By Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Luke 3:3-17 (The Message Bible translation is recommended if you have it.)
Our theme for Advent this season at Trinity is “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All.” As the church staff reflected on what we felt drawn to focus on during Advent, we all voted for peace. Now, I’m guessing that’s not a big surprise to you! We find ourselves yearning for peace this year with a depth that many of us haven’t felt before. I was in conversation with a small group earlier this week, and we were charged with rating the current state of peace in our world on a scale of 1-10. Our collective score was pretty dismal, around a 5 out of 10. When we tried to articulate what peace is, we described it as freedom from anxiety or worry; it’s the calm that descends when we hand our burdens over to God. Peace is an inner grounded-ness; it’s not the absence of conflict, but the ability to remain calm in the midst of conflict. Peace is letting go of trying to control things and surrendering to the present moment. It’s the relief that we have when we trust in God’s ways and not our own.
Now, it may not have been evident on a first reading, but our Scripture about John the Baptist goes a long way in explaining how Jesus brings peace, and how we can experience peace in our lives.
But first we have to come to terms with the tone of John the Baptist. We don’t get the peaceful warm fuzzies from listening to John the Baptist! Quite the opposite. John is speaking to the hordes of folks who have come out into the wilderness to hear him preach. You see, John the Baptist has become a kind of fringe-celebrity. The word about him has spread like wildfire and suddenly everyone wants to gravitate just close enough to the edge to be in-the-know about what’s going on. They show up and even want to be baptized, but many of them probably come out of curiosity, not because they were seeking a real change in their lives.
Let’s be very clear – John the Baptist was judging his listeners at the time of his preaching, and he is judging us as readers today. He calls them a pit of vipers! His words carry judgment and moral instruction. There is an urgency and a seriousness in what he has to say. I find John the Baptist to be such a refreshing figure. He’s not trying to schmooze the audience. He doesn’t start off with some silly banter to get the people to listen. He’s not attended any seminars on how to be an effective preacher. There’s not a style of preaching he’s trying to emulate. And he hasn’t lined up some high-profile preaching gig to get folks to show up. He’s literally out in the desert, holding up a mirror to folks to show them what’s gone wrong with them. It’s amazing what he’s doing and it’s amazing that the people are listening, and that’s one of the reasons we know that what he’s saying and what’s going on is holy stuff.
John the Baptist is urgently telling the people that they have to change. He is there to baptize those who are ready and willing to reorder their lives. Baptism by water only counts, he says, if you’re going to change your life to bring about God’s vision for the world. If you are willing to change direction, to change your values, to change your perspective – if it is your genuine desire to change – be baptized.
He also tells them that they can’t “pull rank” by telling him that they’re already chosen or OK with God because of their religious affiliation. So what if you’re a descendant of Abraham or grew up in the church, he says? That doesn’t mean anything! What matters, he says, is your life. How are you living your life? That’s the only thing that matters.
At this point, the people listening do seem genuinely interested in what this means for them, and they ask, well what are we supposed to do? They want, just as we today want, specific action steps.
And here is where John the Baptist continues to be brilliant – he gives them concrete, specific action steps. If you have two coats, give one away to someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you can eat, give the rest to those who don’t have enough. You are to live a lifestyle suited minimally to meet your needs. Don’t accumulate extras. Don’t shore up wealth. What we find in this instruction for living is an explicit, unconditional concern for our neighbors, whoever our neighbors may be, and a striking lack of concern about our personal security for tomorrow.
To those who collect taxes, John the Baptist says collect only what the law allows. Don’t exploit others; don’t change the codes or the processes to your benefit or to another’s detriment. To the soldiers, or we might say those who wear the uniform for the state, don’t restructure or coerce things or people for your benefit. And be content with your own allotment.
And in their listening, the people clearly heard the deep wisdom and truth of this instruction, because they conversed aloud about whether John the Baptist might be the Messiah. We know the truth when we hear it, don’t we?
The truth that John the Baptist speaks is that there cannot be peace without justice. And justice is the standard by which the benefits and the penalties of living together in community are distributed. Justice is a core characteristic of God. Justice is also a relational concept. It exists when things are in their right and proper order. When our relationship with God and with each other and with creation is right and good, justice is what happens. Justice is the natural order of things when we are in right relationship.
And God wants justice for all of his creation – and we see time and time again in Scripture that God is the consistent defender of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized – of those without justice. This care of God permeates the Bible. We can even say that God has a special regard for those who are poor, weak, and vulnerable. And God’s insistence on justice is so strong that other responses to God (our prayer life, our worship) are meaningless if justice is lacking.
When we embrace justice and truly love others as God loves us, then whatever we expect for ourselves and our loved ones is what we expect for others. We expect everyone to live lives of dignity, and care, and opportunity. And this extends to every aspect of living – to housing, education, social and legal status, healthcare, the ability to live and move in the world freely and safely, the opportunity for meaningful, sustaining work, the opportunity for companionship. And if we know someone is going without or suffering, we are compelled by love to respond and share what we have to give.
