Jan. 8, 2017
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” 7 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? 8 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. 9 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.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.” 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In the eighth year of presidency of Barack Obama, two weeks before the inauguration of President-elect Trump, when Scott Walker was governor, and Chris Abele was ruler of the county, and Tom Barrett the city of Milwaukee, when Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was the presiding Bishop and Rev. Paul Erickson the bishop of Greater Milwaukee.
Sounds a little weird doesn’t it. But, the gospel is not just stories of a long time ago, in a far away place, with no relevance for today. The names may change, but the questions are still the same: “what should we do?”
What should we do? asked the people who heard John’s words, who came to be baptized by him, who heard and listened to his preaching to his call to repentance, the people, the men and women of the surrounding towns and villages, the crowds of religious, the crowds of curious, even the tax collectors and soldiers, in days of uncertainty, with capricious and untrustworthy rulers, they hear his warnings and words doom and gloom. What should we do?
The names may change, but the question remains the same. What should we do? Decisions of family and career, who are we becoming? What should we do? When we hear the swing of the ax as another loved one is diagnosed with cancer, or depression, or addiction or any other myriad of modern maladies that take away the life we expect, the life we want, the life we hope for. What should we do? When relationships fall apart, when we feel like we are surrounded by a brood of vipers. What should we do when the government that should be acting on the behalf of justice and peace, which should be working for the benefit of the most vulnerable, when government, when our nation seems hellbent to benefit the richest at the cost of the health of women, children, vets, hard-working poor, and our planet. What should we do?
In the words of a modern prophet: “just keep swimming”. for those who may not know the source of that wisdom, it’s what Dory sings in the movie “Finding Nemo” Yes, I’ve just compared John the Baptist to a Disney cartoon character. Hear me out though, or in other words just keep swimming with me on this one.
So when the crowds come to John and ask what should we do? What does John say? Whoever has two coats, share one. Whoever has food, share that too. That should be no surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Bible, with the Hebrew God, the God of Jesus. Share. We are not put on this earth to just look after ourselves. We are here to care for others. John and Jesus, well they’re in the same stream as their ancestors. But who else comes to waters of the Jordan? To tax collectors. What are they to do? Does he tell them to give up their evil job, their collaboration with the occupying enemy? No, just Collect what you’re supposed to collect—not more. And to the soldiers? What are they to do? Are they supposed to lay down their weapons? Using good biblical imagery, should they beat their swords into shovels and plows for farming? No, Don’t take advantage of your position and power. Don’t extort people, don’t trump up charges. What should we do? It seems like according to John, repentance is to just keep swimming.
Just keep swimming in the waters of baptism. See baptism isn’t just a bit of sprinkle, a bit of water dropped onto our skin. Baptism, even if it’s at a neat font like ours is full immersion. We don’t just dip our toes in the waters of baptism. God’s love flows all around us. Baptism is really getting in over our heads in God’s reality.
And one of the important things that John tells us is we are not meant to just float along. Swimming is exercise Just keep swimming takes skill, practice; it means putting muscle, and breath, and intention. It is doing something. In our gospel reading for today, Luke doesn’t tell us if Jesus asked what he should do. But, I kind a like to picture him doing that. After all he was a real person, a real man, not some Christian cartoon character. The thing about us people is that we question. I think that’s what differentiates us from all animals, all fish in the sea—it’s that we question. Why? How? When? What should we do?
People of God, when you start to ask, what should I do? What can I do? What good is anything? Remember you are in God’s waters and God wants and life needs you to keep swimming. Share what you have whether it’s coats or cakes. Share what you have whether it’s time or technical skills. Really try to live a just life in whatever way you can. When the world or the powers, just want you to go with the flow. Just keep swimming, against the current, splashing and even making waves.
The baptism of Jesus is just the beginning. From now on until Easter we are going to hear how Jesus is going to make a splash and make some waves. What Jesus does and says will be welcomed by some and feared by others, because a lot of people, ok, all of us, we like to answer our own question of what should we do. We like to answer that, we think we need to determine and limit the boundaries of God’s love. We build our own damns to contain God’s goodness. You know, if I need to treat the abuser, the alt right as a real person, as someone loved by God, well I’ll be damned. But, Jesus claims us, all of us as brothers and sisters. Jesus shows us the great depth of God’s ocean of love looks like, how we are part of it, how we live in it and share it with others. It’s ok to keep on asking, so what should we do? Because in the waters of baptism, God claims us as beloved sons and daughters, so just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Amen.