7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
What I Am Learning:
When the Nazi SS were training new members they made the new recruits do some sort of violence against someone. This gave the new recruits an incredible allegiance to the SS. When you have given so much, in this case, so much of your humanity, to something you have to justify it. The SS called this "blood cement."
The more you pay, the more something is important to you.
Our past is like that too. If we have lived in a certain way for decades, with beliefs, attitudes and relational patters we can become less and less open to change. Change could mean that we have misspent our lives. Change could mean that we are indicting ourselves and even our families and churches as being wrong.
The way we have spent our life leads to a kind of a "blood cement."
It was the same for the People of Israel in the time of John the Baptist. They had been living for 5 generations under the less than gentle rule of Rome. Their economy, governance, and even their religious leaders had increasingly become Rome-like. Even their interactions with each other had taken a dog-eat-dog Roman characteristic. With 85% of the population in poverty they had forgotten what it meant to be loving neighbors for each other.
To love your neighbor does not mean to have positive feelings about your neighbor. It means to work for the well-being of your neighbor.
Your neighbors are not just persons that live in proximity to you. Your neighbor is every person on the planet, present and future.
The well-being of your neighbor is impacted by many things, some of which are not directly under our control. The economic system, governmental regulation, the written and unwritten policies of institutions, the practices of our corporations impact our neighbors very powerfully. Love of neighbor often means joining with our neighbor to influence these larger systems.
Love of neighbor takes place in all four of these locations or dimensions:
John the Baptist came to tell the a hard truth to the People of Israel. He called them to set aside the blood cement of their past and present lives.
Prophets are sent to tell the truth not because God says we are bad, but because God wants to remind us that in the power of God's love we have agency - the power to choose and to change despite what our past has been like.
A prophet's job is to help us realize we are free to chart a new or renewed course. The prophet's job is to crack open the blood cement of our past and open a way for a different future.
In John's message he challenges them to love their neighbors in all four of these dimensions of love.
He called them to remember who they were and to be satisfied with their wages, especially when they were in positions of authority like tax collectors or soldier/police.
He called them to share their clothing and food with their neighbor.
But wait! Where are the other more public dimensions of love in John's statement?
Mostly in the word "Messiah."
The Messiah was understood to be a priest and king that would change the institutions and structures into just and equitable forms.
John was preparing them for the Messiah's coming, and inviting them to take part in the messianic movement that Jesus would start.
Sadly, many people turned Jesus into a religious entrepreneur who wanted to spiff up Judaism for a new day. Many people think that still today.
What Jesus was starting, rather, was a movement that would continue after him - to enjoy a life of love of neighbor in all of its dimensions.
In all of this we are called to freedom. As my friend Paul Sundberg quotes on his emails: "For freedom the Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1
Slavery can take many forms:
- guilt about the past
- fear to step out of the conventional
- allegiance to family patters
- despair about the future
But God works in the truth tellers of our own day, and those we remember from the past, to free us up for love of both self and neighbor.
It is our agency that God seeks to evoke. It is our power God seeks to support, and not just our own power alone, but our power with our neighbor to take part in God's healing and creation of the world.