Interventions: What Then Should We Do? John the Baptist and Luke 3:1-20
This past week was our peace playhouse, which from all the reports I heard, went well. Because of this, and given the text we are in this week, it seems appropriate to spend a few minutes conversing around the topic of peace, and nonviolence as Christians.
It’s easy to see peace as conflict avoidance, but that’s not how the Gospel of Luke portrays peace. In fact, it often means conflict, and division. It lands people in jail, and its promotion, in contrast to the logic of the world, is part and parcel of why Jesus was punished in the same way that all insurrectionists were, through crucifixion. He was a threat to the religious and political powers of the day, because he challenged how people were treated, and promised a better, new way to live in this world: according to God’s Kingdom. Had Jesus been like the Zealots, a violent militia type movement, he would have been much easier to vilify, his movement would have been far easier to squash. But as it stood Jesus planted tiny seeds of the kingdom that often-times quietly subverted the powerful and the rich of his day.
Because peace is far more than avoiding conflict, or simply personal inner peace, it requires work, it requires our bodies as much as anything. For Jesus, peace is about peacemaking, a term I find more enticing than nonviolence because it is about creating something, producing the fruits of peace.
Peace is a way of life, it is a practice that is for life.
At peace playhouse 4-6th grade children were invited to pick up skills and techniques in order to practice (the way of) peace. This was done through various activities: journaling, yoga, drama, art, music, gardening etc.
We might say that practices are activities we do in particular social settings (churches, classrooms, workplaces, etc) as one person a part of a larger community (think monastic practices) that orient us in a certain direction. Practices aid us in the ability to do certain tasks well, tasks that are important to the very life of that community.
For instance, baseball is a practice. It’s something you have to be socialized into, taught, and trained. You wouldn’t expect me to walk into the all-star baseball game and hit a home run because I have been trained in all the skills necessary to do that.
Our lives are made up of practices – What are some of the things you have to do that require skills or techniques?
Quakers, at their best, have believed that the whole of Christian life is a practice that includes peacemaking. It’s not something we just believe in, it’s something we do. Peace is not something we say, “oh great, I believe we’re to love our enemies just as long as I can build a 15 foot privacy fence so I don’t have to see my neighbors face ever again,”
Peace is something that re-orients the way we look at the world and the way we behave in it.
In other words, peace is a way of life. Because it is a practice, it is also a struggle, and therefore it must be a practice we do for life. Every new situation has the potential to challenge the way we love others in conflict.
Guide Our Feet in The Way of Peace
In Luke 1:67-80 Zechariah, remember the priest who wanted a sign from the angel Gabriel and was muted because of it, well finally when his son John was born he stood up, and broke the silence with a powerful (prophetic) song.
In that song he speaks about the work his son will do:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV).
John will guide our feet into the “way” of peace.
Not into the doctrine of peace, not into an emotion of peace, or an individual pious kind of peace but the way of peace. It says: To Guide, or keep straight OUR feet into the road, or the way of peace. My editorial would be “to guide us into the struggle for peace.”
In Chapter 1 Luke, through Zechariah, shows that John’s ministry is headed in a particular direction, it is to be put into the frame work of God’s shalom, or peace. It seems to me that here we may find clues into this understanding of “peace is a practice that re-orients life.”
A Contrast Between John and the Powers
In Luke chapter 3 Luke gives us a contrast, he begins and ends this story, with people in power, and sandwiched in the middle is story about wandering prophet doing a ministry outside the city in a muddy river called Jordan. The villians of the narrative surround John’s work outside the city. Here in this sandwich (Luke 3:1-2 and 19-20) we get an introduction into various political, as well as religious, leaders who resist John and Jesus’ work. Luke wants you to take note of these names, a number of them show up in later parts of the Gospel and in Acts. I think these are the chaff spoken of in our passage today.
This is important because Luke is trying to draw a distinction between those who are powerful and those who are on the margins of society (in the wilderness). In Mary’s song there has already been a critique of the powerful and rich (cf. Luke 1). By ending this section with Herod locking John up in prison, we get a very clear picture of the different responses taking place in this Gospel.
Here it is, for John to produce peace is a struggle, and it creates hostility with Herod which eventually costs him his head, literally.
John was an oracular prophet, oracles are announcements of judgment and calls to repentance. John warned that Israel if she did not repent trouble was just around the turn (Wright). John was the kind of a fiery baptist preacher you might imagine from a fiery baptist preacher. He was breathing down oracles of damnation and repentance on those who have been unfaithful and treated others unjustly.
But here’s the difference in his message from those today: he was challenging those who were lining their pockets in the name of religion, those who were using their political positions as heavenly thrones from which they could oppress others. John called for a total transformation of life, a re-orientation around practices of peace.
Let me name a couple:
Baptism (Entrance Into the Rule and Reign of God)
A key ingredient to John’s fiery preaching, to guiding our feet in the way of peace, is seen in his “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3 NRSV).”
