Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Even now the ax 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.” (Luke 3:9) Our gospel says John proclaimed good news to the people, but this fire and brimstone preaching seems a far cry from rejoicing—at least to us.
To catch a glimpse of the hope and joy John inspired, which drew people out into the dangerous desert to see and hear him, we must step back to survey the scene. Picture an entire military, industrial, financial, and ecclesial complex woven together in a system of all-powerful exploitation. The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, his governor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were all in cahoots. They horded the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. Adding insult to injury, the high priests “Caiaphas and Annas, abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt” (William Herzog, New Proclamation 2006).
According to John, these mighty would fall. The lowly could be lifted up. John’s message finds an echo in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. John showed people they could belong. They became part of a grace filled community rooted in baptism, outside the control of the old power structures that dominated them. They became part of the world as it should be, not as it is. People were coming to the desert and to John in droves.
The priests and political powers fashioned a world in their own image. It was an upside-down world compared to the one God created in God’s own image, the imago dei. To put the world right again, John preached, required a new heart and mind. John the Baptist pointed to this new mind and heart in his call to ‘repentance.’ The Greek word for “repent” is “metanoia.” It is closely related to the word ‘metamorphosis’ as in the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly. The change John called for was a radical change, a transformation of mind, a new source and reason for our lives that follows the call and imitation of God’s love. In this metamorphosis our old self is cut away so Christ may live in us and through us. The world is restored to right side up.
Faith changes from merely private and personal to public and communal. The gospel pitches us into the world. The way of the cross leads to join in common cause with each another. Peace and shalom spring into existence through us with the very same power and persistence of nature itself as our old root, wrapped around all the things we want to preserve and protect for ourselves, is cut away. See, now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.
Even the underground and hidden parts of our selves are not immune from God’s grace. John the Baptist gets right to the root of the problem. In the waters of baptism, through the gift of bread and wine, in the company of all the saints and through the gift of the living Word, the good news today is that God will lay an ax against the hidden source of our life and kill it. See we have become a new creation! Everything is made new.
Three times, three different groups come to John and ask, “What then should we do?” Among them were tax collectors and soldiers who, by definition, were excluded from worshipping God in the Temple. Should they abandon their homes and families? Should they come live in the dessert? Should they start a revolution? “Given John’s demeanor, the crowds might very well expect such radicalism. But the answer he gives them is even more radical than they have language to comprehend — so radical we stand in danger of missing it: What should you do? You should go home.
Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues. Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your particular life. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Share now. Be merciful now. Do justice now. Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine. Why? Because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath your feet.” (Debi Thomas, “What Then Should We Do?”, Journey with Jesus, 12/09/18)
Our gospel today is one of a few that specifically address the topic of faith and work. Fifteen centuries before Martin Luther, John the Baptist seems to have promoted the idea that all people, regardless of their job description, can equally be of service to God. Luther taught that all of us have a vocation, or calling, by virtue of our baptism. Parents are the priests and bishops of their homes. Children and siblings are called to care for each other and for parents. To be neighbor is not an accident of geographical proximity but a calling to contribute to the general wellfare as we would care for ourselves.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said Luther’s concept of vocation is “the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation,” after Word and Sacrament. Before Luther, only priests and monks could have a vocation or higher calling. Luther insisted that “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.” “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them.” What makes a job into a calling is not the money you make or the satisfaction you earn by doing it, but the people you serve and help.
If we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.” We don’t have to look “out there.” The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us. (Debi Thomas)
Christians become living invitations to a right side up life in an upside-down world. The famous Christian author Huston Smith wrote, “It remained for the 20th century to discover that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine — the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment — in its case, love’s bombardment.”
This perfect love casts out fear. God’s perfect love lifts our spirits. God’s love is super abundant, shining both day and night. “Shine your future on this place, enlighten every guest, that through us stream your holiness, bright and blest, bright and blest; come dawn, O Sun of grace.” (ELW # 261) Set us right again, right side up, rekindle our joy and renew our hope.