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What Then Should We Do?

Sermon Text: Luke 3:7-18
The Boston Globe, which carries a daily column designed to answer readers’ queries, listed the top ten unanswerable questions. Here is one: “I am nine years old and have a cat that eats regularly and needs to go on a diet. He also eats mice when he is out. How many calories in a mouse?[1]
A friend once asked Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel Prize winner in science, how he became a scientist. Rabi replied that every day after school his mother would talk to him about his school day. She wasn’t so much interested in what he had learned that day, but she always inquired, “Did you ask a good question today?” “Asking good questions,” Rabi said, “made me become a scientist.”
It is also no accident that Luke portrays Jesus, even as a pre-teen, as full of wisdom. In a remarkable passage about Jesus’ own precociousness, Luke writes: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Our text this morning concentrates on a series of questions. Asking the questions in the text are John the Baptist and members of the audience to whom he speaks. Listen and hear our morning’s lesson:
[7] John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [9] 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.”
[10] And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” [11] In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” [ 12] Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” [13] He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” [14] Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
[15] As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, [16] John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [17] His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” [18] So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:7-18).
The crowds come to hear John preach and have John baptize them. The first thing John says to them is something of a curse. John calls them “a brood of vipers,” which is in no way a good beginning for a sermon. Rather, it guarantees a stink. Vipers were creatures of the desert and John’s insult was the New Testament equivalent to calling someone, in good Texas fashion, “a snake in the grass.”
After getting the crowd’s attention by this unique approach to public speaking, John tells them to repent. The word in Greek literally means “returning,” or “coming back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel.” To repent means “to turn around” or to “do an about face.” John told the people they were all heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps those in the crowd were thinking, “We are the chosen people—we are children of Abraham! But John clearly tells them, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” The introduction to John’s sermon ends abruptly when John tells them that there are two kinds of trees: fruitful and unfruitful. Into the fire go the bad trees. John’s implication seems clear enough.
As a result of John’s forceful message, Luke describes three different groups that ask John, in one way or another, questions in response to his words: “What then should we do?” John’s answer is direct and to the point. Those in the crowd who ask “What then should we do?,” should share what they have, both clothing and food. To share with others is a sign of a fruit of repentance. I heard a story recently that illustrates why sharing is a sign of repentance. Those who do not share do not have the spirit of Christ in them. A local United Way office realized that it had never received a donation from the town’s most successful miser. The person in charge of contributions called him to persuade him to contribute. “Our research shows that out of a yearly income of at least $500,000, you give not a penny to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”
The miser mulled this over for a moment and replied, “First, did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?”
Embarrassed, the United Way representative mumbled, “Um . . . No. “--or that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair?” The stricken United Way rep began to stammer out an apology but was interrupted, “--or that my sister’s husband died in a traffic accident,” the miser’s voice rising in indignation, “leaving her penniless with three children?!”
The humiliated United Way rep, completely beaten, said simply, “I had no idea….”
On a roll, the miser cut him off once again: “…so if I don't give any money to them, why should I give any to you?” John the Baptizer knew that people with a repentant heart will share God’s blessing with others. The “crowds” (v. 10) are probably ordinary people; they should have selfless concern for the disadvantaged.
In addition to the generic crowd, Luke tells us that John the Baptizer confronted both tax collectors and soldiers. Luke tells us that, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Tax collectors bid on tax districts and made their living by paying the Romans what they bid for the district and anything else they collected over that amount they kept. In other words, they collected more than was prescribed, and pocketed the difference. Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” The populace of Judea despised soldiers, as they did the tax collectors. The “soldiers” were probably Jews in the service of Herod Antipas. John tells them that they should follow the emperor’s guidelines on military conduct. That “What should we do?” is answered here and elsewhere in various ways and probably indicates that simply following rules is inadequate. People of faith must ask again and again in openness to God’s will. The quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives.
Bill Caudill, the fine architect, teacher, and author, served for many years on the Herman Miller [an unbelievably successful furniture company] board of directors. In that role, Bill made a unique and priceless contribution. [As Max Dupree tells the story] …Selecting Bill for our board was, as it is for every member, a very serious matter. We work from a written statement of criteria for board membership, and we seek a diverse group of members so that the diverse needs of the corporation can be met. When I went to Houston to ask Bill whether he might consider serving on the board, he was immediately interested. An architect, Bill was well aware of Herman Miller’s reputation, but he wasn’t going to consent immediately. He had some questions of his own he wanted to answer.
He wanted to visit Zeeland, Michigan, the community that hosts our corporate headquarters and main manufacturing site. And on the appointed day of his visit, he walked into my office midmorning, shook my hand, and said that yes, he would serve on Herman Miller’s board of directors.
You can imagine my curiosity about how he had arrived at his decision. I asked if he would like to discuss anything further. He told me that he had found out everything he needed to know that morning at Bosch’s restaurant in Zeeland, one of those typical Midwestern, small-town institutions where local folks gather to sort out hometown matters and world affairs. Bill had joined one of the groups he found at a large table and had quizzed them about Herman Miller and its standing in the community. He told them that he was being considered for a position on Herman Miller’s board of directors. What did they think of that? After talking to Bill, understanding who he was, and answering his questions, together they agreed that Bill should accept the position.
Then he had driven to the local cemetery to make sure that only live plants and fresh flowers were allowed on the graves. He said, “I couldn't work in a town where they use plastic flowers.”[2]
These are the kinds of questions that define the quality of one’s life. When the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers asked good questions of John the Baptizer, I wonder if he thought the time for the Kingdom of God had arrived?
David Mosser
Graham, Texas
[1] Sunshine Magazine, is the only attribution I could find.
2 Max Dupree, Leadership Jazz, Dell Books, New York, 1992, p. 122-124.
[1] Sunshine Magazine, is the only attribution I could find.
 
[2] Max Dupree, Leadership Jazz, Dell Books, New York, 1992, p. 122-124.
Editable Region.