Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
What Should We Do?
If it wasn’t clear last week, the personality of John the Baptist has long captured my imagination. Those extraordinary characteristics of his life, faith, and ministry are just sooo captivating. But alongside all of that, there’s the fact that John’s teaching and ministry so completely anticipates Jesus’ own. John’s proclamation of the Kingdom and what discipleship means is perfectly consistent with that of Jesus……
Somehow, it seems that before Jesus even enters the scene, John manages to show everyone what being a follower of Jesus means.
This particular passage describing John’s ministry has a lot of different things to teach us, but the Luke’s focus in telling it is on discipleship. Discipleship and what it means is the answer to the crowds’ question in v.10: “What then should we do?”
I hope you find this to be familiar ground. “What then should we do?” is the natural human response to an encounter with God—
And in encountering God we always seem to discover both our own insufficiency and God’s sufficiency.
In encountering God, we are called into repentance, into reflecting on the fruits of our life (and our human efforts), and into the core of who we are.
In encountering God, we find a simultaneous affirmation of love and a calling to be something more—something we can only be if God is the one changing us.
Between John’s teaching here and his responses to the crowds, I believe there are some significant morsels to be gleaned about the nature of discipleship—the nature of what we do in response to experiencing God.
Discipleship Is Not Passive
First, let me suggest that discipleship is not something passive. It is not something that happens to us without any involvement of ourselves.
In v.8, John suggests that some in the crowds think they do not require the transforming work of discipleship in their lives—simply because of who they are. They “have Abraham for an ancestor.” They think the life of faith is about bearing the right label—for them “descendant of Abraham,” but for us what? Christian? Baptist? Republican? Democrat? Church member? Baptized believer? Tither? Good person?
If you think that “getting right with God” is based on who you are associated with—or having your name on a list somewhere—you are sorely mistaken. John reminds his hearers that the Creator who brought all matter in existence could easily transform mere stones into “members,” if members were what God was after.
Discipleship is not something passive; it is not about “being” something. It requires that we “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v.8). That’s active. That’s “doing.” As one author has offered: “Discipleship is about generating intention” (Dallas Willard). Discipleship doesn’t just happen. Or perhaps: it only happens when there is a plan, a purpose, and energy directed toward an outcome.
Discipleship Involves Others
Discipleship also involves others; it is not something we do alone. Looking at the instructions offered by John starting in v.10, all of them involve relationships:
Give your extra coat to the one without a coat (v.11)
Do not wield your authority to the disadvantage of others (v.13)
Do not harm others in your pursuit of wealth (v.14).
The kinds of relationships involved in discipleship end up being multifaceted, but might be able to be condensed down to two basic, overlapping circles—a Venn diagram of sorts.
Some of those involved in our practice of discipleship are those within our community—whether we define that as the community of the church or something different. We require these people to help us see things about ourselves we cannot see (much in the same vein as John exposing the way the people rely on their heritage to “cover them”). We require their accountability. We require these people to teach us what we do not know. We require them to carry us when we are weak. And we, of course, do the same for them.
That brings us to the second group of people we’re talking about. These are the recipients of our faithful practices. They are the ones receiving—receiving of our generosity, our justice, our kindness, our self-restraint. Sometimes these people are within our community; but this circle needs to be much bigger than just those we are closest to or most comfortable with. We need to encounter some people who don’t have a coat to keep warm. We need to discover some extortionists and those they injure…… some abusers and their victims…… those who wield fear and those victim to it…… because this is the real world, and the real world is where the rubber of discipleship meets the road of life.
The biblical story testifies—from the very creation of humanity as recorded in Genesis 2—that we human beings are created to be in community with each other. There is an interconnection between us…… an interdependence on each other. As Americans, we resist this simultaneous need and responsibility for each other. The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth is a grand deception of the Enemy, wherein we deny the help we ourselves receive in order to deny help to others in need. But this interdependence is an integral component of the kind of discipleship that John taught…… and that Jesus requires.
Discipleship Is Contextualized
So here’s a third thing that John teaches us here about discipleship: discipleship is contextualized. What do I mean by that?
I mean that John recognizes the path of discipleship does not look the same for everyone.
To the crowds in general, John instructs: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” and don’t rely on your heritage to save you. (Luke 3:8 NRSV)
To another segment of the crowds, John insists they need to be generous with the surpluses they have—redistributing their wealth in order to provide for those without. (Luke 3:11 NRSV)
To tax collectors, John says: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13 NRSV)
Similarly, soldiers are instructed to “not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NRSV)
Different people; different paths. We are gifted differently (as Paul talks about in 1Corinthians 12). And God knows our experiences of life can be incredibly different, too.
