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Sermon: A Remarkable, Ordinary Life

December 11, 2009

Luke 3:7-18

First rule of public speaking: don’t insult your listeners.  Don’t call them nasty names.  Build some rapport.  Be polite.  Tell a joke.

And then there’s John the Baptist.

“You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Who in the world would go all the way out into the desert to listen to that stuff?  If you heard that from this pulpit week after week, pretty soon you’d find another pew to sit in at another church.  Or you’d just sleep in on Sunday mornings.

“You brood of vipers.”  That sort of language tends to shut down communication right away.  People go on the defensive or just stop listening altogether, but somehow, when John said it, it made sense.  People paid attention.  Crowds came out to listen to him.

The wrath is coming!  The ax is lying at the root of the trees!  And don’t think you can save yourselves.  Don’t think your years of church membership and your baptism certificate and your good Methodist heritage will save you.  God can raise up good Methodists from the cigarette butts outside on the sidewalk.

People listened.  They packed up the kids and took the long, dusty roads out into the wilderness just to hear this dirty, foul mouthed, abusive prophet.  They took what he said to heart, and they asked, “Then what should we do?”

John seemed to describe a hopeless situation.  The wrath is coming.  The fire is well on its way, and everything you thought would save you is worthless.  What could we do in a situation like that?  It sounds like “game over.”

John, what do we do?

I have only seen the previews for the movie 2012, but from that it seems as if there is a lot to be done in order to flee from the wrath to come.  You’ve got to make sure everybody is packed up at home for a quick getaway, and have a private plane waiting for you at the airport and a safe house set up somewhere.  It is necessary to make a lot of elaborate preparations.

So John, what do we do?

We’re talking about something of cosmic significance here.  The God who can form up a people from sticks and stones lying around is on the way.  The judge of all Creation is nearly here.  If we’re going to save ourselves from the great Messiah, you can bet it will take a herculean effort.

John, what do we do?

Are you ready?  You might want to take notes…

Share.  Be honest.  Respect others.  Be satisfied with what you have.

What?!

Share.  Be honest.  Respect others.  Be satisfied with what you have.

That’s right.  This abusive guy, who has just called us a brood of vipers, has made it very simple and easy for us indeed.  If you have two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have any coats.  If you have extra food, share that.  If you’re a tax collector, don’t cheat the people and only collect what is right.  If you’re a soldier, don’t supplement your wages by plundering the people who live here.  Be satisfied with your pay.

Really, it seems too easy, too simple.  How can you be saved from the wrath to come by doing the things your mother taught you when you were three years old?  Where are the car chases?  Where are the near misses?  In the book of Jonah, the great city of Nineveh was called to repent, and every last one of the citizens put on sackcloth and ashes.  And then they dressed up their animals in sackcloth.

But John?  The same guy who was spitting and shouting just a moment earlier?  Eh, just share your food and clothing.  Don’t cheat people.  It can’t be that simple.

I took calculus my senior year of high school from a man named Ron Smith.  His peers acknowledged him as a great teacher.  He was once the Teacher of the Year in the entire state of California.  Great teacher.  But you know what; I don’t really know any calculus today.  And the only time I ever used it after that year of high school was to pass a class in college.  But I can tell you that I have great affection for Ron Smith.  He would sit with me before school and at lunch time, and he would take me, step-by-step, with great care and even greater patience through material that to him was very simple.  That is why I have deep respect for Mr. Smith.

Once when I was in college, a few of us went to a lecture on campus by a man named Robert McAfee Brown.  He died a few years ago and was one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th Century.  He taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and at Stanford, and at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  He wrote 29 books, and I once heard him give a lecture in Riverside (Barbara Palmer, “Former Religious Studies Professor Robert McAfee Brown Dead at 81.”).  What did he talk about?  I don’t know.  Have no clue.  One of the most influential American theologians in my life was my mother, because we sometimes used to talk about the sermon in the car on the way home from church.

And if you ask me about some of my most cherished memories of my grandmothers on both sides, I will tell you that I lovingly remember standing with them at the kitchen sink washing dishes.  Those were sacred spaces and sacred times.

John is telling us that there is no more important thing to be doing than to be living what some might call your “ordinary” life, and to be living it well.  It might be simple, but there is nothing more important.  It is important to your life, to the lives of the people around you, and to your ultimate relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  Live the life you have been given, and do it well.

From the moment that God first breathed life into a human being, that life was a sacred thing.  The first time one human being shared food with another, it was a sacred thing.  Today, whenever one person shares with another, it is no less sacred.  What is the standard of discipleship that Jesus lifted up?  Share a cup of cold water with a little one (Matthew 10:40-42).

A great life is nothing more than a series of kind and simple actions that by themselves don’t seem very great.  Some of you watch Kobe Bryant on the basketball floor, and he seems to be superhuman.  He makes shots that are nearly impossible.  And there are other times that he makes the relatively ordinary shots, but he does it again and again and again without fail.  That’s what you see for 48 minutes every few nights during the basketball season.  But what we don’t see are the tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of free throws and jump shots he takes in practice or in a gym before any of the adoring crowd has gathered.

We sometimes treat the simple and easy things too lightly.  We want the big things, the stage and the lights and the glitter.  But John says “no.”  When we live the life we are given, and we put one kind, faithful, generous act after another, that is what is truly sacred.  It’s when you help your child learn to tie her shoe.  It’s when you take soup to the couple next door.  It’s when give all those extra baby clothes to a young mother who doesn’t have a job.  It’s when you hug a friend who has just learned she has cancer.  That is sacred.  Never forget it.  It may be that the only things that matter are the little things.

What should we do to flee from the wrath to come?  There is nothing more important that you can do to prepare for the Messiah than to live the life you have been given, and to live it faithfully.  Take each moment as it comes and choose to live it generously and gracefully, with kindness and compassion.  Just do that day by day.

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