Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:7-18 Part 1
Pride and security of self can look good as signs of human health. A sense of good belonging may be one of the favorable outcomes for pastoral strategy. More than once I would have celebrated if one struggling with "self-esteem" issues would have asserted something like "I have Abraham as my father. I'm somebody." But the text seems to be concerned about something else. John indicates that being a child of Abraham is purely a gift of God, something to treasure, but not to give oneself credit for it. Before God if a stone has its own self-esteem so may we.
In recent years one of the trends in pastoral care theory has been to focus a little more on personal integrity and ethical behavior and a little less on therapy for the sake of personal well-being, a trend which came with the arrival of the psychological age. From the beginning of the church increased perfecting of life was seen as one of the outcomes of the impact of salvation. "By their fruits you shall know them" has come ringing down the ages. Pastoral confrontation about that issue is John the Baptist's unique mission and towering skill. Some strong language led the whole crowd to a teachable moment, "What shall we do then" (v. 10). Remarkable!
Another pastoral approach is worth noting. Perhaps it may be related to the practice of modern clinical pastoral education which segments learning into concrete, specific, and measurable objectives. This kind of objective is illustrated by tunic sharing, no overcharging for taxes, non-extortion, no false accusation, and satisfaction with one's pay. Perhaps the approach may be likened to what has been called behavioral therapy. In that approach one is supported, challenged, and enabled to act in a constructive and healthy way in the face of painfully anxious resistance. After the "training" one becomes able to do with grace and skill that for which God gives the potential.
The text points to the pastoral as more than comforting with the great grace of God coming in the Christ. It is that, of course, but out of that grace comes power for constructive self-discipline and service. The high call of God for the human being is to live a life worthy of that grace. Only with this perspective can we hear correctly John's words about burning up human chaff with unquenchable fire as the "preaching of the good news to them."
Little by little we may be rediscovering today the graceful effect of discipline. We are learning how much of our physical and mental health is related to the keeping of disciplines. "Twelve-step programs" are helping people to move on the way of grace-developed recovery and of doing their responsibility to others. As ecological awareness spreads we face the need to discipline ourselves for the sake of all of creation and of humanity for generations to come. The pastoral fails to do its job of coaching people toward their fullest potential and responsibility as God's humanity unless it has the longest reach of the ethical. The fulfillment of the person and completion of the community and of all creation are inseparable. The eschatological harmony vision of Isaiah the prophet or of the Revelation of St. John is the outcome of the pastoral attitude.
I think some closing pictures from the psychological, religious and theological genius, Søren Kierkegaard, can describe a little of this pastoral discipline. In his little book, For Self-Examination, Kierkegaard describes the divine love transmitted to the apostles which gives itself to be sacrificed in order "to save the unkind world." He tells the story of the very rich man who imports at an exorbitant price a faultless team of horses. But they were allowed to slip out of training. After a year or two they were weak, dull, quirky, full of bad habits. At last the king called in a consultant, the royal coachman. After a month no team in the land "carried their heads so proudly whose eyes were so fiery, whose pace was so beautiful." No other team could keep up with them as they ran thirty miles at a stretch. "How did this happen? It is easy to understand. The owner, who was no coachman and merely played the coachman, drove the horses according to the horses' conception of how they should be driven. The royal coachman drove them according to a coachman's conception of driving."1 We do not have space for the several pages of Kierkegaardian prose. Look it up sometime. With powerful lucidity it tells us that the early Christians, well-driven, transformed the world. Humbly, before God, without panting they ran all their lives. They "carried through" their Christian faith, even though at first they may have been frightened when the coachman first took the reins. So they never paused until they made their "first stop in eternity."
1. Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1940), p. 102.