Sermon from July 4: Buildup and Letdown

Buildup and Letdown
Pentecost VI; July 4, 2021
Luke 3:7-18

Let’s start with the last line of what I read: “With many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Does that make you scratch your head? “Good news”? Given what John said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and so forth. In what way is it good news to have a preacher call you a brood of snakes slithering to the river? How is it good news to have someone shouting at you that the wrath of God is about to descend on you? “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.” Implication: start bearing good fruit, or expect crackle, crackle, crackle.

Perhaps it’s good news that when the people responded, “What shall we do?” John had answers for them. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have food, give some to someone who has none. Don’t take more money than you’re entitled to. Don’t use your power to take things from others. He had answers: do this; don’t do that. Maybe that’s what Luke meant by “good news.”

Now, whether people actually followed through and did them, Luke doesn’t tell us. Someone will say to me, “I want to lose weight” and I’ll tell them what they should do. A few people actually do it, but most don’t. Someone will say, “I want to know the Bible better” and I’ll give them several ideas of what they can do, but knowing what to do does not guarantee actually doing it. So I wonder how many of these tax collectors actually changed their ways and stopped collecting a little extra from the taxpayers and how many of these soldiers stopped extorting money from people. We’ll never know. But at least John answered their question: Teacher, what should we do?

No wonder some folks thought John might be the Messiah, the person they were looking for to rescue them. By this time there had been at least one charismatic figure claiming to be the Messiah; his movement fizzled. There would be others. Centuries of foreign domination, often including suppression of their religious customs, had led Jewish people to expect a king-figure to arise who would lead them to victory over their oppressors. Was John the One?

“No, I’m not,” he said. “But someone is coming after me so superior to me that I dare not even act as the servant who helps him take off his sandals. I baptize you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will gather the good grain into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Crackle, crackle, crackle.

That is what John was expecting: someone who would storm in with fire to burn up the enemies of God. Although you and I good folks think of ourselves as too positive for such attitudes, perhaps you have also held such a hope. I know I have. I don’t think I want to start detailing for you all the times I have thought that the human race would be improved by a few well-targeted funerals, but I confess having thought that. And you have noticed that many of the Psalms in our Bible offer the hope of the nasty deaths of the disobedient. So the people listening to John may have received this as good news, as well: someone is coming who will bring the judgment of God upon all God’s enemies. And since we are the people of God, “God’s enemies” are by definition the people who bother us.

Usher in Jesus, who followed through on practically nothing that John promised. Well, he denounced scribes and Pharisees and priests and other presumably holy people for being self-righteous prigs. But mostly Jesus told stories about the love of God, the welcome of God, the joy of life in God. Instead of scolding tax collectors, he went to their dinner parties. Instead of denouncing prostitutes, he welcomed their company. All of John’s predictions about fire and vengeance and destruction were left untouched.

So you will not be surprised when you get to Luke chapter seven and John sends messengers to Jesus – John can’t go himself; he’s in prison – to ask him, on John’s behalf, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19) You can see Jesus’ reply for yourself when you get to Luke 7 in your reading (this Saturday), but I want to sit with John for a minute. He is let down. John gave Jesus this great buildup, led the people to believe Jesus would come in strong with fiery judgment on the enemies of God’s good people, and instead Jesus tells stories about love and welcome. He goes to dinner parties with sinners. He takes time to hold, hug, and bless children. Why is he wasting time blessing children when there’s a revolution to organize? Is this really the one I’ve been expecting since before I was born (remember Luke 1:44)?

John built Jesus up; Jesus let John down. At least, that’s the way John sees it. I get it. You and I have lived that often enough: we’ve built someone up and that one has let us down; I think of pastors, politicians, football coaches, corporate CEOs… who else can you think of? “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!” “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In the case of most ordinary mortals, people simply cannot live up to what we expect of them. In the case of Jesus, at least, the expectations were all wrong. Maybe that’s also true of ordinary mortals. It isn’t only that they can’t live up to our expectation; perhaps our expectations are wrong. We want the wrong things from pastors and politicians, from football coaches and corporate CEOs.

This Independence Day, I’m also wondering about our expectations of our nation. The ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution seem so high, so exalted, that we must inevitably be let down by what our nation has actually been. So it would seem. But I was intrigued this week to hear an interview with a local activist who said that the more he has learned about our nation’s history, the more hopeful he has become. As he learned about slavery and the systemic racism it produced, the exploitation and even genocide of natives, the marginalization of women, and the violent oppression of LGBTQIA persons, he also learned about the rights engraved in the Constitution and the movements over the centuries to expand the guarantee of those rights to our entire society. When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, its rights were assured only to white men who owned property. Over the centuries activists have worked to see those rights expanded to all of our people. It reminded me of a dinner meeting at which I expressed to a table-mate some of my unhappiness with our society and he asked me why I hate America. I replied, “I don’t hate America; I love America and I want us to live up to our ideals.” We cannot, as ordinary mortals, live up to our ideals. But we can keep them in view and instead of being let down by our failures, look at the reality of our history and what has been accomplished over the years. We can easily be let down if we look only at what we expect; the reality may encourage us to look up again and be hopeful.

When it comes to a nation-state such as ours, the well-being of our descendants may well depend on whether we live up to our ideals. But when it comes to Jesus, the question of whether he is the one who is to come or whether to wait for another is one of eternal dimensions and consequences. Neither Luke nor any of the other evangelists tell us if John eventually reconciled himself to Jesus being someone other than what he built him up to be. But you can consider what the world really needs in a Messiah. Does the world need a Messiah who brings fire with which to burn up the enemies of God? That assumes, of course, that the Messiah gets to decide who are the enemies of God, not you and I. Or does the world need a Messiah who talks of God as the host of a dinner party, as a parent looking expectantly for the errant child to come home, as the one eager to hear the prayer of a sinner? Does the world need a Messiah who feeds on the blood of his enemies or a Messiah who feeds our spirits with his own flesh and blood? Does the world need a Messiah who deals with death not by killing his enemies but by allowing them to kill him and then overcoming death on the third day?

Well, you know what I think. I think Jesus as he truly is has never let me down. Before Herod Antipas killed him, I hope John got there too.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska