Living In-Between: Taking Action in Love
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
We lit the candle of Joy today and as we hear the scripture from Luke it doesn’t seem that joyful–but John ends with a promise of Jesus, a promise of baptism in the Holy Spirit, a promise of an identity as child of God, called to live into this joy of this blessing.
There is an identity craze sweeping our nation. One of the ways this shows up is the new ability to order in a DNA kit and find out more about your ancestry. Last year the company Ancestry sold 1.5 million kits on black Friday alone. There are new companies popping up all over that will tell you your DNA roots and connect you to the past in a new way. I know of one woman for whom this turned out to be very life giving and she was reconnected with family of origin that she never would have even known. So it can be an incredible gift. It is also something that may have the potential to trip us a bit. I have to laugh at the commercials where they show a person who is sure they are German and they are in full traditional lederhosen, eating sauerkraut and drinking beer and then they find out they have scandinavian blood in them and suddenly it’s lefsa and sweaters–Really? A DNA test is going to make you throw away perfectly good lederhosen?
Ancestry is fascinating and important and it gives us a history and a grounding. It’s also beautiful to find out new things about our past and try them out, although no amount of DNA testing will make me eat lutefisk, I can appreciate the joy of finding out new information and engaging the world with new eyes.
In today’s gospel, John is addressing the issue of ancestry in a different way. The people are gathering to hear his message–his evangelizing, announcing a new order–here John is not a crazy guy on the street corner but he would have been seen and heard as one bringing ‘good news’ to those who needed it. Make no mistake, this was a spiritual move and a political move. His words here are not neutral, they are for making it clear that God desires a new way for the people to live amongst one another.
John confronts the people immediately with their ancestry by saying–Yes you may be descendants of Abraham, you have been claimed and chosen as God’s people AND you cannot let that be your full identity in a way that makes you lazy or self righteous. BECAUSE you are descendants of Abraham there is a new thing coming and BECAUSE you are descendants of Abraham there is more– and God who is more and calls you to more can also come into this world and raise up even stones–even things that are immovable, even things that don’t look anything like you and make them into something new. What John is saying is that your past gives you a place but the way you live it out and live into the world defines who you are. John calls them to repent–to turn around towards God, towards a new way, and to see where their lives matter in the now.
This reminds me of a story I read this week. The author shared about his life growing up with his grandparents. His grandfather was firmly in charge of the finances of the home, making sure they had what they needed and gave what they could in the offering plate. There was one area he did not manage and that was the groceries, that was completely his grandmother. Each week he would go to the store with this grandmother and they would buy two of everything, “two boxes of cereal, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of flour—until our cart looked like an abstract rendering of Noah’s ark with its produce and nonperishable food items arranged two by two.” Then they would drive to the food bank first and give exactly half of what they had bought at the store. One time, he recalls, he asked for the expensive cereal that he had seen advertised on tv and he was told no. He grumbled a bit, saying that if we didn’t buy two we could afford it. His grandmother’s answer was–if we can’t afford two we can’t afford one.
This grandmother took to heart the words of John in today’s gospel. As the people gathered around John and heard his call to repentance, they didn’t ask what should we believe? Or how should we interpret your words for the best possible mission statement? Or what should we understand theologically that will help us to justify our lives? They asked–What then, shall we do? This could be a complicated question. We can go round and round in circles rationalizing what we should or shouldn’t do–do we give money to the person on the street? Isn’t ok to have a raincoat, a wintercoat, a windcoat, and a pullover? Do we act the same at work and school and church? Yet, this grandmother and John show us that even while there are situations of complication and questions beyond our understanding, the question and the answer to repentance can be simple–if you have more than you need, share. If you are a tax collector, don’t cheat, if you are a soldier don’t exhort people or try to get ahead by causing harm to others.
Pretty simple really. Live in a way where action is love. There may be things we cannot see or solve or understand–but the parts of God’s love that we can do–we do. When we remember our baptism, our ancestral identity, we remember two things–being bathed in God’s love, Jesus promises of grace and redemption and that we have died to sin and are raised to new life, which can sound theologically complicated or it can be that we live with the neighbor in mind, open our eyes to where we can make a difference, and buy two boxes of cereal instead of one.
See God’s call to us comes to a new place here in advent–there may be darkness but the light is getting brighter. When the people heard these words of John they are described as being filled with expectation– turning towards God and living into that love creates hope, brings steps towards peace, and walks us into the depth of joy. A couple of weeks ago in chapel I asked the preschoolers what they hoped for and got the answers you would expect–hope for nice things at Christmas. Then I asked them what they thought God hopes for and several answered together–For Us! And they are so right. What joy in knowing that God hopes for you–and desires for you to have this hope and peace and joy through the promises of God entering our world, our lives, and our hearts.