Now we may think that John simply meant that he was hoping people would say the sinners prayer, and then jump into the water, but that’s not it at all. John was calling for a different allegiance, a new entry point for people to live under the rule and reign of God. John was trying to prepare his fellow Jews to surrender to the (re)new(al) work God was bringing about in Jesus (NT Wright). A movement that requires a different allegiance.
Baptism symbolizes an entrance into the Rule of God. It is a sign that we subject ourselves to God’s reign, to God’s rule, it is how we are made subjects of God’s kingdom.
We don’t practice baptism this way as Quakers (in part because of what John says here about the greater baptism to come in Jesus), but that is most likely the way the crowds understood John’s baptism. This is because even though he was from a family of priests he challenged the symbolic power of the temple by offering an alternative site of cleansing in the river of Jordan. John’s baptism outside the city walls both created a space for those who weren’t welcome in the temple itself as well as stated, “have here right now what you would normally get at the temple.”
In other words, those who seek to live peace actually go out of their way to create, or produce, sites of worship where those who are excluded can to encounter God. It is as if John said, if you can’t get it elsewhere, you can get it right here. This community seeks to live out the reality of God’s rule!
Repentance (Abandon Revolutionary Zeal)
And repentance for a first century Jew was anything but an intellectual assent to this or that belief, it was far more radical than that. Repentance in the New Testament means “return from exile.” It was what Israel needed to do to return home.
Repentance is the re-entry point into membership of the people of God. It is “what Israel must do if her fortunes are to be restored.”
NT Wright says that repentance means, in this ancient context, “to abandon revolutionary zeal and show loyalty to YHWH.” This is to say that, abandon you’re impulse to go at it alone, to DIY, through violent upheaval and believe in me and my ways. Repentance is to abandon the logic of the world, it is to live in contrast to those who were introduced at the beginning of chapter three, the chaff, and believe instead in the impossible, in the strangely unexpected, often backward-seeming ways of God (I like to think of it as hair-brained and cockeyed).
This is the posture and stance of repentance. Therefore it is a gesture, a practice, a behavior that one must enact in order to enter into the kind of peace God calls us to. It is “to abandon revolutionary zeal and show loyalty to YHWH,” to give up our impulse to go at it alone, or to do it my way. (it is to submit to the missio Dei)
Conversations (What Should We Produce)
Like any good preaching, and we can see that John is a good preacher, there is a response from the crowd, an interjection, a question, and a bewilderment at how to change.
What I love about this passage is that it shows that John’s sermon is really short, it’s most likely a summary of what he said, but it I had considered doing a three sentence sermon and wondered how you all would respond. John’s sermon is a dialogue between him and the people, it is a conversation about implication. (Mind you he does start out by calling his hearers “children of poisonous snakes,” something I won’t be doing anytime soon.)
John’s dialogical method, not simply the content, but his method of speaking to the crowd represents the way of peace that is rooted in the rule and reign of God.
Whereas violence shuts-up, closes down, and enforces, Peace opens up, it creates a space for others to respond, it seeks to give others a voice.
Instead of giving the crowd all the answers in a three point sound bite on how to make their lives better, John helps them to see, through symbols (wilderness), action (baptism), and preaching (dialogue), that the story they are enacting, this new exodus, is a story that doesn’t simply challenge them but re-orients their whole lives.
To be guided in the way of peace is to invite conversation around how this gets lived out in real life, how under the rule of God all of life is re-oriented.
This is the intervention – John’s witness of peace challenges the whole structure of life for his hearers. The crowd asked “What then should we do?” Theirs isn’t a question of application but of re-orientation, if this is true – how must our lives be re-oriented?
I don’t want to bore you with Greek here but the word “do” here is an important word in Luke as well as in the Gospels. For instance, in John 3:21 it is rendered “Live the truth,” it is the same word in our passage this morning, “to make straight paths,” it means to practice, to make a moral commitment to something, elsewhere it means to “produce fruit.”
Their question is, how then shall we live, what should we be practicing, what fruit should we produce with our lives.
And John goes on to describe practices that produce fruits of economic justice – if you have two coats give one away, if you have food share it with others who need it. To the tax collectors he told them to only take as much money as was prescribed, a difficult practice in a culture that gave them the freedom to tack on as much surcharge as they wished. The same was true for the soldiers, they were told to relinquish violent means by not using their position of power in abusive ways, he tells them not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations…”
A life of peace comes by way of being re-oriented around these kinds of justice issues. It comes by way of producing fruit that exhibits God’s rule and reign.
I want to suggest that along with peace being rooted in repentance, and the rule of God, it requires that our entire lives be re-oriented, that we ask “what then should we do?” (What Should We Produce)
What then should we do?
What has acted as a baptism of repentance in our lives, bidding us to live under God’s rule?
What are ways we produce the fruits of peace?
You can view or download the slides from here.