There is a question at the heart of this story from Luke’s Gospel. A very important question. The people standing along the bank of the Jordan River ask John the Baptist, “What should we do?”
At our sewing group on Tuesday night, that would be a very basic question – a beautiful quilted Christmas stocking? What do we need to do to make one? And so our leader shows everyone step by step how it is done, with fabric, scissors, thread and sewing machines. “This is how you do it!” Who knew that our sewing group leader is just like John the Baptist? And yet there she was showing people what to do. Not just any people, but people who had said, “I want to learn. Please show me how!” The result is that those who were there learned to make a Christmas stocking, but it’s more than that stocking, it’s gaining the ability and confidence with new skills to clothe their families, maybe even to clothe the world!
“What should we do?” In the Bible story the question arose because people were captivated by John’s preaching in the desert. They came from all directions to listen to him. After hearing John proclaim a bold new message about repentance, people were ready to get on board, they were ready for change, so they presented themselves for baptism. Dozens, hundreds, thousands, I don’t know, but however many there were they didn’t listen to John on the radio or see him on TV, they had to walk out into the desert to find him. There was something missing in their lives, and here was what was missing. There he was standing by the river, inviting people to jump in, the first step in preparing the way for the Lord.
We still practice baptism in the life of the Christian Church to represent this first step, a sign of openness, a sign of readiness, a sign of commitment, a sign of involvement. If you have never been baptized, we invite you to get wet like those people long ago. There is no magic in the water of baptism; because what really happens in baptism happens in the heart; openness, readiness, commitment and involvement happen because people have been touched, they have been moved, and when John invited them to jump in, they didn’t hesitate, because it was the exact right time for them to do so.
Now there’s a huge surprise, as we read the story of John the Baptist: tax collectors were also there in line to be baptized. I shouldn’t have to tell you that no one in those times liked tax collectors. They were liars and cheats. Not even their own mothers loved them. They charged people too much for their taxes and then put the extra money in their own pockets. Everybody knew what they were doing, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. So here’s the incredible thing, even tax collectors were in that line to be baptized.
Isn’t that something we hope for in proclaiming these Gospel stories, that the least likely, the least loveable people will be drawn into the hope and the promise? More basic than that, isn’t it something we hope for ourselves, too, that with a history of our own mistakes and bad choices, we are also invited to get in line? So the tax collectors and other kinds of despicable people were waiting in line for their turn to get wet. Wow! And when they stepped out of the water, they were already asking for John’s guidance, “Teacher, what should we do?”
And if that isn’t a big enough surprise for you, just listen to this, Roman Soldiers were also in line to be baptized. Imagine that, the army of foreign soldiers that occupied Israel by military force, the soldiers who every single day made life miserable for the people, the ones who extorted people on the street for bribes, were also in line to be baptized. Just like everyone else, they were asking Jesus, “And we, what should we do?”
These questions arose a long time ago, but I think they could be our questions, too. What are we supposed to do? In this world filled with division and disease, with injustice and conflict, what are we followers of Jesus supposed to do? And John’s larger point is that if you are waiting and hoping for a Messiah to change the world we have to begin living as if the Messiah was already here. This is not a waiting game. We prepare the way of the Lord by doing the very things that we hope that the Lord will do.
Have you ever bought a house, or signed a lease, or bought a car, or signed up for insurance, or requested a loan? Most everyone here has, at least the adults have. But when you make a significant purchase or financial commitment you always read the fine print before signing the contract or handing over your credit card. If you don’t read the fine print, you may be in for a series of very unpleasant, very expensive surprises.
In this story, it looks like none of the people who jumped into the river to be baptized had read the fine print. Sure, they were moved, they were excited, they were ready. But when they climbed out of the river, still with damp hair and wet clothes, only then do they think to ask a question: “What should we do?”
Earlier, John had proclaimed that it was time to “Prepare the way of the Lord”. He also said that those seeking baptism should bear the fruits of repentance. The water is only the start, now you have to live in a new way. John, in response to the questions, has a ready answer: If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none. The same thing with food, if you have some, share it. To the tax collectors John said, “stop taking advantage of powerless people at tax time”. And to the Roman soldiers, “stop shaking down people on the streets for bribes. Your baptism is just the beginning of where the Spirit will lead you!
We are about to share a meal at the Communion Table. It’s one place to demonstrate to the world that we do know what to do. We may not have it all figured out, but we do know where to start. When times are tough, we find ways to ally with other hopeful people. When there are needs, we find ways to share. It may only scratch the surface, but we find stockings to fill and coats to share.
What should we do? Here, watch me! I’ll watch you. When Jesus arrives we’ll already be underway! Amen!
Rev. James R. Renfrew