The road you take is going to be quite different if you start in Atchison, KS…… or Detroit, MI…… or Buenos Aires, Brazil…… or Tokyo, Japan…… or Berlin, Germany…… or Khartum in the Sudan…… or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia…… or wherever else you might begin.
It is a glorious thing that God meets us where we are. In very literal ways, this is what the Incarnation is all about…… it is what the season of Advent is about. God meets us where we are: within creation, deep in the mire of sin, the light of hope fading from our eyes.
Discipleship Is Life Changing
And though presence is powerful, God does not just sit with us there; God changes our fates, as God changes us. That’s the last element of discipleship that John teaches us here: discipleship is life-changing.
I don’t want to get bogged down in historical minutia this morning, though it’s always tempting. I hope it is sufficient to say that in the ancient world, tax collectors did collect more than prescribed—it is who they were; it is how the business worked; it just was part of being a tax collector.
The same points can be made about soldiers—abusing their authority and power to get all kinds of “fringe benefits” was part-and-parcel to being a soldier. I imagine most soldiers back then wouldn’t think soldiering was worth it, if you took these “fringe benefits” out of the equation.
In both cases, we’re talking about what “everybody” does. It’s not just that these were common practices; to not participate in them was confrontational to your colleagues, and akin to spitting in their eyes. To not do these things was to upset the apple cart of society enough to risk being bullied, fired, and ostracized.
Discipleship is life-changing. God calls us and draws us toward somewhere different than where we are. God invites us into awareness and discovery…… into repentance and forgiveness. Our transforming God seeks to transform us.
There are frequent New Testament citations that talk about the nature of this transforming work of God. In each case, it is clear we are being transformed into the image of Christ. 2Corinthians 3:18 is as good an example as any. Paul says:
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2Corinthians 3:18 NRSV)
The apostle Paul anticipates a day when we will see Jesus clearly, and we will all be transformed into his (same) image.
Now I’m not going to point fingers here, [humorous tone!!] but you-all need to experience some more transformation in order to look like Jesus. Of course, I do too——like major work…….like “raze it to the foundation and start over” work. That means we cannot stay as we are; we have to embrace the change that God is trying to work in our lives.
It is hard work. The cost is high. But it is worth it, when we also count the benefit.
The last verse of the reading today identifies John preaching the “good news.” What Luke means here is certainly what is elsewhere announced as the nearness of God’s kingdom. Yet at the same time, he seems to intend the inclusion of the teachings just discussed as well—Luke seems to mean that these teachings are somehow “good news” too.
So I wonder…… Perhaps these teachings could be seen as expansions of that kingdom proclamation. Maybe these are real-life examples of where the rubber meets the road.
That would certainly be consistent with the call to discipleship that we find throughout Jesus’ ministry, as well as the Great Commission with which he leaves us—which has “disciple-making” as its central command.
These teachings about discipleship, I believe, are good news. They are good news because they are baby steps towards being recreated in the image of Jesus. They are good news because they remind us that we can be better than we are.
Discipleship is good news for us because deep-down inside we know things aren’t right…. that we aren’t right. We know:
[Luke 3:8] that we tend to practice a passive instead of active faith,
[Luke 3:11] that we hoard our resources even when we know they are needed by others,
[Luke 3:13] that we’re happy to benefit from an unjust system,
[Luke 3:14] that we’re eager to use and even abuse power and privilege for our own gain,
[Luke 3:14b] and that we don’t know how to be content with what we have.
All these are pools of darkness in our soul. They are shadow places where the light of God’s love has yet to penetrate. They are the “old self” that is yet to be reborn of God’s kingdom.
And the promise of discipleship is that God does meet us where we are. That we can be more than we are. That this slavery of sin and failure and inadequacy is self-imposed: liberation is available when we will turn to God.
But it’s not just going to happen to us. Discipleship and discipline are from a common root word. We have to train ourselves to be open to God’s redemptive work in us. Speaking metaphorically about his own practice of discipleship, Paul says:
“I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” (1Corinthians 9:27 NRSV)
If that sounds extraordinary, it is. But it is extraordinary in the same way that John is extraordinary, and that we are called to become extraordinary as a people dwelling in the present Kingdom of God.
As I have offered many times before, an important part of my job (as I define it) is to provide direction and community to those desiring to learn more about these kingdom practices—the “spiritual disciplines,” as we sometimes call them. These are intentional practices that the church has used for centuries to invite God’s transforming power to work within us.
To use an analogy, these traditional practices are the various tools in the toolbox of the Christian life. Growing up in church, I was only taught one or two of them—and at that, I only received an anemic version of a practice and was taught it only passively.
I really do believe that God wants to transform us. And I really do believe that most Christians want to grow in their spiritual lives. But I also believe that most of us don’t really know how to make that happen.
But the good news—if you’ll allow the pun—is that the tools are there. We just have to be willing to pick them up and learn to use them.