Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 8, 2017
From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.
I hated doing this, especially during the cold, Michigan winters. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.
I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn’t and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.
This got me thinking about today’s passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.
John the Baptist is not anyone’s favorite Biblical character. He’s rude and can’t say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today’s gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. I’ve learned that baptism is about being reminded of God’s love for us, but I don’t think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.
When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn’t stay in the pulpit very long.
There was a time when I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. But these days, John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn’t cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?
I think if John was around today, he might call many of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.
There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that’s not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren’t lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?
Christianity isn’t just about accepting certain beliefs; it’s also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don’t extort and don’t overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.
On an Advent night a decade ago, I heard a memorable passage from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent and by extension what following Jesus is all about:
Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.
God isn’t interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.