Dear Working Preacher,
If this is John's idea of good news, I’m not sure I want to hear the bad news.
Our readings this week and last center of Luke’s description of the preaching of John the Baptist. And in Luke, pretty much like in the other Gospels, John comes preaching in the style of a fire-and-brimstone prophet, announcing eschatological judgment, calling for repentance, and heralding the coming Messiah. All in all, it’s a pretty sober message, beginning with the less-than-endearing sermon-opener, “You brood of vipers…” and ending with the seriously ominous “…and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Yet Luke closes this grim scene by saying, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Huh?! How is this good news?
Comparing Luke’s treatment to that of Matthew offers two clues. First, while Matthew describes John’s audience as the Pharisees and Sadducees - perhaps intent on contrasting John’s ministry with theirs – Luke describes the audience simply as “the crowds.” As you read further, you realize “crowds” is a euphemism. He might just as well have called them the “misfits,” or the “outcasts,” or even “the losers.” These are the “riff raff,” the folks whose neighborhoods “decent” folk try to avoid. They are made up of, among others, taxcollectors (persons who make their profit by squeezing their neighbors on behalf of occupying Rome) and soldiers (not to be confused with our men and women in uniform, the soldiers Luke refers to are mercenaries, thugs who earn most of their wags by extortion and threat).
As is often the case in his Gospel, Luke turns his attention to those on the margins, those on the outside of society. Just as Luke reports that it was the tax collectors and sinners (another euphemism for the socially and morally despised) who loved to hear Jesus’ stories, here already society’s outcasts and ne’er-do-wells are attracted to Jesus’ forerunner.
Why? Perhaps because John is willing to talk with them at all. You see, despite our best professions, many of us religious types come across as quite judgmental. No wonder then, that in John’s day, as in our own, folks who are down-and-out rarely feel welcomed at houses of prayer. Yet John honors them by noticing them, speaking to them, and giving them something to do.
Which is the second distinct feature in Luke’s account. Hearing of the impending judgment, the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers all ask, “what should we do?” And John tells them. Note, his instructors are neither complex nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share even what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the mercenaries: don’t extort. Reduced to everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.
What John offers them, that is, is entirely within their reach. It may not be easy – we get accustomed to getting what we want and hording what we have – but it is still possible. Nor does John ask them to leave their current stations. The day after hearing John preach, presumably, the tax collectors are still collecting and the mercenaries still soldiering. But they are doing it better, dong it differently, doing it with the needs of their neighbors before them.
Which is interesting, when you think about it. I mean, caught between eschatological judgment and messianic consummation, the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.
This is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing. In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbors. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work? Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school. Learning everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven made (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember). Driving the public transit bus? Do it safely and well so that people can get to work, school, and all the places they need to be. And the list goes on.
Yes, this is a promise that we are all invited into. Or, to put it another way, this is a promise for those living “in the meantime.” We too, you see, are caught between judgment and hope every day of our lives, even when we don’t name it that way. The judgment may not feel eschatological; it may just be not living up to others’ or our own expectations. And the hope may not always be messianic; it may just be the deep desire that things will get better. But wherever we are, John has a message for those living in the meantime, struggling to be faithful in the time between the giving of the promise and its being kept once and for all.
I named the blog I started nine months ago “…in the Meantime” for precisely this reason: I wanted to help folks perceive and make use of the riches of the faith to help us live faithfully here and now, even as we look forward to God’s redemption. Along the way, I’ve stumbled upon a shoeshine man, a guy who does community mosaics, a cross-dressing mayor, a woman who struggles to understand prayer, an all-star football player, and countless moms who balance more than their fair share of responsibilities, all of whom, in my opinion, are united by the passion to be who they were called to be where they actually find themselves…in the meantime.
So what are the stories in your congregation, Working Preacher, of people who live their faith quietly? People, that is, who haven’t forgotten the rules of the playground – share, be fair, don’t bully – and who while they may not get much attention nevertheless merit it. If you have time, interview a couple of the people you know about their lives, work, and activities and share their stories. If you don’t have the time, call to mind some of the everyday acts of grace and mercy you have witnessed and testify to them on Sunday. Either way, take time to point out to your “crowds” how they are still invited by John – and by the One John heralds – to lives of quiet and persistent faithfulness as we await the coming of the Lord. Because maybe, just maybe, nine days shy of Christmas is the perfect time to remind us faith doesn’t have to be heroic, our celebrations don’t have to be ideal, and we don’t have to be perfect in order to be faithful.
Good news, indeed, for all of our people...and their preachers. Blessings on your work and week.
Yours in Christ,