the "deserving poor." It simply provides to all those who lack what is necessary; someone is everyone, "compassion outweighs the practice of religion."
John also deals with two practical cases of justice. Justice is to do what is right before God, not what you can get away with. Tax collectors and soldiers—two occupations which could practice injustice with relative impunity, are called to be honest and just; Do not extort.
The repentance demanded by John is the axe at the root of the trees. It is purifying fire, because compassionate justice clarifies what it means to love. All that is left standing in the presence of God is compassion and justice; nothing else is fruitful.
The crowds understand the power of this. They wonder if John could be the Messiah. But John says there is much more to come: the one who is coming will baptise you with holy spirit and fire. When you repent, when you practice compassionate justice, then there is baptism with holy spirit and fire. This is "the good news of the kingdom of God." (Luke 4:43)
In all of this, Herod is anti-Christ, as are all who seek to silence John's demand for a repentance that does justice and compassion. (Luke 3:19-20)
Luke is the writer of the Holy Spirit. The words holy spirit appear 5 times in Matthew, 4 times in Mark, 5 times in John, and 14 times in Luke. In Acts (same author as Luke) the words appear 41 times. The present experience of the spirit of God is a key part of Luke's understanding of what Jesus brings us.
Yet in my life as a Christian, the Holy Spirit has always been an ambiguous figure, and spirit has been a nebulous concept. The church spoke with (probably unwarranted) confidence about God and about Jesus, but the tone always changed around the subject of the Holy Spirit. People could never explain "what the spirit is" in any way that satisfied me. Asking questions about the Holy Spirit was a good way to make some of my ministers uncomfortable!
My Pentecostal relatives and friends spoke of powerful, dynamic experiences of spirit, but I found these to be oversold, naïve, and full of wish fulfilment. And felt that the worship in such churches was often cynical and manipulative. Some of it was laugh out loud foolish, but sometimes the consequences were terribly sad. For a devastating critique, read James Alison's Worship in a Violent World, where he compares much contemporary worship practice to the techniques of the Nuremberg rallies.
The Pentecostal instinct is correct, however. The entire witness of Scripture, which Luke affirms, is that God is a live presence. God's absence is not the norm. In the end, God speaks even to Job who seems to have been abandoned for no good reason. God desires to be present to us, we could say.
So how did I end up with a God we could talk about a lot, and to whom we could maybe even pray, but who, in all honesty, was largely silent?
It is not only that Spirit signifies that live reality of God which is beyond our definition; that wind which "blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes." (John 3) It is also that we westerners are spiritually illiterate. All cultures, I suspect, recognise the ineffable aspects of Spirit, into which we materially grounded humans can enter only a little. But we westerners, almost alone, have built our culture upon an increasing denial of spiritual reality over the past several hundred years. It has worked to the extent that our narrowing of the parameters of what we call "real" to the realm of the gross physical has born much material fruit. We have become brilliant engineers.
But we have become engineers who have lost discernment of the religious shysters in our midst. We have sold ourselves to a narrative that promises fulfilment through material consumption, but
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know… (Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front Wendell Berry)
We are slaves to a physical satiation which not only fails to satisfy many of us, but which is unsustainable, and failing. The rise of ISIS, the fear of refugees, and the panicked denial of climate change are all symptoms of this cultural failure, and of our terror at our failing world. Consumptive engineering is not enough to give life. Indeed, it is destroying us.
It is true that some of us have retained a sense of the reality of God. And that others have rediscovered spirit outside their religion. But when it comes to a cultural conversation, we have lost our common language of God and spirit. Even within the same pew, the great myths of Genesis are read as profound meditations on the nature of reality, humanity and violence, or are read as shibboleths of orthodoxy for a denatured Christianity that seeks to conform the world to its own imaginary past. There is no common language.
And even apart from the moments of crisis, we are dis-spirited and tired.
We go to church on Sunday 'cause we want to go to heaven
Me and my family, ain't that how you're supposed to do?
But I'm tired, Lord I'm tired
Life is wearin' me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on
And I'm tired… (Toby Keith and Chuck Cannon as sung by Willie Nelson)
Listen to Willie Nelson sing this and hear all the pain of life that has lost its meaning. Who wouldn't want to go down to the singing at Victory Hall?
Except where is the reality— is there a reality— beyond the hype and hysteria? Is there something which takes continuing to live… beyond an exhausting act of faith? Is there a reality of holy spirit which is more than hype, hope, and bullshit? Is there something that will take me from reading an ancient text making unlikely faith claims to a place where I know that these words are true?
The reality, I think, lies in the repentance of John. To repent as John and Jesus demand, and to live compassionately and justly, is to let go of my privilege. It is to be vulnerable. It is almost impossibly difficult, which might just be why Chris Arnade found "The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes." They had no privilege to lose.
The smallest repentance (of John's kind) is amazingly purifying. It clears the chaff. It reorients us to life's realities. It cuts out the dead wood and sour fruit of our shallowed consumer society. It plunges us into crisis, too, as we lose some of our material comforts and guarantees, and even more, see the false security of so many others. But all this also enables us to relearn the language of spirit. As the chaff which clogs our perceptions is cleared, the words of the ancient texts carry new and potent truth. I see hype and hysteria for what they are, but far from becoming cynical, I find a new groundedness and hope. I am nothing but impoverished in my doing of repentance, but have received unwarranted reward.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!