Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Have You Heard that Baptist Preacher?

Rev. Kathy Donley

12/13/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 3:7-18

 

“Have you heard that Baptist preacher?”   That must have been what people were saying to each other on Monday mornings around the water cooler. 

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

·        No, not yet, we planned go last weekend, but then Johnny got an ear infection and we’ve just been so busy.  Maybe we can get out there to the wilderness soon.

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

·        Not personally, but word is he doesn’t pull any punches.  Really dishes it out, fire and pitch-forks, like those old-timey preachers. 

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

·        My niece, you know, the one who is into the environment and saving the baby seals?  She said that he said, “There’s an ax at the root of the trees.” Whatever that means. 

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

I wonder if someone said that to Jesus, because we know that eventually even he made his way out to the Jordan too.

 

Of course, they didn’t actually say “Have you heard that Baptist preacher?”  Baptists didn’t yet have preachers.  We wouldn’t exist for another 1600 years.  And unlike the other gospel writers, Luke does not call this man “John the Baptist” or “John the Baptizer.”  Luke calls him “John, the son of Zechariah” which is the ancient formula of naming a prophet.  You might remember Isaiah, son of Amoz, and Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, and here we have John, son of Zechariah.

 

But if the people were not saying “Have you heard that Baptist preacher” at the water coolers on Monday mornings, they were saying something.  Because the word was getting around.  Crowds of people were making time and trekking out into the wilderness to find John. 

 

John seems to have missed the seminary lectures about seeker sensitivity.   All these people made the effort to find him, only to be called a brood of vipers -- “bunch of snakes” or “snake offspring”.  It would be as insulting a label as a person could imagine in a culture in which honor and status were fundamentally a function of birth.[1]

 

John did not want to be the latest thing, the current spiritual fad.  Maybe “brood of vipers” was a way to discourage certain folks.  I think that maybe John mis-judged the crowd though.  I think these are the kind of people who join the church, the kind who will increase their pledge during the next stewardship campaign.  I think that because of the question they ask. 

 

But sticking with John for a moment, if he doesn’t want to be entertainment, what does he want?  Luke says that he was  “proclaiming a baptism of metanoia for the forgiveness of sins.”  Metanoia gets translated into English as “repentance”, so we read “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  But “repentance” is not a great translation.  Repentance is mostly associated with feelings like being sorry or feeling guilty.  The Greek word metanoia means a change or a turning of the mind.  It does not have so much to do with emotions as with thoughts and actions.

 

John tells the people, “Bear fruits worthy of metanoia” which is his way of saying “Let your actions show that you have turned, that you have changed.  Behave in ways that demonstrate how you have made up your mind.” 

 

John does not want promises or testimonies.  What he wants is transformation.  And I think it is what the people in the crowd want too, at least some of them, because even after he has insulted them, they ask earnestly, “What should we do?”

 

John says, “if you have two tunics, and someone has none, share one of yours.”  Tunics were their undergarments.  Most people had two of them, one for every day and one for the Sabbath.  Notice that John is not asking people to share out of their abundance. He is asking the poor to share with the poor.  He may even be taking a poke at those who would value having special clothes to wear on Sunday over having compassion on their neighbors. 

And look who else is asking “What should we do?”  Tax collectors and soldiers are there.  John tells the tax collectors not to collect any more than the amount of the tax required by Rome.  It seems to me that he is telling them to find another way to make a living, because their earnings were in the percentage beyond the required tax, what they could get away with collecting.  That’s some serious metanoia there.

 

Who were the soldiers? Pilate had 2 wings of calvary and 4 cohorts of infantry, who were recruited from within Judea and there was also the Temple Guard which kept order and provided security for the temple treasury.[2]    We don’t know exactly which soldiers these are.  The average solder made about the same wages as a common laborer, less if the common laborer was fully employed.[3]  They were poorly paid and had the weapons and authority of a Roman soldier – which for many of them became motive and means for extortion, rape, and terrorizing peasants, mostly  because they could get away it.  (And we had only to watch the news from the trial of the police officer in Oklahoma this week to see that not much is new under the sun.)    But to them, John says, “Stop that.  Just do your job.  Be content with your wages.” 

 

I confess that I was surprised to see the soldiers here.  I found myself wondering what their motivation was.  Did they come out to hear the Baptist preacher because they were spying for Rome or out of genuine interest?  And what are the tax collectors doing there?  They have to know that John won’t be nice to them.    Then I remembered that earlier verse about all flesh seeing the salvation of God.  All flesh means tax collectors and soldiers, all flesh means the identified bad guys, all flesh means that even those we don’t expect to seek transformation, even those folks who depend on really flawed systems as a way of earning a living.  Even those folks can change their minds.  Even them. 

