Luke 4:7-18 ‘The big stuff’
I don’t know why, but it seems I often get landed with the real gutsy, hellfire stuff. No more so than John the Baptist, although James 4 a few weeks ago came a close second. Get a load of this, from The Message: ‘When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgement? It’s your life that must change, not your skin…What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire’ Interesting that this passage ends with Luke’s observation that: ‘… with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them’. Doesn’t sound terribly much like good news, does it? I wonder how John the Baptist would fit into St John’s? He cuts across all our nice Christmas preparations, doesn’t he? But then whoever said the Bible was meant to make us comfortable?
As we thought about in the last 2 weeks, the season of Advent is all about preparation, waiting for Christmas, the coming of Christ. We tend to focus, naturally enough, on the baby in the manger but this morning’s gospel reading takes us somewhere else. It fast-forwards 30 years or so on from the birth, to the time immediately before Jesus burst onto the unsuspecting scene in his public ministry. John, clad in camel’s hair clothes and energised with all the strength that comes from eating locusts and wild honey and living in the desert, is going about with a strong message of judgement but also about Someone who is coming. He’s a crazy, straight-talking, blood-and-thunder prophet but he has touched a nerve somewhere and crowds of people are streaming out to hear him and be baptised. A lot of them thought that he was the coming One but he denies this, pointing forward to ‘one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not fit to untie’ (16). So this is another Advent, another coming. Jesus was in the world, but no-one yet knew who he was. He was just about to be revealed. John the Baptist urged the people of Israel to get ready for him, to prepare. And apparently, it was good news.
I wonder if at least some of the people going out to see John were looking for some kind of quick fix, a short cut to life’s problems, a direct route to heaven. We used to have a half-joke saying in the Christian Union when I was at University, ‘say this prayer and you’ll be saved’. As if it was that easy. Well, if that’s what they were looking for, they didn’t get it. They certainly couldn’t rely on their credentials as Jews: ‘do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham’ (8b). No, John’s message went further: ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!’ (8a) John was concerned with how they behaved.
To the crowds that came to John, he had three pieces of advice and it’s these I want to focus on and consider how they are a preparation, how they are good news.
The first group John addresses is just the crowd. ‘What should we do then?’ they ask. ‘the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same’ (10,11). It’s just one, simple, practical piece of advice to a society that had many, many poor people and a few rich. It’s a very basic thing: be generous. Be conscious of the poor. This is not ‘Seven steps for successful people’, it’s not even an Alpha course. It’s far simpler than that. Just give.
After that general piece of advice, John gets more specific. Out of all the people coming to him, he singles out two groups: tax-collectors and soldiers. Well, sometimes it can seem that all stories about Jesus involve tax collectors, they are the ubiquitous bad guys. But it’s true, they didn’t shine. The Romans collected taxes, that’s how they financed the empire. Of course, nobody likes paying taxes but if you’re getting something good in return – like the NHS, or schools – from them, that helps to lessen the pain. But who wants to pay taxes to an occupying power? But even that wasn’t really the point. The point was that those who collected taxes in Palestine were Jews. They were collaborators, people who were the occupied, the same as those who had to give the taxes. They did it for money. Those who collected taxes would first of all have to bid for the privilege, and then buy it. And the right to collect taxes didn’t come cheap. Having bought the privilege, they could then force the Jews to pay up so they could pay the Romans. But they only had to pay the Romans a certain amount – the rest was theirs – so they could take as much money as they could get away with, and did. So, the Jews hated them. Natural enough. But the hatred would only have the effect of making the tax-collectors screw them over for even more money. It was a vicious circle. They were absolutely despised for not only being collaborators, but for being ruthlessly greedy. And their greed was evil for it robbed poor people of their means.
You might perhaps have expected John to denounce these traitors, to tell them to get another job. But he doesn’t – he simply tells them not to collect any more than they are required to. He sanctions them to stay in their job – but do it right. If they were seeking to be right with God by coming out to hear John and be baptised, they must deal with ‘the big stuff’ – their cardinal sin, if you like. It was the thing they did which truly oppressed people and reduced their lives. It’s interesting to balance out John’s passionate hellfire preaching – You brood of vipers! – with this very practical, almost gentle advice when he came to the point, ‘Don’t collect and more than you are required to’ (13).
