Overcoming fear

20 December 2015
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent IIIC (RCL)
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

A quick read of Luke’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist shows up noticeable similarities to the account in Matthew (most likely from the common source Q). Luke and Matthew share the reference to the brood of vipers, the warning to flee from the wrath to come, language about bearing fruit worthy of repentance, the ax at the root of the tree, and the reference to the mightier one who is coming who baptizes in spirit and fire (judgment and power). But there are also remarkable differences. In Luke, the brood of vipers comment is addressed to all the people, not just Pharisees.

And then Luke inserts John’s specific instructions to those who ask, “What should we do?” The content of those instructions jars against the rest of John’s speech. In the context of coming judgment and the day of God imagined as disaster, Luke has John say, “Let anyone with two coats share with the one who has none. Likewise, those who have food.” When tax collectors come to be baptized (!), John says, “Collect no more than the assigned amount.” Even soldiers ask (notice that they are not being baptized), and John replies, “Take no money by extortion and be satisfied with your wages.” These are not words that bespeak the overthrow of the current structure, but rather, living inside it.

Luke is forcing us to reinterpret the meaning of John the Baptist, away from a prophet of doom, and toward a moral instructor. Luke is also forcing us to reinterpret the idea of the day of the Lord, away from an apocalyptic, immanent reality, toward an ongoing shift from the inside. Mark’s (and Matthew’s) account of the preaching of John the Baptist aims at the immediate arrival of the messiah, who will overturn the status quo. There is an element of fear in what he is preaching. The motivation for attending to his preaching is to escape the coming wrath.

Luke moderates that sense of fear. We are to live here and now, not in anticipation of an immediate end. And the way we go about living in that coming day is really quite simple. Share your extra, don’t extort, live together, even with the Romans. Luke, of course, is writing roughly twenty years after Mark wrote his Gospel. Mark had seen the destruction of Jerusalem and thought that event signaled the immediate end. Luke is faced with the task of reshaping Mark’s expectation. Mark’s fear is no longer an appropriate response to the world.

We are currently living in a climate of rising fear. The xenophobia apparent in our public discourse right now seems to beg for an immediate apocalypse. We need to hear Luke’s version of John’s sermon. the way to live in this climate is actually very simple. Share what you have, live next to one another. Zepheniah longs for the presence of God among us as a victor. We badly want a victor at the moment. Luke instead gives us Jesus, as our emperor, reigning from the cross: in Luke’s Gospel, the centurion points at Jesus on the cross, and says, “Surely, this man was divi filius,” a title for Caesar.

Paul interprets the message of this upside down messiah in his last letter, addressed to the Philippians, on his way to martyrdom. He could easily have given us a message of fear — the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and my sentence is proof — but instead, he says, “let your gentleness be known by all.” He assures the Philippians that the know everything they need to know, and they are going to be just fine in the world as he leaves it. We need to hear that assurance now, and live in the simple ways John preaches.

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