WHAT THEN SHOULD WE DO?
I once heard of a church whose offering envelopes were much more complicated than the ones we use. Printed on the envelopes was a list of all the items in the church budget, and you could indicate which of those items you wanted your offering to go towards. That would have meant more work for the tellers, and it would also have meant more pressure for the preacher - because his salary was one of the categories you could designate on your envelope. If the preacher’s sermons weren’t to the liking of the congregation, he might not get paid that month.
I wonder how John the Baptist would have fared in system like that – because John wasn’t exactly the type of preacher to say what he thought people wanted to hear. When people came to hear John speak, he didn’t start off with a cute story from his childhood. Instead he began by looking at his audience and saying, “You brood of vipers!”
I don’t recall my professor of preaching ever saying it was a good idea to call your congregation names. It’s not a generally recommended strategy for winning friends and influencing people. But John wasn’t interested in winning any popularity contests. He had something important to say, and he wasn’t shy about saying it, even if it ruffled more than a few feathers.
John had a mission from God. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – somewhere around 28 or 29 AD – the word of God came to John in the desert. That’s a way of saying God called him to be a prophet. Just as with the prophets of old, God called him to speak on his behalf to the entire nation of Israel. And the message God gave him was a blunt one. When people swarmed out into the desert to hear him, he said, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John was delivering an indictment of the entire nation. The judgement of God was coming, and there was no escaping it. It was no defense to say, “We’re not the offspring of vipers; we’re children of Abraham.” The people couldn’t take refuge in the righteousness of their ancestors. Even being children of Abraham would not protect them if they did not produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
We know John as John the Baptist because he baptised people out in the desert. He was John the Baptizer. The baptism he offered was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t a baptism of new believers. It was a baptism to prepare people for the coming of the Lord. It was a symbol of repentance – a symbol of turning towards the Lord in humility and trust.
John preached baptism with great intensity, and people flocked to him to be baptised. But John sensed that many of those coming to him still didn’t get it. He was concerned that they thought baptism was some kind of magical act that would grant them protection from the judgement that was coming. Perform the ritual and you’d be safe. But it was exactly this kind of thinking that had stirred up God’s anger in the first place. God was angry because people were playing games with him. They were looking for tricks or loopholes that would win them God’s favour, but they weren’t actually interested in God himself. They paid lip service to God’s laws, but what they really wanted to do was turn God’s laws into a system for manipulating God. They thought if they just followed this rule or performed that ritual they could force God to give them his blessing. They were playing the angles. They were trying to corner God. They were trying to put one over on God.
With this in mind, John looks at them and says, “You brood of vipers!” You’re not living like children of Abraham. You’re living like snakes. And even being baptised will not protect you if you’re just looking at it as some kind of insurance policy against God’s judgement. If you really want to escape the coming wrath, you have to do more than just go through the motions of being baptised. You have to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. You have to show that your turn towards God is real. You have to give evidence of it in your life. That’s the only way you’ll escape the fate of fruitless trees, which is to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In response to John’s startling sermon, the people say, “What then should we do?” Now they’re getting to the heart of the matter. This is the key question – the absolutely vital question. It’s exactly the same question that the people asked Peter on the day of Pentecost. On Pentecost, after Peter had told the crowd that they were witnessing the pouring out of God’s Spirit, he told them that Jesus, whom they had crucified, had been raised from the dead and made both Lord and Christ. The people were cut to the quick when they heard this, and said, “What shall we do?”
Peter’s reply on the day of Pentecost echoed the words of John the Baptist – repent and be baptized, he said, for the forgiveness of your sins. Turn towards God. That’s what you should do.
As Baptists we are known for the emphasis we place on baptism. Just as with John the Baptist, it’s in our name. But just like John the Baptist, we don’t think that it’s the water itself that saves us. We don’t think that performing a ritual is what gets us into heaven. We emphasize baptism – strongly – because of what it symbolizes. It symbolizes a turning towards God – a turning towards God that is genuine, sincere, and real.
Luke Powery, who’s the current dean of Duke University Chapel, has a good way of putting this. He says, “Baptism is not just a little sprinkling of water or full immersion in a pool. Baptism is being plunged into a new way of being, living and acting in the world.”
This is exactly what John was getting at. And it was what the crowds themselves were beginning to understand. That’s why they said, “What then should we do?” They were asking, How should we act? How should we live in the world? What does it mean to live baptised lives? What does it mean for us to truly live as people of God?
