by Pastor Bob Miller
Our Scripture reading is found in Luke 3. Israel is under Roman domination, and they are being taxed heavily to support the Empire of Caesar. They are a people that long for deliverance! They are looking forward to the coming of God’s promised Messiah! Little did they know that 30 years earlier, over the fields of Bethlehem, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds to announce, “Tonight, in the City of David, a child has been born to you. He is Christ the King!” The child was named Jesus, for he would save from sin.
For 30 years, the child had been growing up in obscurity in the small town of Nazareth as a carpenter. All the while God was preparing the people for the day in which Jesus would come as King. He sent John the Baptist to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The people flocked to hear this fiery preacher. His message was clear. They needed to get their hearts ready. Read what Luke says.
May our prayer be, “Lord, we need to hear these words again. Those that first heard those words were waiting for your arrival! They were looking for your deliverance and Salvation! We are awaiting your return! We have to know what it is to be adopted into your family. We have experienced your forgiveness. We have tasted the joy of your salvation! We long for the day when sin will be defeated. The question we ask is the same as what they had asked John, 'What should we do? How shall we live?'”
Yesterday morning, the strangest thing happened. A car pulled up in our church parking lot, and a group of people got out of the car and began to take pictures of our church building. I’d never seen them before, but here they were in paradise surrounded by the beauty of the ocean and beach, and they are taking pictures of our church building. I had to go and find out why. Sure enough, they were Nazarenes. Way back in 1974, they had come as teenagers to serve at our church. While I’d never met them, we shared many friends in common. They were two generations of Nazarenes living in California. We had grown up in the same area, attended many of the same camps, and knew and esteemed a number of the same pastors. Together, we celebrated our roots. I told them about my son serving in Africa, and they told of theirs who was headed for the mission field in Johannesburg, South Africa. We took pride in our shared heritage! We were family. The faith we inherit from our families runs deep. There is beauty in it, but our heritage is not what saves us – and it can become dangerous when we think that it will.
It seems that the Jews during the days of John the Baptist had great pride in their heritage and they were counting on it to get them to Heaven. They boasted about being “children of Abraham,” and assumed that because they were part of that family tree, they were guaranteed a place in God’s Kingdom. It didn’t matter how they lived. They were “God’s children.” It isn’t so different today. We may say, “Well I was baptized into the Catholic Church when I was born, so I’m Christian!” Or “I joined the Church. I’m safe!”
Now John the Baptist didn’t know how to be politically correct, nor did he waste any words when declaring the truth. John proclaimed that you couldn’t rely on your heritage for your salvation. If you were going to be a child of God, you needed to reflect His nature. You needed to live in such a way that you look and act like Him. John is saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. You need to be ready, so repent and live lives that reflect your desire to be part of His Kingdom.”
John says in verse 9, "The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Just like a fruit tree that’s taking up space and not producing fruit will be cut down, so it is that our Family Tree, as meaningful as they are to us, will be cut down if they don’t result in a life of fruitfulness.
Faith is not merely an identity; it is a way of living, and this way of life must bear good fruit.
Their response to John the Baptist was, “What then, should we do? How do we make things right? If the things we have depended on for so long will not bring us into the kingdom of God, what will?"
The answer was a simple one. John told them to share. This is Preschool 101. “Johnny, share your toys!”
Verse 11, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Don’t be selfish. Don’t take advantage. Share! You see someone in need, help them! These are not complicated instructions, but it seems that this easy lesson in generosity goes against our very nature! It goes against our bent towards selfishness. It is something that is easier said than done!
Luke says that even tax collectors were coming out to be baptized by John. They were asking, “What shall we do? How do you want us to live?" Was the answer found in them quitting their jobs? John says, “No, the answer is in not collecting any more than you are required to.” The problem was that they were using their position of authority to take advantage of those whom you are called to serve. They were padding their own pockets at the expense of those in need.