Finally, he addresses soldiers. In fact, they were probably Jewish soldiers who had been hired and deployed by the Romans. It would have been tempting enough to a certain sort of person to work even for the occupiers. Regular income, weapons, uniform, a chance to lord it over others and get even. Don’t think here so much of our own soldiers who at least don’t come and beat you and me up, but think of soldiers of a truly oppressive, brutal government – of Burma perhaps, or North Korea – who really do stamp on their own people. These soldiers were not popular, they were not seen as Israel’s defenders – as we might view our own military – but as those who helped keep the country occupied and under foreign domination. And yet they included those guys from up the street – Abel, Isaac, Moshe and Solly – they used to play in the dirt with our kids. And they did bad stuff. They would take protection money, force people to pay up, bully and beat. To them John gives the same kind of advice as to the tax-collectors. Again, he doesn’t tell them to abandon their jobs, but: ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay’ (14). Again, the contrast between the hellfire stuff and the very practical, to-the-point instruction. You can keep your job; but don’t use it to dominate, to tyrannise. Just take what is your due and no more. John was no revolutionary; he was simply leading the people of Israel to take a few steps towards being the people they should be: God’s own people, called to reflect the character of God to those around, to be different.
And these guys, the tax collectors and soldiers, they were just doing what all the others did. Just going with the flow, not thinking, not reflecting on what they were doing, but taking the easy path. The rich people too, they just did what rich people always did – kept their loot. And then they met John the Baptist.
Let me draw together a few threads here. Firstly, John’s preaching is about the big stuff – the things which people did which really stood out, which really had an effect on other people. They were the first things the Jews would have said if asked, what really gets you down? The second point is that they were all about money. Again and again, the gospels talk about wealth, money, dosh, moolah. The use and abuse of it is the only directly practical subject of John’s preaching. Thirdly, John isn’t Jesus. I know that is obvious, but what I mean is this: his preaching is very simple, it doesn’t have much depth. Jesus’ teaching often focussed on motives – what was inside a person. So, Jesus’ teaching on money ends up talking about greed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus considers hatred as bad as murder, lustful thoughts as bad as adultery and so on. John’s straightforward exhortations are very much on the surface.
But how is this good news? Well, it should be clear that it would indeed have been good news for the poor – which was probably most of the crowd. If the rich became generous, the tax collectors only took what they were supposed to and soldiers stopped extorting money, there’s no doubt it would have been a much happier place. The coming of Jesus was good news not only because of the promise of eternal life but also, perhaps even more importantly, because of the effect on the here and now. Where the rubber hits the road. In the end, the gospel isn’t good news if evil is not addressed and defeated.
Back to Advent, to preparation for the coming of Jesus. John began to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus by getting them to consider the big stuff – the things which they did – or some of them did – for which they could only hang their heads in shame when it was exposed for the pettiness and greed that it was. And that’s the point I want to lead us to. If we want to interpret this passage in the 21st century what would it say? What would John the Baptist say to seekers after God in the here and now as we prepare for his coming? What are the big issues, the big stuff, the things we do, both as a society and individually – perhaps even without noticing – that oppress others and reduce their lives? We might even want to think about that, talk about it over coffee or in home groups. Let me give my own thoughts in a couple of one-liners. First off, and biggest in my mind: stop burning up the earth’s resources, stop wasting what we don’t need! The warming of the planet is the biggest threat the whole of humanity faces, especially for the poor in the developing world. Second: take trade justice seriously and don’t oppress the poor. Don’t let what you buy and use be the means of impoverishment of another. And third – over to you. What is your situation that you need to change? Especially if you have any position of power over others, like the tax collectors and soldiers did. It may be in our use of money, or in our use of power at work or in the home. It may be the way we use our tongue, lashing another person. Without digging too deep, hunting around for motives, are there things we just need to put right? Then put them right! That would be a truly great way to prepare for the coming of Christ.