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"John the Prophet"
Luke 3:7-18
    If each of us was to write a list of all the Biblical characters we could think of, it is quite likely that even in the shortest of lists we would probably include John the Baptist, the one who baptised Jesus, the one person we know was present when Jesus earthly ministry was begun. 
    And on our lists we would probably write it just that way:  "John the Baptist."  But how often do we think of John OTHERWISE? 
    We think of him as the Baptist so that we don't confuse him with John the Disciple; and we aren't likely to think of him as the John who wrote the gospel or the epistles or the revelation. 
    But I think it's important to know that we have evidence that he did MORE than baptize.  From the gospel according to Luke, we have the words of his preaching.  And although they are few, they are important.  Indeed, they are very much a gospel in miniature.
    From the seventh verse of the third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, we hear, "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?"
    Now, that's a rather insulting opening; for who wants to be referred to as a pack of poisonous snakes? 
    But it was the strongest possible way that John could address the evil present in humanity, and he wanted his audience to know that he recognized it and that he wanted to do something about it. 
    The question which follows is not so much one which seeks an answer as it is a question to remind his listeners that they have been warned by the prophets, particularly Isaiah, that a final judgment will come.  And John Wesley identified the desire to "flee from the wrath to come" as the purpose for the gathering of persons into the early Methodist societies.
    And John has an answer for them to the unspoken question of "How do we 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."
    And the answer is really twofold:  the first part is all that should really need to be said:  "Bear fruits..."  But John knows that the Jews will fall back upon their past, believing that they will be saved by their heritage, and he denies that. 
    Because for John, God was BEYOND Abraham.
    Yet, John uses that link to the past to build the imagery in the next passage.
    "Even now the ax 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 root of the trees would quite obviously seem to be our heritage:  for the Jews, their ties to Abraham.  But John is telling them that God's judgment severs them from that root.  They must take responsibility for THEMSELVES. 
    For God's decisions are based not upon our roots, but upon our fruits. 
    God doesn't care who our parents are, or who our grandparents are, or whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower, or what magnificent accomplishments they may lay claim to.  God only cares about what WE are and what WE do now.  God doesn't judge us by what we HAVE, but by what we ARE and what we DO.  Do WE "bear good fruit"?
    "And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
    And I can't help but wonder what kind of answer they WANTED to hear.  What kind of answer did they EXPECT to hear?  But it is sufficient at this point to know that they did want answers; they were believing John's words.      When the messiah did come, Jesus did not start from scratch; Jesus had an audience that was in need of answers in their lives.  And the need continues. 
    But part of the reason that the need continues is that the answers are not simple to the question, "What then should we do?"  Although John makes a stab at it.
    "In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
    That sounds easy enough.  If you have more than you need, give to those who have LESS that THEY need.
    According to national economic data, several years ago we experienced the longest period of economic growth and expansion in our nation's history.  But we also experienced a very rapid growth in the number of families who have LESS than they need. 
    And it all began with what the economists called "supply-side theory," and what was popularly known as "trickle-down economics."  The idea was that if you allow the rich to have far more than they need, the excess would trickle down to the poor.  But rather than sharing our food, as John would have us do, our economy allows those in need the crumbs that fall from the table.
    "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."
    Now, we need to understand how tax collectors operated in those times.  Much as we may dislike paying taxes now, the IRS is angelic compared to the tax collectors of that period.  They were universally hated. 
    They were expected to collect a certain amount for the government, but the people didn't really know how much that was. 
    So they could rip off the people for all they could get and pocket the difference.  They practically had a license to steal.  And when John said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you," he was simply affirming the commandment to not steal.  Yet, tax collectors probably had not thought of themselves as stealing, since what they were doing was not a punishable offense by the law of the land.
    It's easy to laugh off the tax collectors as artifacts of ancient times, but I think WE ALSO need to be sensitive to the issue of greed that John is addressing.  And it's tough to draw the lines between our greed, our need, and what we think we deserve. 
    I've known clergy in this conference who have left this conference, or have seriously considered leaving it, because the compensation in other conferences was considerably higher, as much as seventy-five to one hundred percent more.  And yet, many also come out of seminary carrying huge debts, so I hesitate to call them greedy.
    "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."
    The extortion by threats or false accusation may not be relevant today, but those who are not satisfied with their wages ARE relevant.  And we are all familiar with bribery, with kickbacks, with rake-offs, with under-the-counter schemes. 
    Embezzlement is a well-known crime committed by those not satisfied with their wages.
    But in all of John's messages, in all his answers, we are getting a foretaste of the message of Jesus.  He is the prophetic image and example of Christ.  He is saying to the people what Jesus will later say to them.  When he tells them that the "ax is lying at the root of the trees," he is telling them, as Jesus will, that there is a new law, a new covenant. 
    When he speaks of giving to others, when he instructs the tax collectors and the soldiers, he is sending messages similar to those that we hear from Jesus in the sermon on the mount and in the parables.
    "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."
    And it is apparent why they might think him the messiah:  the words ring true.  But John is telling them that they can expect more.      And as I read this passage, I hear him telling them that he is a simple messenger, bringing them a message in the word, and providing a symbolic baptism in water.  And clergy to this day are nothing more. 
    We are ordained to proclaim the Word and to administer the Sacraments.  But we are not, as John was not, the Messiah.  For the Messiah, as John so brilliantly describes Jesus, is one for whom the most humble of tasks we are not worthy to perform. 
    And the baptism of the Messiah with the Holy Spirit comes through God. 
    But what are we to make of the baptism with fire?  How does it differ from the baptism with water?  Malachi speaks of the "refiner's fire," and I find that appropriate.  The baptism with water may be a cleansing; but only the baptism with fire and with the Holy Spirit working in us can refine our souls.  And such refinement can come only from God through Christ.
    But John's words were not only prophesy of the coming of Jesus, but also prophesy of the day of Pentecost. 
    In the fourth and fifth verses of the first chapter of Acts, we read, "While staying with them, he ordered them not leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.      "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
    And John continues speaking of the work of the Messiah: 
    "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."
    Now, I have some problems with the symbol of fire here.  In back-to-back verses we have fire as both the constructive power of the Holy Spirit and the destructive power in the burning of the chaff.  But Christ's act of separating the wheat from the chaff is clear. 
    Although I don't believe I've ever seen a threshing floor, I have seen, and frequently operated, self-propelled combines in wheat harvests.  And the purpose is the same. 
    While into the bin behind the operator is pouring beautiful golden grain, out the rear of the machine onto the ground is spilling the trash of the chaff.  Now, that's not biblical, but it works for me.  The wheat is gathered into the temporary granary on the combine, and the chaff is thrown out, discarded into the dirt, to later be plowed under or burned.
    But there's another message here.  And that is, just as our lives bear fruit, and that fruit is to be gathered, to be stored, to be cared for, our lives will also generate chaff.  And that's part of being human, part of living. 
    But we need to hear John's words:  "Bear fruits worthy of repentance....Bear good fruit."
    In this advent season, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ, we should also celebrate John the Baptist, who, in addition to baptizing, foretold Christ's coming.  His humility should be a lesson to us. 
    He didn't need others to put him in his place.  He KNEW his place.  There were probably those who wanted him to be the Christ, the long-awaited answer to their prayers, but he knew better.  He was not one who said, "I am the answer," but rather one who said, "the answer is yet to come."  And as we await Christ's coming as the babe in the manger, let OUR humility be as great as John's.

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