By Paul Koch –
I’m not going to lie, I have always wanted to get a response to my preaching like John the Baptist had. I’m serious. Just once I wanted to preach the Word of God and have someone cry out in distress and longing, “What shall I do?” Not all the time, mind you. I would settle for just once. Just once I would love to have someone respond in a very real way seeking to change something about the way he conducted himself because of the preaching that I was called to do. Some visible reminder that the Word proclaimed actually sunk that deep into her, that she is then moved to do something in response. Sometimes I see people shed a tear or two, sometimes there are the smiles and the nodding of heads. I had a guy back in Georgia who would occasionally give me an audible, “Amen!” when I was preaching. But imagine how cool it would be if there was a person or two, or a whole congregation, that said, “We want to do things differently! We want to live differently! What shall we do?”
But the reality is, preachers today aren’t exactly John the Baptist. And those who hear the preaching of God’s Word aren’t the same crowd as those who went out to get baptized by John. They were a people that still expected God to work in the world to intercede with His mighty acts. They had grown up hearing the stories and expecting God’s work. Our culture today is not expecting God to work but expecting to be sold something. We are consumers. We view the world this way. Our politics, our education, our orientation in the world is that of consumers. We buy, and we sell. We don’t want radical acts of God but the latest revolutionary technology that will improve our quality of life. Which means that when we go out to the wilderness to hear a man speak, we are expecting the pitch, the salesman. We’re not coming to be changed.
To be honest, churches know this. Over the years they have gone out of their way to be accommodating to the culture in which we live. They become just another peddler of goods and services to meet the felt needs of the buyer. Perhaps this is part of the problem. This is why people aren’t jumping up at the call to repentance and belief saying, “What shall I do?” Perhaps no one is actually making a real call to something out of the normal rhythm of daily life. People are listening to words that offer to improve their station in life, or give them some comfort, or enable them to better cope with a bad marriage or a disappointing career. No one is speaking of death and life, of a new and radical reality that one can only received by faith. But this is exactly the Word that you receive from God. It is what comes with the proclamation of the advent of your Lord. The message of John the Baptist is the declaration of a new thing, which means there is a new way that you live. New for the hearers in John’s day and the hearers today.
Now learning how to live in a new reality is not as an easy thing. Your previous foundations can no longer be trusted, as you are called to lean upon supports that you haven’t previously tested. John challenges his hearers saying, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) Your previous claims are no good. God is doing a new thing, calling you to a new life, one that has a profound break with this world and with your usual way of living in it. You are a community of the radical new life of faith, a community that knows God’s judgment has already come, a community that knows that the axe is laid at the root of the tree.
But this new life is not one of shallow piety, where you get to play the part of the Christian. It is not the type of community where you are called into some monastic living separate from your neighbor or elevated to some holy life of wisdom and knowledge others can’t reach. When they cry out to John saying, “What then shall we do?” notice what he says. For he doesn’t direct them to sell it all and give to the poor. He doesn’t have them fall on their knees and devote themselves more fervently to prayer. He doesn’t call them to stand on the corner and preach to the masses that walk by. He doesn’t call for them to be the super-sheep that are the inspiration to Christians the world over. No, what does he call them to do? What does this new and radical life call for? Well, if you have two tunics and the guy next to you has none, give him one. If you have food to share, then do so. And the tax collectors want to know what they should do. His revolutionary advice – don’t steal. The soldiers ask him, and he says be content with your wages, don’t threaten, don’t extort. Be kind.
Now, these are not the fruits of repentance that you had in mind when John first called for them. These don’t seem to be extravagant enough, worthy enough to avoid being cut down and cast into the fire. In our consumerist society this comes across as a deal that is simply too good to be true. Too good to be believed, too good to trust. The cry of “What shall I do?” Ought to be worthy of some grand gesture, something that will really make an impact, something that will get the attention of others. Instead you are called to live a life that trust in the provisions of God. A life that is extraordinary because it is carried out in an extraordinarily ordinary manner. It is going to work caring for your neighbor, being kind and generous, loving and forgiving as you’ve been loved. To live a life that bears the fruits of repentance is to live a life that trust’s in the promises of Christ alone. And that life is lived right amongst one another.
It is a life that can forgive because judgment is not in your hands anyway. It is a life that can be generous because Christ has gathered you to Himself, and in that gathering has brought you alongside the brothers and sisters, a new family. It may not be perfect, but it is here for you, a new thing living in an old and dying world. It is a life that can endure because it clings every day to the promises of the great Salvation of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
You may be shy about crying out “What shall I do?” I don’t blame you. Perhaps you think there is nothing you need to change, no more fruits of repentance to flow from your hearts. Or perhaps you’ve grown tired of producing such fruit, and that old consumer comes back to the surface. You wonder, what has all this fruit bearing really got you anyway? And you forget about the axe and the dead tree and the threat of the fire. You are tempted to turn from this new thing that God has done. It is tempting. And your Lord knows your failure, your resistance to fruit bearing, your claiming of a life independent of His gifts and blessings. He knows your sin and shame. He sees you as your really are without the trapping of success and the fake smiles. He sees your fears and your doubts. And so, He finally says, “What shall I do?”
And then He does it all. Such is the depth of this love. He bears your sin. He endures your doubts and your fears. He stands before the wrath of God and He does it all for you. He dies as punishment for your sin, so that He might set you free. And as He bursts triumphantly from the grave. He shouts in the throne room of heaven your name as He declares that you are brothers and sisters. You are forgiven and loved. You are the saints of God.
Bound together in that love we make our stand, here and now, bearing witness to the new thing that God has done.