December 12, 2009
And so with many other exhortations
John proclaimed the good news.
It hardly sounds like good news at all.
With all that talk of repentance
and burning chaff
and trees that bear bad fruit being cut down,
what’s good about it?
Luke tells us this is the good news.
It makes you wonder if we missed something.
Or if there was a scene cut
as if it were a badly edited movie.
Our ears might not always know how to hear it as good news,
but Luke says it plainly:
This word John spoke about God is good news.
The first thing that means for us
is knowing what the good news is not:
it is not easy.
It is not some easy word of forgiveness
that comes too quickly.
It is not God’s grace
that seeks no response and transformation in our lives.
The good news of God seems to cut much closer
to the heart of our lives
than any of that easy good news.
And I suspect we all know it
even when we don’t know it...
Any easy good news about us
and our complicated and confusing lives
is really no good news at all.
So, let’s let that half-crazed wild-man prophet of the coming kingdom,
John the baptizer,
tell us the hard good news.
It begins like this:
God is in desperate need of a people in this world
who live out God’s vision.
God is so urgently in need of such a people
that he is acting in unbelievable ways to restore them
and recreate them.
And God is doing that now through Jesus,
who is coming among us.
A bunch of people hear this and think:
just when I was getting tired of watching
all those reality TV shows
something really interesting comes along!
There’s something to get really involved in,
because it might actually mean something more
than the emptiness we feel inside.
So John calls them to turn away from emptiness
and turn toward fullness by living in God’s realm.
So they ask him... John!
What must we do to be a part of this thing God is doing?
And John says...
Repent, and bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Repent, and bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Now, in order to solve the puzzle
of what John means by this,
we’re going to have to work backwards
from the clues to figure it out.
It’s a bit like a mystery novel,
where we know the facts,
but we don’t know what they mean yet.
John says what the fruit worthy of repentance means:
Share your extra coat with someone who needs it.
Share your extra food with someone who needs it.
Don’t use your privileged position to get more than your share.
Don’t use power or force to get more than your share.
John says the fruit worthy of repentance means
living with a generous economics
and a humble use of power and privilege.
This all comes as some surprise
when we expect that a religious question about repentance
would come with some religious observance
or a ritual of purity
or an assignment to pray so many times a day.
But what we hear from John,
as we do from all the biblical prophets
is a response to God rooted in loving your neighbor
with generosity and humility.
Every example he used
for bearing the fruit of God’s reigning mercy was economic:
Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.
Whoever has extra food must share with those who have none.
Whoever has power must not use it to their material advantage.
Every single thing John tells them to do
to get in the right mode for God’s realm to be good news
is about living a different kind of economics.
Well, as a guy who has more than two coats
and a refrigerator and pantry full of food
and a position of some small religious authority and power...
Well, it kinda makes me think.
Is this good news?
Is this what I wanted to hear so close to Christmas?
Well, maybe and maybe not.
I do still hear that the good news begins with grace.
The good news is repentance and forgiveness.
There is an offer and a promise
that repentance is met by mercy,
and that any recognition on my part of my own failed ways
is immediately met by grace that renews me.
The good news in Luke’s Gospel is that repentance and forgiveness
are what Jesus brings, heralded by John.
And this repentance and forgiveness
make a new way of life possible.
They create a new joyful living that overflows with generosity.
Jesus creates a people so aware of God’s immediate merciful activity
that there is no room for anxious self-interest,
no room for crippling fear of what is coming.
There is only a grateful response,
a generous living,
a humble love of neighbor and self.
So, what does the evidence point to?
If this generous economics and humble use of power
are the fruits worthy of repentance...
What is the repentance?
What is the change John is calling us to,
and presumably, God is calling us to through this text today?
It can’t simply be our normal recitation
of this or that thing we have done wrong,
or one or another moral failure.
It can’t even be our assumption about other people’s
this or that or one or another thing that we think they should change.
It must be something deeper,
something at the root stock of our lives,
in order to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God.
Here’s where the evidence leads me:
The repentance John call us to is about our vision,
or our lack of vision.
The repentance John calls us to is about our imagination,
or our lack of imagination.
The repentance John calls us to is how we envision and imagine
the world works when we acknowledge that the world is God’s,
that the only kingdom in this world that matters
Is the kingdom of God among us.
