Monday, December 10, 2018

Stack 'Em and Rack 'Em

Yesterday, we heard Luke introduce John the Baptist's ministry (Luke 3:1-6) by listing the political and religious authorities who were exercising power in that day before declaring that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. Luke likens his work to Isaiah's vision of a voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." His "baptism of repentance" was a preparation for the one to come. This Sunday, as we continue in Luke 3, we see what that preparation looks like.

First, John taunts those who came out to be baptized: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" That's an interesting approach to building a ministry--insulting those who come out to see you, and mocking their motivation. But John understands an urgency to his work that requires him to sift through all the B.S. and get to the real issue: "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor.'" Given contemporary approaches to ministry, the response is surprising: "What should we do?" John berates them for being unfaithful, and they set aside their own pretense and ask what real repentance and faithfulness look like.

In Luke's account of this interaction, John gives them a clear image of what repentance looks like: "If you have two coats, you must share one with someone who doesn't have one. The same is true for those who have more than enough food to eat. If you're a tax collector, take only what is prescribed, and, if you're a soldier, be satisfied with your wages, and don't extort anything from anyone." Although his method may be a little startling, the message should not surprise us. Luke identifies John as a counter-image of power, and his message of repentance is exactly that: turn away from the concentration of power and privilege you possess and redistribute it in the community. Rubber, meet road.

But this image of material repentance is not an end in itself, and I think that's the real point of this passage: "As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, 'I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.'" John's proclamation led people to think that he might be the one on whom they had been waiting. The people knew the various messianic expectations that filled the culture of Second Temple Judaism. They heard John's counter-cultural, outside-the-temple, outside-the-authorities message of economic equality and wondered whether this might be the messiah who would come to usher in God's reign. But John was just getting them ready. Likewise, our response to John's invitation to repentance is just getting us ready.

When I was in high school, I worked in a hospital pharmacy. There was one day every six months when everyone was scheduled to be at work, and no one was allowed to miss for any reason: inventory day. Every box, every bag, every pill, every ounce had to be counted and inventoried. "Rack 'em and stack 'em," we'd say, as we lined up box after box, bottle after bottle, of endless pills. It was an impressive display of organization. One person would arrange every item in a particular category and call out numbers for another person who would record it on a sheet. But, before that count could be taken, everything had to be in its proper place, returned to its bin, lined up. Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me of that.

John's work is to line everything up--to get all things and all people in order--so that we can receive the one who is coming. Repentance, as Suzanne Stoner preached yesterday, is a return to our true created selves--the goodness, the image of God, with which we were made. Sin is a distortion of that identity, and it manifests itself in economic disparity, dishonesty, extortion, and scarcity. The Christ is coming to save God's people, and repentance is how God's people turn around to see it. Yes, it involves a change in heart and mind, but those squishy, hard-to-define emotional components have easy-to-see manifestations in how we live. Advent is about getting ready, and John reminds us that's more than a wishful thought.

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