When we carry out justice, we are acting as God’s divine agents in the world. It’s also important that we understand the distinction between acts of charity and mercy and acts of justice. Sometime these are the same, but there are also distinctions. In his writing and preaching about justice, Timothy Keller distinguishes between primary justice and rectifying justice. Rectifying justice are those actions we take to alleviate suffering when someone is hungry, in pain, or under threat. These actions are necessary. Primary justice is day-to-day living that produces fairness, generosity, and equity – it is the right living that produces right relationships and wholeness. If we carried out primary justice every day, in all we did, rectifying justice would not be necessary. You see, living faithfully and righteously is profoundly social, and it is the way that God intends for us to live.
In our individual lives, and within our church family at Trinity, God calls us to right relationship with others. It is truly a privilege for me to love mercy and do justice with the people of Trinity through our caring ministry. I’ve seen so much evidence of the goodness that has come through Trinity’s caring ministry, lives that have been changed as we journey with people in hardship and share with them to alleviate suffering. I’m also aware, especially in the past couple of months as caring ministry needs have grown, how great, even overwhelming, the need for justice is in our community. Sometimes I’m actually afraid to go out and speak widely about our caring ministry, because I know if the word spread widely that we would be overwhelmed and depleted in no time. The need is just that great. The need is so great that most churches and agencies that help others – that offer that rectifying justice – have guidelines permitting them to only help someone once during the course of a year. Think about that. I wonder sometimes why that is? Is it because there aren’t enough material resources to help all those who need help? Our pockets, our pantries, our closets just aren’t that deep? Is it because we are suspicious of those in need? Do we think that they aren’t trying hard enough – if they just made different decisions, their problems would be solved – so that lets us off the hook in helping them? And in helping them, we may be reinforcing their problem behaviors? You know, this is some of the prevailing thinking about social ministry.
Or is it some of both of these scenarios? I don’t have an easy answer for us today on these questions, but I do know that I think about them a lot, and that they don’t let me go.
And I’ve also noticed that in the Bible, I can’t think of a single situation where God tells his people to love mercy and do justice “if the people do X or Y or Z.” That’s not what I find in Scripture. What we find in Scripture is pretty straightforward, and it’s as simple as John the Baptist makes it out. Keep just what you need and give the rest to others. Give radically to those in need. Don’t exploit others. It’s a personal, moral instruction. He’s not giving a social solution.
I wish I had a clearer vision for how to address some of the complex problems that make primary justice such a hard thing for us to address socially. But John the Baptist tells us how to start individually, and I believe the heart of this is how we see those in need? How do we respond when folks approach us and they are in need?
Do we see a problem to be solved, or do we see the face of Christ? From my own experience I’ve found that It’s hard to love someone I don’t know. I think it’s hard for us to love what isn’t close to us.
The life of Dorothy Day is such an inspiration to me in picturing how to live out a life grounded in primary and rectifying justice. I don’t know how much you know about Dorothy Day. She’s often cited as one of the most significant Christians of the 20th century. From an early age had a big heart and compassion for folks who were the underdog, and she yearned to do something that made life better for others. She was a political activist in her early adult life, but she knew there was something missing. She became a Christian and she loved the church enough to challenge it perpetually. She wrote, ”there is plenty of charity but too little justice. Where are the voices of the faithful crying out for those suffering injustice? How I [long] to make a synthesis reconciling body and soul, this world and the next” (151). She prayed over and over again for that reconciling within her, and God placed a spiritual companion in her life, a fellow Christian named Peter Maurin, and the two of them launched what became known as the Catholic Worker Movement, which became a global movement. She lived in poverty and solidarity with those who were sick, disabled, unemployed and underemployed. She gave up privacy and the comforts of life to life with others who struggled for day-to-day necessities. And the reason she did this was because of her faith in Jesus. As she explained, it all got to the simple point of whether she chose chose God or something else. What she wanted was “a cause, a motive, a way to live,” and she felt that only Jesus Christ could give the answer (141).
From reading her autobiography, I know that Dorothy Day’s life was full of conflict – personal, spiritual, and social conflict. Yet within that conflict, she found a peace from living fully and obediently and passionately, and in letting God show her how to use her gifts in loving service to God and to others. She gave her whole self over to God. She chose God’s way, without fear, and often at a risk to her own security. Her life is remarkable and holy, and if you don’t know about her, I encourage you to check her out. I promise you will be inspired and encouraged by her example.
On the last page of her autobiography, Dorothy Day writes, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, where there is companionship” (285).
In this season of Advent as we prepare for God to come to us, to be with us, to be our companion, we remember that Jesus also had a preference for those who are poor and lost. May we remember that justice has a source, and that source is Jesus Christ. Justice isn’t dependent on what we have or don’t have, but how we respond to the ways God is already moving among us. As Christmas comes, may we move closer to God, and to each other. Blessings to all of you on this second Sunday of Advent.
Dorothy Day. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Social Activist. New York: HarperOne, 1980.
Timothy Keller. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
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