One summer during my seminary training, I did an internship at a church near Ottawa. One of my responsibilities was to work with the young adults, of which, in those days, I was one. A number of these young adults were new believers, and I was surprised by a question that kept coming up again and again in our discussions. They would ask, “What are we supposed to do now that we’re Christians?” At first I thought they hadn’t fully understood the gospel of grace. I thought they were asking for a set of rules to follow – rules that in my mind would only lead them down the path of legalism. But in time I realized that wasn’t really what they were saying. They weren’t asking for a list of do’s and don’ts, which they could then try to figure out how to get around. They weren’t playing a legalistic game. Instead they were asking how their faith should make a difference in their lives. They wanted to know where this new faith was taking them, and how it was going to change every aspect of who they were. They wanted to know what this new way of being, living and acting was all about.
I’ve noticed that when new Christians ask, “What then should we do?” they often seem to expect we’re going to tell them they should live purer lives. They’re not completely off the mark with this. It’s entirely a good thing for Christians to make personal purity their goal. It’s an important way in which we can show ourselves to be set apart by God. But at the same time it’s really only part of the picture. John the Baptist saw turning towards God as something much bigger than just living a purer life. “What should you do?” he said. “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” When some tax collectors asked, “What should we do?”, John said, “Don’t collect any more than you’re required to” – in other words, don’t skim any off the top for yourself. When some soldiers asked, “And what should we do?”, John said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
Surprisingly, none of John’s instructions were focussed on personal purity. Instead they were focussed on how you treat other people. Share with other people. Don’t steal from other people. Treat other people justly. John was saying that you can’t turn towards God without also turning towards other people. As Luke Powery says, “Our baptism, our repentance, is not just for us. There is fruit to be borne for others. We’re baptised to be a blessing to someone else.”
It’s striking that John’s instructions are so simple. Considering that John lived out in the desert, wearing clothes made of camel hair and eating locusts and honey, we wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told the people to live like him. We wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told them to drop everything and get fitted for their camel hair coat. But he didn’t do that. Instead he told them to stay where they were and live holy lives in whatever situation they happened to be in. Wherever you are, he said, you can share with other people. Wherever you are, you can respect other people. Wherever you are, you can treat other people justly. It’s really not that complicated. The fruits of repentance can be borne every day.
And that’s important, because it’s in our everyday interactions that we have the greatest impact on other people.
As a young man, Gandhi lived in South Africa, where he often attended a Christian church. It wasn’t something he did lightly – he was very interested in learning about Jesus, and he devoted a fair amount of time to reading the New Testament. And yet he never became a Christian. When he was asked why, he said, “I got the impression that [Christians] were just a group of worldly-minded people going to church for recreation and conformity to custom. I have the highest admiration for the Christian life and for the Christ of the Bible. And I might have become a Christian if I could have seen one.”
This answer suggests Gandhi may not entirely have appreciated what the gospel of grace is all about, but he was correct in saying that being a Christian is something that others should be able to see in us. That’s what John the Baptist was hammering home in his sermons. He was saying that turning towards God should make you a different person.
That’s something we may need to be reminded of, especially if we think of being a Christian only as something that brings us blessings – something that’s just for us.
There’s a story of a man whose brother became very successful in business and made a lot of money. The successful one thought he would give his brother a gift, so he bought him a brand new car. The brother was very grateful to receive such a substantial gift, and he was very proud to be able to drive his new car around town. One day he was downtown on business, and when he came out of the office building he noticed a young boy looking at his car. The young boy was captivated by this beautiful new machine. The boy said, “Hey, mister, is this your car?” The man replied, “Yes, my brother gave it to me.” “Wow”, the boy said, “I wish I ...” But before he finished the sentence, the man interrupted: “I know what you’re going to say – you’re going to say, ‘I wish I had a brother like that.’” “No”, the boy said. “What I was going to say was, ‘I wish I could be a brother like that.’”
This is what it truly means to turn towards God. It means going from wishing we had a brother like that to wishing we could be a brother, or a sister, like that.
This kind of change is so fundamental that we can’t really bring it about all by ourselves. It’s true that we have to have a willingness to change. But as we all too often discover with our New Year’s resolutions, a willingness to change – by itself – just isn’t enough.
If we could change ourselves, listening to a few sermons from John might be enough to do it. But even John recognized something else would be needed. That’s why he pointed to the one who was coming – the one who would bring God’s power to bear on the human predicament. John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
What then should we do? We should open ourselves to the transforming power of the one who comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire – the one who comes to clear away the dead wood in our lives by the unquenchable fire of his love.
This is the good news John the Baptist proclaimed in the desert. It’s still good news today, if we are prepared to accept the new life that it brings.