When John the Baptizer is preaching and baptizing out in the wilderness, Luke describes three different groups of people who come to him with the same question: “What then should we do?” The question is a response to John’s fiery sermons that bear all the marks of apocalyptic urgency. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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.”
Given John’s not-so-seeker-friendly methods of sermonizing, it’s a wonder anyone ever made the trek out into the desert to get within earshot of him. Luke fills us in on John’s way of greeting and welcoming people into his wilderness congregation. Forget, “Good morning and welcome to worship. We’re so glad for the visitors that have come all the way out to be with us here in this place and we apologize for the heat and uncomfortable rocks.” John greets these hardy pilgrims by saying “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Yikes. Likening your listeners to poisonous snakes is a risky way to gain a loyal following. How rude. He obviously wasn’t a Mennonite. Who would want to listen to what this guy has to say?
When Abbie and I were living in St. Louis doing voluntary service I remember a time when one of the families from the church had just gotten back in town from traveling through Chicago. They told us, with much excitement about this restaurant that they visit every time they go through that area. The restaurant is known as a place where all of the waiters and staff treat the customers poorly. They rush you through the line, don’t refill your drinks when you ask them to, make rude comments to people and generally treat you like garbage. I remember being a little puzzled but also amused as they talked and laughed about how great the restaurant is. I personally have still never been to this place, but this week I did a little research into the restaurant, called Ed Debevics, a 50’s diner kind of place. I looked up some customer reviews online, which confirmed that people do indeed go to the restaurant joyfully expecting to be treated rude. One reviewer said, “The best thing at Ed Debevic’s is the servers. They dress totally crazy, dance around, and are known for being really snotty to everybody. It’s really amusing… Service is straight-forward, snotty, sassy, rude, and hilarious all at the same time. There slogan is ‘Eat and Get Out.’ And you MUST finish your meal off with ‘The Worlds Smallest Fudge Sundae.’” Another person said this is the place where they always take guests who are visiting the city for the first time.
Apparently Ed Debevics has found a niche market for a particular set of expectations for what people can look forward to in a dining experience. Strangely, I must confess, I’m now curious enough to want to go myself. Maybe Carol Lehman and Greg Koop can help us understand the psychology behind what’s going on here.
If anyone remembers John Bromel’s stunning portrayal of John the Baptist during last year’s Advent series – how could you forget? – then it’s not too hard to picture John – the Baptist—as a featured waiter at Ed Debevics, one that really brings in the crowds, an evening of in-your-face entertainment good for some laughs and fun memories.
Why was it, again, that people were coming out to the wilderness to hear and be baptized by John the Baptist?
In case they had forgotten, this very question is one that Jesus poses to the crowds, after John had been placed in prison; and after posing it, Jesus proposes a couple decoy wrong answers before suggesting an accurate answer.
Jesus turns to the crowds and asks them a question about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
To their own credit, people had left town and village and the security of home to see John, with the expectation that he would be bringing them the words of a prophet. Knowing that those prophet types tend to bring the thunder with their words and that often times the lightning bolts get pointed directly at those who are present listening. People went to hear John recognizing it was not going to be all the pretty. But that he could point the way, prepare the way, for the movement of God among them. In asking this question Jesus reminds the people of the hunger within them for moral direction. For ethical instruction. For words that hurt in a necessary sort of way, pointing the way to salvation.
So after taking the heat from John, being reminded in no uncertain terms not to count on their ethnic privilege, as children of Abraham, because God could raise up from these stones children of Abraham, and there were a lot of stones laying around, the people, it seems take the word to heart.
The question that they pose to John is an interesting one. They don’t ask – well what should we believe? Or what should we say? The question they put to John is “What then should we do?” Crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers each ask this same question. What should we do? How should we live?
John’s answers are direct and each and every one of them have to do with economics.
Here’s how people can live as true children of Abraham. To the crowds, John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors who ask him “And what should we do?” John says, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers who ask John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
These three groups of people would not exactly have been the best of friends. “The crowds” is a term used often in Luke and refers generally to the masses of peasants who come to Jesus on different occasions. They would have represented the underclass of the Jewish world, economically devastated from years of Roman occupation and heavy taxation, many losing their land because of indebtedness. Sometimes becoming wage laborers on the very land that their ancestors had owned for generations. They didn’t have a lot of cash reserve, and John invites them into economic sharing of the assets that they do have. Share your coat. Share your food.
