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John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe 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.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ 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; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
A couple days ago I saw one of those commercial reminding me that people are starving and that for a $1 a day I can buy them some rice. And at the time I was drinking a $5 cappuccino. And I had one of those moments – those moments when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And whenever I have these moments I ask myself – “what should I do?”
A couple weeks ago I was stuck at a light and I saw a one-legged homeless woman hopping around with a sign that said “need money, on my last leg.” And I had another moment – a moment when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And so I asked myself – what should I do?”
A couple years ago I was in Africa and visited a straw hut to go be with an infant that was dying of aids. The mother was weeping, the child was weeping. We all knew there was nothing we could do, that this child was going to die. And for me, this was a moment – a moment when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And I so I walked away with a broken heart, praying – “God, what should I do?”
Now, I’m willing to bet that you’ve had one of those moments that bothered you so much, that troubled you so much, that you were forced to ask yourself – “what am I supposed to do?”
In today’s Gospel the crowds see John the Baptist and they all have a “what should I do” moment. You see John was a powerful prophet. He didn’t play social games and, to my knowledge, he didn’t have any friends. Because John told people the absolute truth about God and the absolute truth about themselves, and there’s something about the truth that bothers us, that troubles us, that makes us rethink our lives and ask ourselves – “What then should we do?”
That is the question the crowds bring to John and before John says anything he tells the crowds what not to do – and that’s be complacent. “Do not say to yourself we have Abraham as our father. For I tell you that from these stones God can raise up more children to Abraham.” John’s audience, you see, was Jewish and they prided themselves on being God’s chosen people. But over time, they grew complacent, thinking that they alone had the golden ticket to heaven. Taking pride in being insiders, John warned them that they were outsiders. You see, the crowds in today’s Gospel forgot they were chosen for a purpose – to be a blessing to the world. And so John warns them. “If you think being chosen is enough, then maybe you’re not chosen after all. Being Jewish just isn’t enough.” John said, “God wants more. Don’t be complacent.”
Complacency is the enemy of the Gospel. By definition, to be complacent is to be unbothered and untroubled. But if we take seriously the idea that Jesus will return, it should bother us. It should trouble us. To be complacent is to think that we’re doing just fine on our own. But if we take seriously the idea that God died on a cross, we come to see pretty quickly that maybe – just maybe – we’re not doing just fine after all. And so it’s not enough to say, “I’m a Christian.” For our God can take a bunch of stones and raise up more Christians. Going to church or saying we “accept” Jesus just isn’t enough. Because I think God wants more. And so we can’t be complacent, either.
And so back to our question. “What then should we do?” Well, John the Baptist put it like this. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The word repent literally means to rethink, and so what John is telling the people is rethink your life so that it bears good fruit. If the Kingdom of God is coming, rethink your life so that your actions reflect the values of God’s Kingdom. That’s what he means when he says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
I know we all still have that question – what then should we do? After all, what John told the tax collectors in today’s Gospel is different than what he told the soldiers. Each of us is different and the way that God deals with us is different. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions. He told Zacchaeus to sell half. He told Nicodemus to sell nothing. And so Jesus may ask you to quit drinking coffee and to use that money to buy rice for starving children, or he may tell you to start drinking coffee so that you can get up a little bit earlier and spend some time in His presence. I can’t tell you what you should do. Only God can speak to what you need to do to prepare for Jesus’ arrival. But I will leave you some advice to help you figure it out.
First, be proactive about rethinking your life. Don’t rely on a “what should I do” moment to come to you. Instead, live a “what should I do” life. Make rethinking your life a daily practice. Look at your life and identify where complacency has set in, where you’re just going through the motions. And then ask yourself – are they the right motions? Rethink what you do and ask yourself why you do it. For example, “Am I being polite to this person because I really value kindness or because I depend on their approval? Am I going to med school because that’s what I really want, or because that’s what my parents really want? The truth is, you’ll never know unless you think about it. And so be a proactive thinker.
Second, pray. Ask God the question, “what should I do to prepare for the Kingdom of God?” And the thing about prayer – it works both ways. God speaks and God listens. We speak and we listen. God does both. We do both. And so on the one hand we have to ask God what to do, but on the other hand we have to listen – to Scripture, to that still small voice, to the advice of godly people we respect, to dreams, to the circumstances we encounter day in and day out. And if we’re living a proactive “what should I do” life, prayer for us will be a daily discipline. Because prayer is not a natural skill. It’s learned behavior. And that’s why praying only when we have a “what should I do” moment doesn’t work. That would be like trying to speak Japanese without ever taking a class. Understanding Japanese is something we have to be intentional about learning. Understanding God is the exact same way. And so be intentional about praying.
Finally, obey. If God tells you to do something, do it. If you’re scared and don’t want to do it, do it anyway. And here’s why. Because God is a loving Father and He only wants what is best for us. To quote the book of Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God’s commandments aren’t meant to rob us of our joy. And that’s something we need to understand or we’ll just take the fruit like Adam and Eve did. No, God’s commandments are man to bring us joy. And so if you think God’s telling you to do something, do it.
I have to say, I love the way that tonight’s Gospel lesson ends. “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” This whole time John wasn’t raking us over the coals; he was proclaiming the good news – the good news that Jesus is coming to fix our broken world. Once again, John’s message is that through Jesus, our world will be fixed. And what that means is that people won’t starve anymore, that everyone will have a home and two legs, that babies will not die, and that we’ll all walk in the truth. The biblical word for this reality that Christ brings is salvation. Every aspect of our personality that loves God’s salvation – that yearns for God’s salvation – will thrive and be healed when the Kingdom of God comes. But anything that doesn’t love God’s salvation – whether it’s a person or an attitude or a value or a line of work or an economic system – is chaff and will be burned.
To quote John the Baptist, “one who is more powerful than I is coming, and He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to gather the wheat into his granary.” And so the question I leave us with is this – what then should we do?