Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
November 7, 2021
Our Follow Me curriculum theme for this month is “Confess”, and today’s particular theme is “Individual Transformation”. What struck me as I considered this theme in light of All Saint’s Sunday, was that each of these individuals listed in our bulletin was human, fallible, imperfect, just as we are.
Each of them, just like us, was in need of confession and repentance throughout their lives. Each of them, at some point in their life, or more likely, at many different crossroads large and small – experienced some measure of confession, repentance and transformation.
At various points in their lives, they asked the question similar to the one in our text for day: What then, Lord, shall I do? If you, Lord, are with me…since you, Lord, have forgiven me… because I know, Lord, that you are there for me and made a claim upon my life… what then shall I do, Lord, to live as your faithful servant?
I invite you now to listen to words that these persons also heard a number of times, words that they each – in their own way – took to heart and sought to live. Our reading comes from the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke and the context is that “all the people” were coming out in the wilderness to be baptized by John.
Crowds of people from the surrounding villages – rich and poor, young and old, tax collectors and fishermen, soldiers and farmers – were all gathering to listen to the strange and passionate prophet who was preparing the way.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 3:3-14.
(John the Baptizer) went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
’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? 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.
Even now the axe 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.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 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.’
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’.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Each of the saints listed in your bulletin at some point or at many points in their lives asked the question: What then, Lord, shall I do?
I smile when I think about all the various ways these unique individuals answered that question. Bill Goodwin answered that question by serving as a pastor of United Methodist Churches for decades.
David Holbrook – offered his gifts of leadership and common concern to this congregation.
Roy Vandiver – shared gifts of generosity and wisdom and curiosity with many.
Henry Reaves – shared his gift of song in the church choir and leading music for Philips Tower for years.
Leonard Boswell – worked with passion for Christian education with churches across our presbytery.
Caroline Brooks – led music for children, gave practical care to the needy, and a listening ear to all.
Jap Keith – inspired countless souls with gifts of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.
Jimmie Bird – uplifted many through her gifts of artistic decoration and as a loving mentor to the young.
BJ Candler – served her church in St. Simons every Monday by counting the weekly offering.
Bill Jackson – felt compelled to share with others the loving grace of God that had changed his life.
Betty Allen – showed up with a smile as stalwart supporter of the church and Crusader Class for 50 years.
Vic Verdi – joyfully served as an educator and administrator and mentor.
Jeanie Mehlhop – who led the winter coat drive last year, improved the lives of many as a social worker.
Charles Scott – skilled at landscape design and care, made our community more beautiful and more fun by his presence and his work.
And each of the others I haven’t mentioned answered that question in their own way as well.
Our bicentennial goal in this congregation is that every child of God would experience belonging to God and others, would become engaged in some way in the mission of Jesus Christ, and would experience transformation through the work of the Holy Spirit. This month’s theme acknowledges that individual transformation begins with confession and repentance, admitting the ways that we have gone astray and then, quite literally, turning around and walking in a fresh direction.
John the Baptizer came not simply to baptize with water, but to change hearts, to lift up valleys of despair, to bring down mountains of pride, to prepare a way where there had been no way in the parched desert of many souls. He cried out to all who would listen: Repent! Turn around! Start living in a new direction. To prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, Stop!, he cried. Stop going in the direction that you have been going and turn your life around!
John’s call to repentance was not just calling for some self-improvement scheme. John was not simply calling for a “tweaking” of our behavior, not simply calling us to be a better us by focusing on us. John was calling for life-altering, life-transforming, even community-transforming change that would involve deeper love for God and response to the needs of our neighbors.
The villagers of first century Israel were ripe for this new Word from God. It had been almost 500 years since any Word from the Lord had given to the community. The common people were oppressed by the Roman occupiers; those with any power were using any advantage to leverage their positions.
The rich were getting richer; the poor were getting poorer. And the people were desperate for a Savior, desperate for the One who would come and tell them to love their God and love their neighbor.
In one of Vernon Gramling’s blogs, he reminded us that what ultimately matters in our relationship with God is how we treat our neighbor. “Turning toward the Lord means turning toward each other,” wrote Vernon. “If you miss that point, all other ‘religious activity’ is fruitless. No matter how important it is to cultivate a relationship with God, if that relationship does not lead us to be less exploitive (of neighbor) and more mindful (of their needs), we are fooling ourselves to believe we (have) turned toward God…”
John the Baptizer put it very practically in this way: If you have two coats, then share one of them. If you have food to share, then go through your pantry, fill up a box and drop it off at DEAM. (Thank you in advance, by the way, to all those who will bring coats next Sunday for our annual winter kit drive for Threshold Ministry. Those coats and hats are going to make someone’s day, perhaps even save someone’s life. Thank you to our Threshold volunteers, to those who have served in the Sandwich Brigade, to those who have provided meals to Hagar’s House.)
The Greek word often translated “if” can also sometimes be translated “when”. When you have any money to spare after grocery shopping, provide for someone who is hungry. When you have more clothes in your closet than you need, don’t pile them up in another closet or store them in boxes under the bed, take them to Goodwill! When you are a tax collector or anyone who deals with money, collect only the amount due. Can you imagine if we lived a country where tax agents were able to charge whatever they wanted?
Our system may be far from perfect, but at least we don’t have some tax collector nocking on our door and taking away whatever amount they feel like we could pay! When you are dealing with money, do so above board, without reproach. When you are a soldier, John says, do not extort from civilians. There are many places in the world today where soldiers still take whatever they want or need. A group of young soldiers will enter a neighborhood, go from house to house with rifles or machetes, and walk away with the community’s most valuable possessions. Sometimes, they will even walk away with the children, forcing young boys into becoming soldiers, forcing young girls into domestic slavery or the sex trade.
Be satisfied with your wages, John told the soldiers. For anyone in a position of power, do not use such power to take advantage of others. Allow others to earn and to keep a living wage. As Luke 12:48 states: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” The biggest obstacle to sharing is often not greed nor selfish concern, but fear. We humans tend to be afraid, afraid of what the future may bring, afraid of what we may need, afraid of those who are different from ourselves, afraid of appearing foolish, afraid of scarcity.
We have too often been taught to live with a scarcity mentality, to hoard what we have earned or received. We have been taught to focus on our own needs and the needs of our families. We have taught to be afraid there will not be enough to go around, and so no wonder we hold on tightly to what we have received.
Throughout the Bible, the first words from any messenger of God are: Do not be afraid. John the Baptist’s work of preparation for the presence of Jesus was “do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid to change your minds. Do not be afraid to share. Do not be afraid to be transformed. What then shall we do? Confess, repent, repair…Live life anew.
The Apostle Paul put it this way in Colossians 3:5-17. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly… now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another… As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
To God be the glory as we seek to live transformed lives, as we seek to do everything in the name of the One who came that all may have life and have it abundantly.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church