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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
What Can I Do?

Advent 3     Luke 3:7-18

Three stories.

My wife, Jan, and I went to see a film entitled HIROSHIMA AND NAKASAKI.  It wasn’t the kind of film where you normally settle in on Friday night, relax in front of the fireplace, eat a bag of popcorn and drink a coke. It wasn’t that kind of film at all. Rather, these were actual film clips of Nagasaki and Hiroshima immediately after these two cities had been bombed with the first atomic weapons. This was not a simulation; these were the actual film clips. The devastation was awful. It reminded me of the film clips I had seen of Mt. St. Helens, immediately after the volcanic eruption. Everything was just flattened, devastated and covered with ashes. That’s the way it was at Hiroshima. In another scene, there was this one wall standing, where about five or six people had been standing in front of that concrete wall. The intensity of the blast from the A-bomb sculpted their silhouettes right into the wall. The firestorm burned their silhouettes right into the concrete, and you could see the detail where these people had been standing with their hats, their pipes, their jackets. All this detail was burned right into the wall. But it was another scene that had this transforming power. The scene was a small medical clinic and a busy nurse. There was a long line of chairs, with people seated in those chairs waiting to see the nurse. There was a little boy, about ten years old, sitting there on one chair. He was in great pain as his body had been severely burned. We identified so quickly with him because we have a little boy of similar age.  The boy was being attended by this nurse, and for a half of a second, the little boy looked up and looked right into the camera’s eyes. In other words, he looked right into my heart. He momentarily looked into my heart and then his eyes glanced down. I am not sure what happened, but there for about a half of a second, my heart opened. Just for a moment, a flash, and something inside of me started to change, and I thought to myself, “What can I do? What can I do to make sure that this does not happen again?” I remember that in that moment I vowed that my life would be dedicated to the stopping any nuclear holocaust. For a moment, God got into me and I then asked the question: “What can I do?”

Second story.  As you know by my previous stories and sermons, I used to work at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, so many years ago. With ten others, I was being trained to be a chaplain, and we had to take a lot of psychotherapy, some ten hours a week. At that time and throughout much of my life, I was wrestling with the selfishness that was living inside of me. I was the youngest child in my family, spoiled rotten, and I had learned a level of selfishness in me that I did not find healthy, and neither did anyone else.  I didn’t like myself very well and neither did those who knew me well. I tried to escape confronting this ugly inner self during our group therapy sessions, but to no avail. It was John Keller who God used to finally get through to me. John Keller was my supervisor at the time and he had written a book that I had been studying. There it was on page forty-three of his book, on the left hand side of the page, some two thirds down. It was a paragraph about self-surrender. As I read those five lines, it was as if the door of my heart opened up, just a little bit, and God’s Spirit slipped into my heart and I asked myself, “What can I do?  What can I do to change?”  Whenever God gets into you, it may be for just for a moment, a paragraph, a fraction of a moment.

Third story. My wife, Jan, and I were in the capitol city of Nicaragua, with a group of people from Lutheran world hunger. We were there for an immersion experience, to see what was happening. It was a very hot, hot day, in Managua, the capitol city. We were sitting in a shaded park, and there was a little stand that sold pop and candy across the street from us. We went over to get a coke. There were no beggars, no tourists, no vacationers. Barbara, a very bright woman, a pastor, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, was standing in line, waiting. A young boy came up to her and looked right at her, almost like staring. Pretty soon Barbara could not ignore this little boy any longer. She looked down at him and said, “Do you want a coke?” “No,” said the boy. “I want some bread for my family.” Barbara was upset, flustered by this situation and the boy. With the boy, she walked over to another stand that sold bread and bought the boy some loaves of bread. Later that night, as we gathered together for group discussion and prayers, Barbara asked, “What can I do? What can I do about all the little boys and girls on this earth who are asking for a loaf of bread?” In that moment, in that one sentence, God got through to her and she asked, “What can I do?”

It seems so often in life that our hearts are open for just a moment.  For just a second in a film clip, for just a paragraph in a book, for a sentence within a conversation at a coke stand. There, for just a moment, God gets inside of us where there seems to be an inner conversation going on. When God gets into our hearts and souls for just a moment, God works on us and we ask our selves, “What can I do? What can I do?

It is with this mood that we approach the gospel story for today about John the Baptist. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness, down near the Jordan River, down there near the Dead Sea, down on the lowest plateau on earth. John was preaching near the Dead Sea. John the Baptist was quite a character. He had no fancy clothing, no fancy education, no fancy house, no fancy anything. John was a hermit, living out there in the desert. John was an incredible person

And John was a powerful prophet. In fact, many of the Jews believed the John was Elijah himself, Elijah the Tishbite; Elijah, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. There was no greater prophet in the Old Testament than Elijah. John the Baptist, also, was an authentic prophet of the Lord, in the same mold as Elijah. The Jews hadn’t heard an authentic prophet for four hundred years.

