Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:7-18 Part 5
Many people are familiar with the wellknown exhortation about "moderation in all things." The saying can be understood in a variety of ways: as an ideal to be emulated, an objective to be pursued, or a habit to be practiced. The exhortation came to mind while pondering today's Gospel message, in large measure because passages such as this have given rise to a wide range of ideals, objectives, and habits. I would like to characterize two rather extreme ways of understanding and responding to Luke's words as a basis for suggesting a third, more "moderate" reading.
On one end of the spectrum is a reading that emphasizes judgment (without mercy). We do our best to admit that human beings are truly "the brood of vipers." "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10). "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Only by being thoroughly preoccupied with human sin and evil are we in any position for redemption. We must admit our utter badness and, through that, proclaim our fundamental need for and ultimate dependence upon God. Otherwise, we cannot but live a faithless life, and commit acts which miss the mark. As a consequence for our sinful ways, we will have earned the "fire and brimstone" of Hades, where we will "burn with unquenchable fire."
On the other end of the spectrum is a reading which highlights mercy (without judgment). Those who take this position often argue that it is preferable to the first alternative. Among the liabilities of the former position they customarily highlight two. In their view, the "judgment" (without mercy) view presupposes and promotes a misguided exclusivism. When forced to cope with the ambiguity of the belief that only some will be saved, believers customarily respond by formulating the criteria according to which judgment will be made. That is, human beings usurp God's role in judgment—and do that rather destructively. Second, those who take the second position argue that the first position exaggerates human evil to the point that it obliterates any sense of human goodness. In doing so, it unwittingly mirrors and through that reinforces sin: one is capable of little more. As a result, seeking repentance is paradoxically discouraged: it is ultimately futile.
Of course, those who take the first position rightly expose the liabilities and limitations of the second, "mercy" (without judgment) approach. It mistakenly extrapolates from the belief that we are made in God's image to a perspective exemplified by the phrase, "I'm okay, you're okay," (and God's okay). In this context, the difference between human and divine is marginal. For all intents and purposes, "God" becomes the name not of the Creator, Sustainer, or Redeemer, but of "that toward which we (reasonably) aspire, that of which we are ultimately capable." Why fear judgment if God and we are ultimately on the same page—if, in other words, we usurp God's role in judgment? Why repent if we are basically good at heart?
The first perspective idolizes sin and judgment as a necessary prelude to any kind of redemption—however much such redemption might be realized. The second perspective idolizes selfacceptance. Muted if not absent from the first perspective is any true appreciation of human goodness, and from the second any true appreciation of human sinfulness.
It is in this context that I'm reminded of Paul Tillich's frequent use of the concept of "polarity": reality is most accurately and authentically construed through the tension of opposites. In Tillich's analysis, under the conditions of estrangement (i.e., sin), the poles tend to become separated from one another: one may become preoccupied with evil to exclusion of goodness, or vice versa. The concept of polarity indicates that truth lies in the tension—or, if you will, in moderation. The passages for the day bring both themes to the fore.
The end of times is a time when "every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Lk 3:9b). "The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Lk 3:17b). One must take this deeply seriously but not to the extreme that one assumes nothing can be done about it. Indeed, only then will one seek to "Bear fruits that befit repentance" (Lk 3:8a). In repenting, as exemplified in sharing (coats, food, love), one may declare with Isaiah that "I will trust and not be afraid" (Is 12:2). One may proclaim with Paul, "have no anxiety about anything…and the peace of God which passes all understanding" (Phil 6a, 7a) "will bring you home" (Zeph 3:20a).
Chris R. Schlauch