And the vision and imagination that the evidence points to is this:
We are all in this together.
We are all in this together!
In 1987 I was living in Los Angeles
working for the Hughes Aircraft Company
as an intern in computer programming
On the morning of October 1 I got up very early for work
because an earthquake shook my bed so hard
that I popped up,
remembered that you’re supposed to stand in a doorway for safety,
and jumped into the bedroom closet.
It was shocking and a jolt to the senses.
What I remember most about it besides the physical sensation,
was the interaction with people the rest of the day,
and again three days later with the huge aftershock hit.
People talked about their fear.
People showed genuine concern and compassion.
People took time to listen.
People made sure others were OK.
People shared food with others who couldn’t cook
because their power and water were out.
We had all shared the same experience,
rich or poor, black or white or asian or hispanic,
white collar, blue collar, or homeless.
We all felt something we didn’t know most of the time
but it was always true before and after the earth shook:
We are all in this together.
Sometimes the Gospel comes to us as an earthquake
shaking us up and reminding us
that life is fragile, people are cherished,
our days are a divine blessing, and there is plenty for everyone.
We are all in this together!!!
So we might as well act like it.
God is calling us away from our unimaginative way of living
that says we are each in this for ourselves,
that we are all on our own in making our way through this world.
Now, you might think:
I don’t believe that we are all on our own!
And I don’t think many of us who are shaped by biblical faith
believe we are all meant to be on our own.
But our daily ways of living
are always pulling us toward individual survival
and an isolated lifestyle
and an anxious economics bent on mere survival.
So God call us back,
reminds us, encourages us,
fills us with a hopeful vision and a loving imagination
that we are all in this together.
In spite of all the forces that pull us away from one another
In anxious spending and fearful mistrust.
These are just the two things
that are paralyzing the church today.
We live with a constant anxiety about our place in the world,
about our incomes and securities and holdings and houses.
All of that makes it pretty tough to be generous and caring.
And we live with a sense that the world is heading in a direction
that scares us or makes us long for days gone by.
Living in fear of our neighbor
is not a very good way to become loving toward them.
So John’s call to a different kind of vision and imagination
is exactly the challenge we need to hear,
The good news that John speaks
and Jesus brings is something like this:
Repentance and forgiveness are what God is up to.
And because of God’s grace for all,
repentance is not so much about feeling sorry for my sins.
And it sure isn’t about making you feel sorry for your sins.
It is, instead,
about feeling compassion for my neighbor.
The mercy of God opens up the new reality
that we can live free from our own self-focused ways.
Repentance is about a change in our hearts and our vision and our imagination
that leads to compassion and generosity.
Repentance is the willingness to have our vision changed
like putting on new glasses
and seeing that we are all in this together
no matter how fuzzy the world seems to us.
I’ve been to several 3D movies lately.
You get to wear those funny glasses,
and you look at the screen and you see amazing images
pop out at you and create space in an otherwise flat world.
But if you ever look at a 3D movie without the glasses,
things look very fuzzy and blurred.
You can kind of make it out,
but it isn’t much to look at.
And you completely miss the depth and the richness of the 3D experience.
God is calling us out of our flat, shallow, fuzzy way of seeing life,
and into the 3D reality of the kingdom,
life with depth, with richness,
with love and mercy that pop out at you
and go way back into the scene.
This is hard to say, because we are fairly fixed in our vision
of what economic life should be.
We know and trust the market,
but we don’t know and trust much the vision of Scripture.
That vision is that we are called and empowered
to live with a neighborly economics
instead of a self-interested economics.
The vision is that there is a people who know God’s mercy and love so well,
that they can live with neighborly generosity and care.
The vision is that there is a people so transformed
by Jesus’ generous self-giving love,
that they themselves transform this world of anxious strangers
into a world of loving neighbors.
That takes an awfully big imagination to believe
and a newly clarified vision to see,
but that’s exactly the repentance and the faith
we are called to as we fill ourselves with hope
about the coming of Jesus.
We are all in this together.
It is a vision and an imaginative view of life
that changes how we relate and move through the day.
When we break out of our normal vision
and put on the glasses of God’s reign among us
we see how we are part of a large human community and family,
we begin to see everyone around us
as brother and sister and friend:
brother who needs a coat,
sister who needs dinner,
friend who needs tender care.
With repentance like that,
I’d say it is good news.
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