The three books of Isaiah are beautifully bound together into one book that tells the story of God’s presence and the lives of the people of Zion or Israel. It wasn’t an easy time in their mutual covenantal life together so they really did need a prophet, someone who could be the ‘go between’ if you will.
Isaiah, among others, was their prophet! Old Testament Palestine, as it was called then, was a divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. This is around 742 BCE. They were churning through king after king, not at all organized. Things were beginning to crumble and eventually it would.
Now Isaiah was politically astute at domestic politics and he also knew the international scene around them. The Babylonians had been conquered by Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria and the Assyrians advance into the region to become the leading power in the Middle East. As it is today, that part of the world was in terrible conflict. Soon an alliance between then Syria and Israel, who were once enemies, would form to combat an international conspiracy.
But Isaiah’s charge was to take care of Israel. In the first book he warned them of God’s impending judgment, then in the second book he spoke words of comfort to God’s people while they were in exile in Babylon. The third book addresses the dire situation that they found when they finally returned home to a devastated land.
So what we heard earlier, this little chapter of thanksgiving and praise, was a welcomed breath of fresh air amidst oracle after oracle after oracle of doom and gloom, failure in keeping covenant, straying after idols and abandoning God. They had it rough, God had it rough. (Now don’t go off thinking that this ‘Old Testament’ God was vengeful, that would be a mistake. It was how ancient people understood God and the other gods at that time) But God, being ineffable and caring promises to be present with them no matter what happens, no matter what they do, no matter how far they stray.
From good news to joy, it doesn’t get any better than that! God was angry but then it ceased and they were comforted. They rejoice that God is their strength and salvation. And of course Zion cannot help but ‘greatly rejoice’ in all of this. God is back in their midst, this Holy one of Zion.
And this is the promise of this scripture on this third week of Advent, this week of pink candles and joy. We are heard and God is present even in adversity, even in darkness, even when the winds threaten to blow away our very existence, in this we can find joy. And all of that is good news and something for us to remember too.
Many years later another prophet comes along. Out of the wilderness, clothed in course camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey comes John, called by some John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth, and cousin of Jesus. Hear now today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke the third chapter.
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? 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. 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 crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 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.” 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.”
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. 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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John was a powerful prophet. In fact, many of the people thought he was Elijah, the prophet for whom they had been waiting to return. It had been a long time since they had heard from any prophets. And, like in Isaiah’s time, like Jeremiah’s time, like in Malachi’s time, like Elijah’s time and all the rest, they needed a prophet. If you haven’t caught on by now, prophets tell the truth and they were not afraid to share that truth and so we have these very challenging words from the wilderness man.
In pulling apart this passage we see that really what he is demanding is fairness and justice. His advice to the crowds, the tax collectors and soldiers is practical. To the crowds who ask “What should we do?” he answers, share. To the tax collectors who also ask “What should we do?” he replies, be fair, take no more than what you need. And to the soldiers who ask again, “What should we do?” he states don’t extort, don’t torture, no violence, treat others fairly. John is summoning them to ethical living, a way of being. In very simplistic terms be a decent human being and help others.
I find it interesting that three times, the author of Luke asks the question, “What should we do?” They did that you know, repeat words or phrases as if they are personally inviting us into the story. But thinking about this question, “What should we do?” to me sounds helpless as if none of us has control and are waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Or we have no thoughts of our own. You don’t really have to think too deeply to answer that question because someone else can answer it for you. When you ask the question, “What should I do?” and you are given an answer you have the choice of doing it or not.
So I want to offer you another question that might help you during this Advent season to better reflect what you ‘should do’. You could ask yourself, “What can I do?” “What can I do?” moves you into action, the action that John the Baptizer is calling us to. You are taking responsibility for your life and I think ultimately the question that I think God wants us to ask. “What can I do?” “What can I do to change myself, change a situation?” “What can I change for the better?”
When you ask these questions you can be sure that you are tuned in to the gospel message of John and of Jesus Christ because they want us to take action, to take part in a transformative experience that just might bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.
A story is told by Pastor Edward Markquart, former pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Washington State, “I was at the men’s breakfast at church and we were talking about Christmas that is upon us. The men started pontificating like men will often do. They muttered, ‘Christmas costs too much,” “All the bills show up in January,” “We’re too materialistic,” or “Why can’t we have this Christmas generosity all year long?” To all of this muttering and blubbering, one man suggested, “A trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
Miraculously, the conversation shifted dramatically and the men began talking about taking the first step in their path. One man told a story about caring for his elderly grandma. Another talked about working with the young men at the juvenile court. Still another told of caring for a handicapped person for years. Finally, someone looked at Floyd, good old Floyd, mid-eighties, wearing a red bow tie, using a walker…. One knowing man asked, “Tell us your story, Floyd” Floyd, in his high pitched voice quietly said, “My wife and I were married for thirty years. We couldn’t have any children so we raised seventy-two foster children.” Silence. Stone silence. And then the miracle happened.
All the men began clapping…It was just for a moment…and God walked into the hearts of us men and we were moved to ask the question, “What can I do?” “What can I do to be more like Floyd?”[i]
What can YOU do? John the Baptizer is specific because God is specific, make no mistake about that. When you see a child in distress, what can you do? When you see a box at the grocery store asking for canned food donations, what can you do? When you hear a racial or ethnic slur, what can you do? When you hear hatred spewing from someone’s mouth, what can you do? When you hear that an elderly member is in a home and rarely gets visitors, what can you do? When you have too much of anything, what can you do? When you know someone is going for chemo treatments, what can you do?
It is a simple question but one whose answer will have far reaching effects on so many people, maybe even yourself. And I think that’s what God wants, a world and a people that has been lovingly curated by its inhabitants.
So now enter into this needy world from this safe little sanctuary asking the question, “What can I do?”