In Jesus’ day, there was a huge class divide of economic inequality. There were the rich and then the very poor. The rich would use their position and power to get richer at the expense of the poor who were, getting poorer! If you had power and possessions, you used your position to your advantage. Those who had no status or wealth were nothing but pawns to be used and expended. Slavery was not uncommon if you could afford it. And Why not? God had blessed you! Why not use your position as a Roman citizen to your advantage to gain more wealth. So often, wealth and power are gained at someone else’s expense. Someone has to suffer. Better Him than Me!
John the Baptist redefined what the Kingdom of God was all about. The Roman Kingdom was built on ruthlessness and hard-heartedness. That’s not the foundation on which God’s kingdom is built! John says, “Share with one another. Don’t take advantage when you have the opportunity! Instead, live generously.”
Even soldiers were making their way to John, wanting to be part of the Kingdom of God. They asked, “What should we do? Are we to lay down our swords?” John says in verse 14, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely. Be content with your pay.”
In other words, “Don’t use your power over others for your advantage at the expense of others. Be honest in your dealings. Don’t cheat to get ahead! Use your position to help, not just those who have power and can help you but those who do not.
And it isn’t a stretch to see how this is still being played out in our day and age, in our capitalistic world where the almighty dollar is king. We will do anything to ensure that we can increase our returns, even at the expense of others.
We don’t mind getting cheap clothes. We turn a blind eye when we learn that those clothes are so cheap because they were produced in sweatshops where children are forced to work in ungodly circumstances for less than minimum wages.
Sharing isn’t as easy as we thought! The dynamics haven’t changed since before the time of Jesus! In fact, that is why God was establishing a new Kingdom, and He was sending a King to bring that kingdom down out of heaven and establish it here on earth. And that king would be one who came not to be served – but to serve! He would turn the kingdoms of this world upside down!
The people wanted to know if John was the Messiah. John said, "It’s not me, but there is one at the door who is coming that is more powerful than I am. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! His baptism will purify your hearts. He will change you from the inside out.” John was sent to get their hearts ready. He was called to set their minds on the right things.
But, it is going to take God to do a work inside of us, to purify our hearts, to change us at the core of our being, He must make us a new people so that we can truly live with a spirit of generosity.
Part of what has to change in our hearts, just as it was in Jesus’ day, is thinking that our possessions, what we own, somehow equate to the joy that we will have. We get so caught up in chasing after wealth that we forget that what brings joy is not found in our material possessions but is found in generosity. Jesus said, “When you lose your life you will find it!” It is in giving ourselves away – that we find joy!
Advent, the waiting for God to come and deliver us, can expose our need for a kingdom that will push us toward the hope of generosity. The people that John was preaching to needed something besides material comforts to live for. John was opening their eyes to a way of living as God originally designed life to be lived. But that way was lost when Adam sinned.
Advent is about God coming to make things right and to undo that which has gone wrong! He will come to bring justice!
And Justice is not about getting ahead but about making things right. Making things right never comes at the expense of others, though it might come at the cost of excess for ourselves. Making things right might mean that we need to look at ourselves and how we are living and about what we are chasing. How generous are we with what we’ve been given?
We talk about the joy of giving during this season, but we often lose that joy in our need to feel like we need more and better things. Maybe we need to rethink how Christmas is celebrated in order to share with others. Instead of having two toys, perhaps one needs to be given away. Maybe, Christmas isn’t about “getting” as much as it is about “giving” and sharing what we already have!
When we learn to live with open-handed generosity toward others, we learn to be more dependent on God. We also learn that everything we have is God’s and that living in God’s kingdom redefines what generosity looks like.
The obsession to get ahead, to have more, to keep up with the Joneses, is not a new one. While sharing might be a lesson we learn as children, it is one that we must never outgrow. The kingdom of God is one of level ground, where we love and care for one another.
It isn’t enough to say we belong to a family of faith. We must be people of faith. This means living lives of generosity toward those around us, illustrating our love for God and others and demonstrating the faith that God loves and cares for all of us. Out of our generosity, the world might see and know a generous God who left the riches of heaven so that we might be free of sin.
Our prayer this advent may need to be, "Lord, cleanse my heart. Fill me with your desires. Change my own heart and make me more like you. Enable me to be generous. Set me free to with others as you have shared with me!”