There’s Still Work to Do

Pastor Dale E. Austin                                                                       Luke 3:7 – 18

Humans are masters of self-deception. We can convince ourselves of all sorts of things that aren’t really true, especially if these things are about ourselves.

Most people are joiners.  We like to belong to something that is larger than ourselves, whether through supporting a charitable organization, a church, a social club, a civic association, a professional group, or something else.  Consequently, when something new comes along and everyone else seems to be getting on board with it, we tend to want to check it out ourselves.  Often, people will jump on a bandwagon just to belong, whether or not they actually believe in what it means.  That’s not a new tendency; it’s been an aspect of human character since time began.

John the Baptist had the less-than-desirable task of discerning between those people who genuinely came to him for baptism – the ones who were serious about changing their lives – and those who simply came to him because this was the latest fad, and they had to show everyone else that they were up-to-date and ready to embrace this “new thing”.  It wasn’t an easy task.  John, somehow, had to separate the sheet from the goats in those crowds.

Then there were those who came to John just to make sure they had all their bases covered. They looked upon John’s baptism as some sort of insurance policy, something good to have just in case.  These people missed the point, of course, as did those who joined the cause because it was the latest craze sweeping the land.

No – John offered his baptism to people as a beginning, not as an end in itself.  People didn’t “arrive” just because they’d gotten on board.  They couldn’t then sit back and know they were covered in the event something went wrong.  No, this baptism by John was just the beginning. There was still much work to do.  John called people to repent, to turn their lives around and to believe the Good News that he was preaching.

Unfortunately, we humans are masters of self-deception. We can convince ourselves of all sorts of things that aren’t really true, especially if these things are about ourselves. Many who came to John were convinced that just by the virtue of their Jewish faith they had it made. They belonged to the Chosen People, so God was on their side no matter what might happen. But heredity alone will not ensure salvation. Indeed, the best indicator of genuine repentance was not their baptism, despite their desire to believe in this insurance imagery. No, for John, the true indicator of repentance was a changed life, one where the individual swore off whatever hurtful or selfish ways may have previously characterized his life and instead embarked upon a life of helpfulness, love, compassion and generosity. “Bear fruit which is appropriate to repentance.”  That work begins right at home, among those who consider themselves blameless and righteous. Baptism was just the beginning; there was still much work to be done.

Today, there is still a lot of work to do. If nothing else is evident to us from recent weeks, it is just how far we remain from the world Jesus envisioned.

We are masters of self-deception.

Many attend church services regularly and profess their Christian faith, then turn around the next day and spout off about how we have to get rid of all our Muslim neighbors. It’s the same hateful, racist rhetoric that was – and often still is – applied to blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Jews and several other groups.  Islam has simply become the latest target for this hateful tirade. Often those who hold these views will steadfastly maintain they are not bigots.  Oh, really?

What I find most disturbing is the number of people who will hide behind their faith in order to justify this hatred and paranoia. We’re told that Jesus would encourage us to exercise our right to arm ourselves. Really?  Do you mean the same Jesus who told his disciples to put away their weapons? We’re told that Jesus would approve of closing our borders to refugees. Really? Is this the same Jesus who said, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”?  Then there are news reports such as the one telling of a president of a supposedly Christian university encouraging all students and faculty to implement concealed carry permits so that we will be ready to “get those Muslims before they get us.”

And Jesus weeps.

Coming in this season of light and hope, I find such concepts to be totally dissonant as well as incomprehensible. It seems we are preparing to celebrate not the coming of the Prince of Peace, but instead perhaps a god of war such as Mars or Ares. As the angels sing of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, they are all but drowned out by the drumbeats of fear, paranoia and hatred, much of it fueled by the ignorance of those who keep spouting off.

There is much work still to be done.

Our world has much for which it needs to repent, beginning right here at home.

As we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, let us remember that he came to bring peace, love, compassion, and understanding instead of those who are different from us.  Let’s make those characteristics our goal, rather than fear and hate.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen this post online several times, but it bears repeating: “A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu and an atheist walk into a bar. What happens? They sit down and talk with each other and become good friends. Because this is what happens when you take the time to listen to one another rather than being a [jerk].”  It’s something to think about as we draw near to the manger, to the Prince of Peace. We are far too quick to respond to others with negative, knee-jerk reactions, when what we really need to do is to listen, get to know one another, and discover the peace that Jesus brings to the world.

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