 

And even me. Even at 50 years old, I can experience metanoia.  I can change my mind.  I can turn.  And that gives me hope. 

 

Now it may be that these specific tasks – sharing your underwear and only collecting the prescribed tax  -- are not resonating with you.  But, have you heard that Baptist preacher lately?    Today, it might sound more like this:

 

“Make friends with someone you’re at odds with. 

Pick up the phone and talk to somebody you haven’t talked to in months or years. 

Be the first to hold out the hand of reconciliation even though it gets slapped or rejected. 

Don’t turn your head at shady dealings. 

Be willing to put some of your possessions on the line.  Tithe, not out of your excess, but out of your substance. 

Add up your Christmas spending for presents and then slice off 10 percent and give it to the poor. 

Give evidence that you mean to change.”[4]

 

So let’s say that we do want transformation, metanoia.  In real-life terms, how do we do it?  Please listen to me carefully here, because I don’t want to suggest that this is some kind of lock-step thing and I’m offering a magic formula.  I don’t have that.  And especially since in this text, transformation is linked to salvation, I want to be clear that I am not saying we can save ourselves by making a few changes in our lives.  I am simply suggesting that sometimes, we can prepare the way for Jesus, we can make ourselves more receptive to the transforming work of God. 

 

In real-life terms, this is how we might do that:

 

1.  We listen to someone compelling.  Someone like John.  Someone who tells it like it is and doesn’t sugar coat it for us.  Someone who is out of the mainstream, a prophet, a voice in the wilderness.  Someone whom we might have to really listen to to understand.   And if we put into practice what they say, it will cost us.

 

2.  We act our way into a change of heart or mind.  Don’t over-think it, at least not at first Sometimes it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.  Put your faith into practice and then you may learn something from that practice that helps you change your mind.

 

3.  We decide to change our minds and to keep them changed.  This is hard because so much information comes to us all the time and some of us have short attention spans and some of us are overloaded with what we have already attended to.  I have started looking at every picture of Syrian refugees that comes my way.  I stop and look at the faces and the fatigue and the worry and sometimes the smiles and the relief. I’ve seen two photos of very frightened children with their hands up, surrendering to photographers because they thought the cameras were guns.     I do that because right now they are too far from my life experience and I need to keep that concern real and close.  It is a much better use of my energy than exchanging talking points with strangers on Facebook.  Trust me, no transformation is happening there.

 

4. And one more idea, just for fun, watch one of the classic Christmas movies.  Many of them are about a change of heart, a change of direction, metanoia.  So watch

A Christmas Carol and see Ebenezer Scrooge repent of his greed and hard-heartedness and fear.  Or Miracle on 34th Street, the story of someone who does not believe, who is too smart to be taken in by the message of Christmas, but as she allows her mind to be changed, her cynicism is replaced by belief and new possibilities for love and joy emerge.  And of course, I have to mention It’s a Wonderful Life so that I can really date myself.  George Bailey is helped to change his mind about himself and his life and he makes a radical turn from one action to one that is life-giving not just for himself, but for his family and community.  

 

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

·        He’s got a unique style, I’ll give him that.  Not every preacher can pull that off.

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher? 

·        What he says is pretty basic really.  “Be kind.  Do your job without taking advantage of others.  Share, even when you don’t have much yourself.  Don’t be a bully.”

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

·        You know, if we agreed to do those very things now, especially now, if we agreed to practice these ordinary acts of grace, that would go a long way toward “knocking the supports out from under every out-of-whack, misaligned, oppressive power structure and system that we’ve built. It would take the air, the power, the momentum, out of every habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another and one another’s children.”[5]   Making up our minds to double-down on basic justice and goodness in our dangerous and fearful and impatient world, that might just be how we embody the kingdom of God, getting ready for that day when all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

 

Have you heard that Baptist preacher?

Amen. 

 

 


[1] Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,  2nd Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 236

[2] Richard Vinson, Luke, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2008), p. 91

[3] http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2009/12/lectionary-blogging-luke-3-719.html#more

[4] William Bausch, Telling Stories, Compelling Stories   Twenty-Third Publications, 1997

[5] These fantastic words were crafted by Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_13_2015

 

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