Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:7-18 Part 4
"What do men live by?" is the question of the angel in a famous story by Leo Tolstoy. A drunken cobbler on his way home stopped against his better judgment to help a naked stranger. Several years later after the man has become a highly skilled apprentice, he reveals that he is in fact an angel, fallen from heaven since he questioned the justice of God. He has learned... "that God does not wish men to live each for himself, and therefore he has not revealed to them what they each need for themselves, but He wishes them to live in union, and therefore He has revealed to them what is necessary for each and for all together."1 Living among poor peasants, the angel learned that compassion and charity persisted as the ground of human life even in the uncertainty of poverty and death, but such qualities were only revealed in the uneven everyday relations. Mortality was not the problem, but the lack of love that could cut one off from God as well as one's brothers and sisters. Only by living with and for each other could humans thrive.
This necessity of love is echoed in John the Baptist's instructions to those who came to him for baptism: do not bully, do not extort, do not hoard. This daily recognition of the shared humanity of the children of God gives us our identity. Distance from God may be accurately measured by the degree of our daily inhumanity. The simplicity of John's instructions echo Moses' command in Deuteronomy 30: "This commandment is not too difficult nor too remote for you….It is a thing near to you on your lips and in your heart." The drama of the apocalyptic judgment is therefore ironically intensified in the simplicity of the ethic: judgment and salvation lie daily at hand, and it may not come through new commandments, but in finding how to fulfill the old.
In her poem Natural Resources Adrienne Rich outlined the turning of history through "the enormity of the simplest things," the recovery of the endurance of women through centuries of suffering gave rise to hope. "My heart is moved by all I cannot save:/so much has been destroyed/I have to cast my lot with those/ who age after age, perversely/ with no extraordinary power/reconstitute the world."2 The community of the human race as God's children therefore is the primary theological principle of the coming judgment. Injustice and domination are not minor crimes of expedience but offenses against the Creator who cares for all his children. As in the story by Tolstoy, Rich's poem remembers the many unrecorded acts of kindness, survival and justice which undramatically sustain the human community, often at a cost to the individual. Simple acts of fairness and charity are echoes of the larger reign of God.
Can such an ethic address the massive cruelty of history? The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has reflected on the nature of community life after the Holocaust. He is convinced that no peace will exist until we discard assumptions about our common nature and actively embrace the fact of our differences. Calling this the principle of "alterity," he described a peace, which is based, not on sameness, but on the relentless acceptance of our diversity and the safeguarding of it by all. Unity is therefore not a synthesis, not an expectation of unity as dissolving difference, but rather the mutual protection of each alterity. Such a view echoes the call to diversity in Ephesians 4, where the full maturity of Christ will only be gained through the acceptance and coordination of the different members of the body. In distinction and unity lay the fullness of the community of Christ, which could only be achieved by truth and love.
The simplicity of the ethic of love does not ignore the divisions and conflicts of human life and experience but does seek to overshadow them in the demands of compassion and justice. Affirming the presence and requirements of God in everyday life, one cannot escape either the individuality or communal nature of our existence. The call to repentance is therefore not only an individual change of heart, but the creation of a new society based on the justice and love of God.
1. Tales of Courage and Conflict, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1985), p. 297. 2. The Fact of a Doorframe (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 264.