The crowds would have been at odds with the other two groups that Luke describes and maybe a shouting match or two broke out by the Jordan. The tax collectors and the soldiers both benefited in some way from the current set up, profiteering off of the occupation of their own people. Tax collectors paid a fee to Rome for the right to collect tolls and fares and then got as much out of people as they could so they could pocket the extras. Soldiers enforced law and most likely abused this power regularly which would explain why John instructed them not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.
As hardcore as John the Baptist was out of the gate, I wonder how people perceived these instructions from him. People were being called to repent, to be baptized into a life of right living, but this isn’t all that revolutionary of a teaching. It’s challenging to share when you barely have enough for your own family. True. It’s good for tax collectors to collect what’s fair and for soldiers to accept their wage and not expect to make any on the side through corruption, but all this still leaves the current system pretty well in place. Soldiers keep soldiering, tax collectors keep collecting, peasants keep… peasanting, with a little wider social safety net of a baptized neighbor who will make sure your family doesn’t starve if hers has a little food to share.
I wonder if people felt like this was enough. If it’s what they’d really been waiting for. It does get people talking and wondering whether this guy’s the Messiah. John’s answer gives a sense of how he perceived his own calling and what his own expectations were for a Messiah to come. John answers “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.”
At the time, wheat was processed by bringing the harvested wheat and stalk to a hard floor or stone surface, having animals tred across it to break the wheat out of the husk, and then, with a winnowing fork, to toss the crop into the air so that the lighter chaff would get blown into a pile down wind while the heavier wheat falls straight back to the ground. At the end one had two separate piles, a wheat pile good for storage and food, and a chaff pile good for making a really big bonfire.
The one to come will baptize with spirit and fire, John says, which could also be translated as wind and fire, two key elements in this metaphorical separation of the useful from the useless. I can almost hear John saying, ‘You think I’m something? You think I’m bringing the heat? Well, if you think I’m demanding repentance from this lousy way of life we’re all caught up in, just wait till this next one comes along. We’ve got some water here that we’re working with, but for this one after me it’s harvest time, if you know what I’m saying – wheat and chaff, wind and fire. Crowds, you better get ready for this one. Tax collector, I’m not sure what he’s going to say to you, it may be just a little bit more than “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” and Soldier, you might really be in trouble. There may be some chaff that I’m letting slip by but it’s not going to escape his fire.
Advent is the season of expectation. And so we let ourselves, one more time, listen again to these expectations of John, to the great apocalyptic preacher, the wilderness prophet, who expected one who would soon separate the good from the bad in a definitive kind of way, and we wonder how much of those expectations are still in us and how much they should be in us and what kind of wind and fire it is that Jesus actually baptizes with. What kind of Messiah is it who is coming into the world and what if the Messiah doesn’t save us in the way we were expecting to be saved? Or condemn others in the way we’re sure they should be condemned?
Like the time Jesus meets up with his first tax collector, and has two words for him. “Follow me.” Levi leaves everything and follows him, but Jesus also must have followed Levi for a bit because the next thing we know Levi is throwing a great banquet in his house, with Jesus, and has invited all his tax collector friends. Jesus is there eating and drinking with them and while they’re all there in the same room it’s a perfect time to let the whole lot of them know how corrupt they are and how much he’s about to bring the fire. When he opts for joining in the party, eating and drinking with them, there are some religious folks who are upset. Why eat with sinners? John never would have done this. These are the bad guys. Where’s the fire and the wind? This is the threshing floor man. You’re not burning the chaff with fire, you’re like playing in the chaff, right in the scum of the earth. You’re throwing a party in the chaff, Jesus.
To this Jesus replies with a parable fitting to the occasion where the wine was flowing: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” The old wineskin, the old framework of judgment and wrath and everybody getting what they have coming to them is not the way Jesus goes about his ministry. If you try and hold this new wine in that old wineskin, it’s going to explode. It won’t work.
The separation that sorts the world into piles of goodness and badness hasn’t happened in any timeline I’m aware of. Instead Jesus inaugurates this alternative holding place, this new wineskin, for our desires and our longings for moral guidance and salvation. And it looks more like a feast where everyone is invited rather than a threshing floor where things are getting sorted out.
The prophet Zephaniah saw it coming: “The Lord your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory. God will rejoice over you with gladness, will renew you in love; will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” An economy of lavish celebration.
Strangely, considering myself being delighted over by God, and having my very existence be cause for a holy celebration has the effect of starting to sort out within me things that are beautiful and things that need to go. To my own surprise, the lack of judgment and perfect love directed at me brings with it a judgment that begins to clarify that within me which is bearing fruit and that which is a dead branch. The coming of this Messiah is tricky like that.
What then should we do, how should we live? Follow me, Jesus says. And let’s go find someone else whom we can delight over.