There seems to be a very clear difference between our reading from Philippians and our Gospel reading for today. Paul and John the Baptist seem to have very different understandings of and very different ways of proclaiming what the coming of the Lord means, not that one’s better than the other, they’re just different.
John is right in your face with exhortations to ethical living. God doesn’t care about your ancestry or what community of faith you belong to. God wants to see how you live in God’s name. God wants to see the fruits of your faith lived out in your day to day lives in real situations, and if those fruits aren’t evident, well, you better watch out! Because even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees! If you don’t start bearing the good fruits of repentance, you’re in danger of being cut off at the roots and thrown into the fire.
In response to this bold proclamation, the crowds start to ask John what an appropriate response would be. They’re not put off by hearing difficult, challenging, even accusatory words. Instead, they keep coming. The crowds first, and then the tax collectors, and then the soldiers, each in their turn gets a lesson in ethical living. To the people in the crowd he says, be generous in sharing what the Lord has first given to you. If you have two coats, or more food than you need, and you know that there are people who are going without, share what you have with those who have not. If you’re in a position of public trust, don’t take personal advantage of that trust or of the power that comes with it, but instead, be satisfied with what you have.
John was announcing the coming of God’s Messiah – one who was greater than he – and, though we don’t fully know what John expected the coming to look like, it seems like he’s expecting it to be pretty radical. He uses fire language a couple of times, and threatens the cutting off of those trees that aren’t bearing good fruit…
Now, by contrast, Paul, though he’s also proclaiming the coming of the Lord, is looking toward the second coming, toward what we confess in the creeds – that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. And in the meantime, while we await this promised coming, Paul’s focus is on exhorting God’s people to rejoice and to let your gentleness be known by everyone, for the Lord is near.
On the surface it looks like a different message than John the Baptist, but I’ve gotta say, it’s really not that different in the end. There’s not a lot of difference between the ethical living John calls us to and the gentleness Paul is encouraging. But let’s be clear, gentleness doesn’t mean weakness. In fact, some of the most gentle people I’ve known have been incredibly strong individuals. Such people truly reflect, in their gentle strength, the nature of God in Christ. This is especially telling if we consider the larger context of Paul’s letter as back in Chapter 2 Paul quotes from a hymn to the incarnation – a first century Christmas Carol, if you will – that encourages us to have the same mind as Christ who, though he was equal to God in nature, didn’t strive or grasp after equality but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and willingly accepting the humiliation of a criminal’s death – dying on a Roman cross.
Jesus was fully God. He had every bit of God’s power and authority, and yet he laid it aside and let his gentleness be known. He even prayed for forgiveness for his executioners as they were nailing him to the cross. This is true strength. This is Godly strength. This is gentle strength…
I’ve been thinking a lot about this this week, as I’ve been hearing what I consider to be some of the most dangerous rhetoric I’ve heard in my lifetime coming from someone who’s been spewing dangerous and hateful rhetoric for several months now.
Now I want to say a couple things clearly, before I move further into this point
- I am not endorsing any person who’s running for office. It would be inappropriate for me to do so.
- I am not a fan of people who play the Hitler card too quickly, or without giving it serious consideration. I mean, my mother grew up in Holland under Nazi occupation. It’s something I take very seriously.
- I believe that those in the Confessing Church in Germany, at the time of the rise of Hitler, were on the right side of history, even as I question their willingness to eventually use violent means in order to oppose the Nazi movement.
- Finally, I have often wondered if I would have the strength of my convictions, and the willingness to face imprisonment, and, as happened to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, to face death in defense of the innocent victims threatened by the Nazis.
Well, I honestly believe that we no longer have to wonder.
The hateful rhetoric coming from one of the primary candidates for president has put us in the exact position as those who were in the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
- We have watched as this person has demonized and dehumanized people based on race and ethnicity.
- We’ve watched him pull statistics from White Supremist web sites and present them as truth.
- We’ve heard him threaten to round up and deport millions of people.
- And now we have heard him propose banning people from entry into our country based solely on their faith perspective.
- He has called for the registration of all members of this one faith in our country – non-citizens and citizens alike,
- For them to be forced to carry some sort of special identification,
- And for their places of worship to be placed under surveillance.
Folks, we’ve seen this before!
And now, we’ve begun to see the results of such hate speech play out
- As a Mosque in Florida was set ablaze
- As a severed pig’s head was thrown from a pickup truck at the front door of a Mosque in Philadelphia.
- As a Sihk Temple in Florida was vandalized, having been mistaken for a Mosque
- As a Mosque in Harrisonburg VA was vandalized
- And as threats of violence and death threats are being received regularly all over the country
- People are feeling so threatened that they’re willing to lay aside their deeply held religious beliefs – such as the wearing of a head covering, or hajib, in public – in order to try to stay safe.
These are hauntingly similar events to those that preceded Kristallnacht – the horribly violent pogrom that ushered in the Holocaust.
People of God, we cannot remain silent in the face of such evil!
As I said a couple minutes ago, I say again, we no longer have to wonder how we would have responded, if we lived in Germany, as such hateful rhetoric began to take root in the hearts and minds of the people – just regular people, church goers, hard working mothers and fathers, people just trying to go about their daily lives thinking that the rhetoric was just that, political rhetoric. But like the proverbial frog in the pot of water who doesn’t realize the water temperature is rising until it’s too late, we’re in the pot and the temperature’s rising.
Paul tells the Church to let our gentleness be known to everyone, but such gentleness is not weak, it’s strong. It’s the kind of strength Jesus showed in dying on the cross. It’s the kind of strength that faces down the powers and principalities, the dark and deadly forces of this world and proclaims with rejoicing that the Lord is near! It’s the kind of strength that does not stand idly by when it hears inappropriate language, hate speech racially or religiously motivated or motivated by plain old human fear of the other – of what’s different. It’s the kind of strength that fills our hearts and minds with the peace of Christ…
John calls us to ethical living, generous sharing and honest integrity in our interactions.
Paul calls us to gentleness and peace and rejoicing for the Lord is near.
Our response in the face of the current cultural situation, it seems to me, is simple and clear.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Amen.