Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 19, 2019
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Do All the Good You Can

Luke 3:7-18

The third Sunday of Advent is typically devoted to John the Baptist. John’s role was to be the prophet to prepare people for the coming of Messiah. Well, we’ve have been spending every Sunday in this Advent season talking about how we prepare for Christ’s coming. Now, we’re talking about his second coming, and John his first coming, but I’m pretty sure most of the information is still relevant!

What does John have to say?

“You brood of vipers!” Okay. Um. Not really starting off on the right foot with folks here, are you, John? There’s this book called, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I take it you haven’t read it, John?

“Who warned you to flee from the coming judgment?” Uh, you did, John.

“Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from sin and turned to God.” Bear fruit worthy of repentance, in other words.

The Greek word for repent is METANOEO, and the Hebrew word is SHUV. Both have a similar meaning. The Greek word is literally “change your mind,” and the Hebrew word means “turn around.” That’s the idea of repentance; to turn around. To change your mind about the way you are living and go in the opposite direction. Turn away from sin and turn to God. It’s not enough just to turn from sin; we also have to turn to God. It’s not just to stop doing what is wrong; we must actively start doing what is right.

Think of the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 we talked about a few months back. He comes to Jesus, asking what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus asks him about the commandments, and he insists, “I have never murdered or stolen or committed adultery.” So Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing: Sell all you have, give to the poor, and then come and follow me.” He wouldn’t do it. He was willing to refrain from doing harm but not willing to do good.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition of Christianity said that the Christian life can be reduced to three simple rules: Do no harm. Do good. And attend to the ordinances of God, which basically means do the things God wants you to do and keep up a good relationship with him. It’s not enough to do no harm. We must also do

good. Or as Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you ever can.”

“Don’t just say, ‘We’re the children of Abraham – we’re safe.’” This was a temptation of the Hebrew people, to assume safety based on ancestry. We might assume safety before God for other reasons: Our birth into a Christian family. Our baptism. Our church membership. A theology of universalism that says, “Basically everyone is saved, unless they’re really, REALLY bad.” But we should not assume safety. We must each make a personal decision to repent of sin and seek God.

“God can turn stones into children of Abraham.” This was probably actually a little word play, a pun if you will. The words for stones and children in Aramaic, the language John and Jesus spoke in their daily lives, were almost identical. Ha, ha. Very funny, John!

And the crowd says, “What should we do?”

“If you have more than you need, then share with those who are in need.” That’s easy to say. And most people agree with the sentiment. But let’s point out the obvious, most people don’t do it. One of the Bible scholars I read for this morning put it in these words: “God will not absolve the guilt of those who always need more while others have too little.” Ouch. That hits hard.

And I think both John and Jesus make it clear that this is a personal responsibility for people of the Kingdom. We can’t just pass the buck and say, “Well, charities take care of that. I’ll give them a little money now and then.” Or “I’ll lobby for the government to expand social welfare programs.” I’m not saying that either of those is wrong, but they don’t take away our personal responsibility to do good for others.

The tax collectors ask, “What should we do?”

If you know the reputation of tax collectors in the first century Roman Empire, you know it wasn’t good. Most would collect more than required and keep the excess for themselves. The practice was technically forbidden, but it was almost universal and very seldom did Rome intervene.

“Don’t collect more than you’re required. Be honest.” Do your work with integrity.

And the soldiers asked, “What should we do?” These are Roman soldiers. Perhaps they came to hear John to make sure he wasn’t a threat or simply to keep an eye on the crowd. They aren’t necessarily Romans, since the Romans recruited soldiers from everywhere in the Empire, but they are working for Rome. And Roman soldiers frequently complained about their wages. Often they supplemented their income through extortion from the local population. There were no police. The soldiers enforced the law. Again, not allowed, but Rome seldom intervened unless the situation got really out of hand.

“Whatever you do, do it with integrity. Don’t extort. Don’t make false accusations.” There will always be the temptation to use position or authority for personal gain.

“Be content with your pay.” Again, that contentment word. It’s a tough one. To be content is to be satisfied as long as our needs are met. And that’s not something we see very often in the world.

We should also notice that no one is beyond repentance: Not traitorous tax collectors who enriched themselves by helping the occupying Romans or the pagan Roman oppressors. No one is beyond repentance. All must repent, and all are able to repent.

“Everyone expected Messiah to come. They wondered if John might be the Messiah. But he said, ‘No, I’m not he. He is greater than I am. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Fire is an image of purification.

“He will separate the wheat from the chaff.” This was done by threshing the wheat, beating it with a stick to separate the wheat kernels from the husk, the chaff. You would do this on a threshing floor, which were built up on hilltops. That way, in the evening when the winds picked up, you could scoop up the wheat and chaff and throw them together into the air. The wheat would fall back down because it was heavy, but the wind would catch the chaff and carry it away.

The chaff lacked value. It had no nutritional value; it could not sustain life. And it had no weight. In the Hebrew language, the word for weight also meant glory. Those who do not turn from sin and turn to God; those who do not bear fruit worthy of repentance; those who do not act with compassion and integrity are like chaff. They lack the glory of God.

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