Why America needs a John the Baptist these days

john-the-baptist

John the Baptist in this painting is baptizing Jesus. Forty Hadith for compassionate living

Ordinary Acts of Grace (Luke 3:7-18)

Source: Huffington Post

By ; Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary in St. Paul

John the Baptist is an irritant in the midst of Advent.

In the Gospel reading for this week in Luke 3:7-18, he is in the wilderness excoriating the crowds who came seeking baptism and repentance and deliverance. “Who warned you…?,” John wants to know. Who told you to come out here? What did you think you would find? Who the crowds find is a fiery prophet of God, preaching judgment upon the injustice that permeates this world.

We need a John the Baptist these days.

In recent weeks, catastrophic acts of violence have become numbingly ordinary, banal. From Paris and Syria to Colorado and California, our nightly news has fallen into a depressing handful of templates and tropes. Terrorism has raised our fears. Gun violence has led most of us to wonder aloud whether anything can be done.

We need a John the Baptist these days.

We need a John the Baptist who will speak prophetically and clearly in the wilderness. We need a John the Baptist who will warn us that judgment is at hand, that God will no longer tolerate the quotidian violence we deem normal. We need a John the Baptist who will tell us “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (v. 17).

We need a John the Baptist these days.

We need a John the Baptist who will name the sins that pervade our relationships and our communities, the injustices that structure a broken world.

But we also need a John the Baptist who will point us to the path God has set before us.

In v. 10, the crowds wonder how they should respond to John’s prophetic condemnations. He tells them to love their neighbors. Give them your coat, your food.

He calls them to ordinary acts of grace.

In v. 12, “even” the deplored tax collectors come and ask the same question. What should we do? We might expect John to instruct these servants of Roman power to get new jobs helping those in need, to stop serving their imperial masters and instead love the neighbors they previously had taken advantage of. No, instead, John calls them to be good tax collectors, to collect only that which is required of them.

He calls them to ordinary acts of grace.

In v. 14, soldiers ask the same question. What should we do? We might expect John to instruct these soldiers to lay aside their instruments of violence and embrace a way of peace. Instead, John tells them not to use their position of power to steal life or livelihood from anyone. Be good soldiers, he demands of them.

He calls them to ordinary acts of grace.

We need a John the Baptist these days.

So what might John the Baptist say to us today in the wake of the refugee crisis in Syria, the attacks in Paris and Beirut, mass shootings in Colorado and California, and the daily violence that fills our lives? It seems likely that he would not feel restrained by propriety. He would name the pernicious sins that infiltrate God’s good creation. He would name the scourges of racism and sexism and xenophobia fear of the other. He would say, “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” (v. 9). Any structure that leans on these death-dealing logics is not long for this world. And those of you who benefit under these oppressive structures, you too are being judged by a God whose heart yearns for justice.

But John might also answer that pressing question that is always before us: What should we do?

What should we do when refugees come from a warzone seeking succor? What should we do when terrorists strike? What should we do when we can no longer trust the police to be on our side? What should we do about guns? What should we do?

Perhaps here is where we need John the Baptist most. He might turn to us and call us to ordinary acts of grace. He might call us to give what we have. He might call us to stay at our jobs and do them well. He might call us to the radical idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.

During this Christmas season, we expect to enjoy times of family and conviviality and joy. Such expectations have been shattered this year. We could throw our hands up in despair. We could lament over a shattered world. We could grieve those we have lost, the dreams that have been shattered. We could pray fervently for courage and hope. We could worship together and so resist the encroachments of death upon our lives. We could protest and march and demand change. We could call our representatives and demand action.

We should do all these things.

And as we do all these things, we should also live ordinary lives infused by the extraordinary call to love God and love neighbor. We should seek that ordinary transformation that no one else may notice but will change us and the world more than we can imagine.

Bible Study Questions

1. When have you experienced an “ordinary transformation” in your life?

2. What might John the Baptist say to your community this week? If you were to ask him, “What should we do?” how might he respond?

3. What “ordinary act of grace” might you commit to this week?

Reference and watch a video

Additional Reading

Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran

Together we can conquer hatred

A Message of Compassion and Love from the Holy Bible

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