What Should We Do?
Third Sunday of Advent
We live in anxious times? The truth is that life seems like an exercise in anxiety if you allow the concerns to over burden you. Will Russia invade the Ukraine and possibly start another war? Will our world ever be done with covid and return to normal? Will the lines of commerce, production, and transportation solve their problems, so that we are not suffering with shortages? Who buys a pound of bacon for $10 anyway? If we all start driving electric powered vehicles, what are we going to do with all the dead batteries filled with lithium, cobalt, and nickel? You get the idea. Life can be an anxious experience.
And what about Christmas? Are you ready for Christmas? Of course, even if you don’t have the tree up, or the lights strung, or a present bought nothing bad will happen to you, but if something is left undone, you probably will ask yourself, “What am I going to do?” Life has a way of bringing us to that question: “What should we do?”
In the Gospel of Luke as John was speaking about the coming of the messiah, the people came to him with that same anxiety provoked question. “And us, what should we do?”
Multitudes: What should we do? He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food let him do likewise.
Tax Collectors: What should we do? Collect no more than is appointed you.
Soldiers: What should we do? Rob no one by violence or by false accusation and be content with your wages.
I think it is significant to note that the coming of the messiah, provoked an anxiety towards achieving righteousness and justice. If the messiah is coming, then how should we be living.
As you wait for Christmas, has the anxiety of the season provoked you towards righteous living; towards compassion; towards justice? Basically, John’s message to those who came to him was quite simple: If you have wealth, share it. If you are in a position of trust, honor it. If you have power, don’t abuse it. Those are relevant topics even in today’s world aren’t they. Let’s look at them individually and see if we have been equally moved for righteousness’ sake in this anxious time.
IF YOU HAVE WEALTH, SHARE IT. The multitudes asked John, “What
should we do?” John the Baptist answered, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” One of the nice things about Christmas is that it reminds us of the necessity to live generous lives. We exchange gifts with one another. Maybe we spend more than we should, but usually we really know we have enough. It is just a question of whether we give. Christmas gives us permission to drop money into the Salvation Army kettles, write checks to worthwhile charities, or make an end-of-the-year contribution to the church. There is something about this season that helps us see beyond ourselves to the needs of others. A season to believe in the value of good will and charity to others. Even if we do not have wealth, we can still be generous in heart and generous with our time. Generous in listening to the concerns of others and bring encouragement into other people’s lives.
Then we may learn that generosity is not just for Christmas, but rather it is part of God’s nature, and part of the way God wants us to live. John the Baptist was not looking to bring a seasonal change to people’s lives, but rather he wanted people to live gratefully and generously everyday according to the blessings God had given them. Behind John’s command to give is the recognition that God has given us all things. This becomes a point of stewardship John is teaching the people.
The apostle Paul put it this way:
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (NRSV)
6 … the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
The word cheerful has connotations of being joyful, merciful, abundant. The Greek root of the word is the same root we get our word hilarious from. Maybe the image is a bit like Santa Claus who places the gifts under the Christmas tree with a Ho, Ho, Ho, and a chuckle knowing the joy the gift may bring. God says in all things give like that, not counting what you hope to gain or what you are due. Rather give with a heart that knows God has given to you, and God will continue to provide. Christmas is about receiving the greatest gift of all, Jesus into your life and giving with the joy that God has shared with you.
Secondly, John teaches that if you are in a position of trust, honor it. Even tax
collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized asking, “Teacher, what shall we do?” John replied, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” You know about tax collectors in that day and time. They collected taxes on behalf of the Roman government. They were despised as collaborators. They were also infamous for their lack of ethics. They would add extra fees to the amount they collected. This generally made them quite prosperous and equally hated. It is interesting that John does not tell them to give up their jobs. He does not tell them to abandon their way of life, but he tells them to exercise honesty in their work.
How much our world could use a good day to day dose of honesty. With all the phone scams, gift card scams, and the endless effort by some to lie, cheat, steal and rob, the world can use all the honesty and fairness it can find. John the Baptist did not demand people to leave their work whether it was such that people admired or despised. Rather John asked people to deal honestly and fairly with one another and to shun avarice and greed. It is the same story as Charles Dickens “Christmas Carol.” The joy at the end of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is found in the difference his life could make when he abandoned the covetous nature of life and turned to love and care for others. Implicit in the story is the concept that every life has a responsibility for making life better for others.
There is a need to turn from selfish gain and what we naturally want and to move toward playing a part in fulfilling what God wants for others. The word in the Geek that is used to describe God’s love is Agape. This is the type of love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing. It is the type of love that is more concern with the wellbeing of others than self, but yet confident in the better transformation of the world. Now it is true that selfcare is important, but when we move from selfish care, there we find life changing potential and the power of God within life. Pray always. Be thankful in much, and trust in God. In this manner do your best to treat all you meet as you would desire to be treated whether you gain acclamation or criticism. Live in an effort to please God.
Finally, if you have power, don’t abuse it. Soldiers came to John the Baptist. They asked, “And what shall we do?” And John said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.” Now as much as I understand it, soldiers were not well paid. In fact, a Roman soldier generally had to provide their own food and equipment, but they were able to demand lodging and service when needed. Jesus once made the comment that “…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Mt 5:42) This comes from the understanding that a roman soldier could compel a person to carry their heavy pack for them for one mile. It did not matter if the person was working in their field or fixing their home, to refuse the soldiers demand would be seen as an act of defiance against Rome and likely punished. A person did not have a choice. I also seem to remember once hearing that a Roman soldier could demand food or lodging in like manner. How easy it would have been to go from demanding what the law allowed to extorting payments and goods from someone. John called upon the soldier not to abuse his authority over others. This must have been done as well.
Perhaps there is no better example of abuse of power than King Herod the great. At first Herod was an exceptionally able ruler. He built palaces, fortresses, temples, aqueducts, cities, and the great new Temple in Jerusalem. He stimulated trade and commerce. He was so highly respected by Rome that to this day we still call him “Herod the Great.”
But his life deteriorated into paranoia. Later in life he kept writing to Rome for permission to execute one or two of his own sons for treason. Finally, even Augustus Caesar commented, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Herod is also remembered for his decree that all the male children should be slain. This was his plan for eliminating a potential threat to his throne. He heard about the prophesies surrounding Jesus’ birth and this was Herod’s solution to eliminate any political rival. Herod the Great eventually suffered a painful death from a rather gruesome disease. How could a person fall so far? Perhaps he became consumed by his own sense of power.
It is like many things in life. People sometimes gain wealth, but how do we keep wealth from owning us? How do we gain power without the power corrupting us? How do we exercise personal freedom without harming others? Anything taken to a more extreme point can damage life rather than enhancing it. John argues that part of the solution is simply to be content with what you have and not keep wanting more and more.
In many ways it is beneficial to consider one’s own mortality. What did we come into the life with, and what are we going to take with us? The answer is obvious –Not a thing. Even if we change the fate of the world, ultimately even this planet will come to an end in the most distant future. The sun will supernova and Earth will be turned into a burned-out ball of dust. Of course, we have a few billion years before that happens, but it all speaks to the transitory nature of this material life.
So, what is really important? God’s kingdom that stands eternally beyond time and space. God’s will and rule that never ends. Obviously, in the shortness of life it makes no sense to spend our time grasping after what belongs to someone else and hording wealth at the expense of another just because one can.
In all of this John warns us against selfishness, greed, and ambition. John advises us to move toward charity and love, and honesty and fairness, altruism, and a concern for others. Has Christ coming provoked you towards righteousness’ sake? Has Christmas made a lasting change in your life? Let us be ready to receive and follow Christ. Amen.