Shock an’ Awe

by Ken Francis

(Based on Luke 3:7-18 and Phil 4:4-7)

When I get my mobilisation orders – from Barry – that I’m to preach on this particular group of readings, on this particular day … Even before I read the readings, ideas start to bleed in to my mind – oh, yes, I recognise that – that’s the passage about …

Today’s New Testament reading is particularly like that … in fact, Barry and I share a real love of Phil 4 – we’ve even reflected on it together, and quoted it at each other.  It’s good when you can have a brother or sister to bounce things off, and to illuminate each other’s journey in some pragmatic way. 

“Iron sharpeneth iron,” says Proverbs 27:17; “so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” (KJV)

 It’s good to be encouraging, or exhorting each other.

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing,” says 1 Thess 5:11. (NIV)
Hebrews 3:13 says, “But encourage one another daily, … so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (NIV)
Are we doing this to each other, amongst each other?  Encouraging and exhorting one another in this way?

And encouraging each other with Phil 4 is a great place to start.

So, then one actually reads the readings given, and again thoughts seep in.  Like childhood memories, or forgotten thoughts reawakened by music.  You like to think, ah, yes, the Holy Spirit is prompting me, that’s neat … But, I don’t know.  I’m not sure how it works, really, but … the end result is what you get on a Sunday morning!

When I first read this passage from Luke, two things surfaced immediately: the way John welcomed the crowds; and John’s advice to various small groups.

Why?

Second things first.  John’s advice to the soldiers.  Interesting in itself, because it tells something of the crowd’s makeup.  There were soldiers there.  Along with tax collectors and Pharisees; and who knows whom else.  Jewish, or Roman soldiers, I wonder?  Anyway, John’s advice to the soldiers is to be content with their wages, and don’t extort money or accuse anyone falsely.  Seems a bit random!  Not the answer I’d expect to such a question from such men.  John seems to be telling them not to misuse their power over ordinary people, not to bully them – which was perhaps a headline issue in those times.  But this instruction to the soldiers has been more important to me over time in not so much what he told them, but what he didn’t tell them.
[He didn’t tell them to stop soldiering. Or the tax collectors tax collecting.]

As a Christian in the military, one had a constant balancing act, weighing Christian friends who were saying, How can you be a serviceman? with military friends who were saying, How can you be a Christian? Shouldn’t a Christian be a complete pacifist? One tried to find a rational position. One looked for validation, and a way to justify being there.
Over time, several arguments for coalesced into a case of, yes, it’s ok for a Christian to be in the services. For me as an individual, at least. And this interaction between John and the soldiers was salient at that time.  It was helpful and affirming to me because, far from telling them to stop soldiering, he was saying, Keep doing what you’re doing, but do it honourably, morally, graciously …

And a takeaway for us all this morning – from John’s handling of these thoughtful questions, and from this my own experience shared – is how to ask simple guidance of the Holy Spirit when faced with decisions or dilemmas. We all face them – different quandaries – but the humble approach to the Holy Spirit is the approach to use.

But back to the main strike point: what about the offensive way John greeted the crowds when they came to see him?! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance … The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down …”

Bit rough!  Did he do this with every speaking engagement?  Or just on this particular day that One News was there taking notes?  Imagine if I’d started this reflection with, “You brood of vipers”!  Even to make a point.  For dramatic effect.  You’d be shocked.  “Shock and Awe”!  (Actually, that’s a known military tactic for going on the offensive!)

Some of you might walk out, or throw something.  Riot.  Do violence.

Then again, maybe our sermons should start this way!  Might have more penetration!  Shall I try it?  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you …”

How does that feel?

Well, it seemed to bring about a change of heart in the crowd.  Perhaps John had reason to suspect their motives for being there.  So, now – instead of being frivolous; or expecting to be entertained … or looking for smooth, affirming, obsequious words … they were brought up short.  Oh!  My word!  “Vipers”?  That’s a bit harsh. Well … ok, Mr Baptist … well, what do you think we should do?

Quite a good reaction really.  A short, sharp shift of ego and arrogance, into submission to the crucial message John was really wanting to bring. “Preparing the way of the Lord.”  Do you think?

It concerns me to think how many fine sermons we sit through, week after week, and we go away with very little attention to where changes need to be made.  We’re typically extremely set in our ways and opinions, and maybe we need to be confronted – more often than we are.  We’re among friends here, so we’re nice to each other, and don’t want to offend.  But it’s good to be challenged.  It’s good when Bruce says to me, “Have you really got something to say, Ken, or do you just want to say something?”!  We need to be in such healthy relationship with each other that we can be challenged, without feeling put down or hurt or defensive …

… I suppose, after this, there will be a queue at morning tea all lining up wanting to tell me what’s wrong with me!

We need to be challenged, and that’s partly why I appreciate my iron being sharpenethed by other ironmongers; why I appreciate people like Barry saying, so what about it, Ken?  Have you managed to fit into the Phil 4 framework this week?  Have you been anxious about anything?  Have you managed to fix your mind on things that are lovely and true and positive and pure?

So, John harangues his congregation, then responds to their apparently revised attitude, and … it now seems he has a lot better purchase on their attention.  And, it’s interesting that his instruction is not just spiritual – it’s very pragmatic.  Or, rather, he counsels them at a pragmatic level first: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same … you tax collectors, Don’t collect any more than you are required to.  And, you soldiers, Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

… before he changes depth, from shock and awe, to pragmatic and practical, to, now, ‘deep and substantial’; and gets into his real calling: preparing the way … teaching them about repentance and baptism and the Good News coming: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  He calls this coming person, “One”, because he doesn’t know who it is yet.  Or does he?  There’s a question for you to ponder.

But I love the way our passage finishes.  Think about this:  “And with many other words,” it says, “John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.”

Great stuff!

Change some habit or practice this week, friends, I challenge and encourage you;
and if you haven’t figured it out yet, the ‘coming One’ was Jesus, whose advent is imminent in this Christmas season.  The way prepared, let’s welcome him.

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