John the Baptist didn’t get paid to preach at weddings; he didn’t get paid to preach for funerals; he didn’t get paid to preach on Sunday mornings. Instead of his salary being paid for by the congregation, John the Baptist lived out on the desert, on locusts and wild honey. He told the absolute truth about God. He told the absolute truth about human beings. He didn’t have anything to prove or impress people with. He stood in front of the crowds, not wanting to win friends and influence people, not wanting to show the crowds how clever he was, not wanting to get people to experience the power of positive thinking. He preached in such a way that he upset people or rattled them. He said to the crowds, “You people act like two bit phonies, pretending you’re so pious, pretending you’re so religiously impeccable. Why don’t people get freed up from your religion: so shallow, so insipid, so sentimental.  If I had the kind of inner religion that so many of you have, I would be embarrassed to call myself religious at all. Why don’t you show that you have genuinely changed?”

One group of people was defensive and said, “Get off our backs. Who do you think you are? We’re good Jews. Or today, we’re good Presbyterians; we’re good Methodists; we’re good Lutherans. Who do you think you are to talk to us like that? Don’t you know who you are talking to?”

But there was another group there that day, and I am not sure what happened. Maybe it was for a second, maybe a paragraph, maybe two or three sentences that connected. Something that John the Baptist said got through to them, got inside of them, and therefore they asked the personal question, “What can I do? What can we do to change? What can I do to change for the better?” When you authentically ask that question, it is a sign that God has gotten through to you.

Then God gets very specific in the answers and John the Baptist got very specific in his answers.  Those who had clothing, food and blankets asked, “What can we do? And John responded bluntly, “If you have two coats, give one away to the needy. If you have two cupboards of food, give one away to the hungry. If you have two blankets, give one to a person who is cold at night. The tax collectors asked, “What can we do?” And John again responded bluntly, “Don’t cheat people.” The soldiers asked, “What can we do?” John again replied bluntly and specifically, “No violence. No raping. No torture.”

You see, anytime the Spirit of God goes to work on you and gets inside of you, you begin to ask that question, “What can I do? What can we do?”  God may move inside of you during a second in a film clip, or a paragraph in a book or a two-minute conversation standing in line; and when God gets inside of you and me, we ask, “What I can do? What can I do to change? What can I do to make it better?”

Last Saturday, I was at the men’s breakfast at church and we men were talking about the Christmas that is already upon us. The men started pontificating like men will often do. They muttered, “Christmas costs too much,” “All the bills show up in January,” “We’re too materialistic,” or “Why can’t we have this Christmas generosity all year long and not just for a few days in December.”  To all of this muttering and blubbering, one man suggested, “A trip of thousand miles begins with the first step.” Miraculously, the conversation shifted dramatically and the men began talking about taking the first step in their path to increased generosity.  One man told a story about caring for his elderly grandma. Another talked about working with the young men at the juvenile court. Still another told of caring for a handicapped person for years. Finally, some one looked at Floyd, good old Floyd Leinenger, mid eighties, wearing a red bow tie, using a walker, having a face with pronounced deformities with his caved in jaw. One knowing man asked, “Tell us your story, Floyd?” Floyd, in his high pitched voice, quietly said, “My wife and I were married for thirty years. We couldn’t have any children so we raised seventy-two foster children.”  Silence. Stone silence. And then the miracle happened. All the men began clapping and clapping and clapping. …  It was just for a moment, for a minute, for a fraction of time, and God walked into the hearts of us men.  We were clapping and smiling at Floyd, and we thought, “What can I do …  to be more like Floyd? What can I do … to be more generous? What can I do …  to be more giving like Floyd?” Not out of guilt that I didn’t sponsor seventy-two foster children. Shame on me. Not out of competition.  I should be as generous as Floyd. Not at all. As Floyd told his stories of the seventy-two foster children, we all listened quietly as church mice.  As he talked, we privately asked our selves the inner questions: “Christmas is coming. What can I do …  to change? To be more generous? What can we do to be more like Floyd?” What questions we were asking in our inner selves on that Saturday morning.

When we ask that question, God gets specific. God lists specific actions and behaviors.  God said to those who were well dressed, “If you have two coats, give one away. If your cupboard is full of food, give half to the hungry. If you have two blankets, give one who is cold at night. If you are in business, stop cheating. If you are a soldier, stop violence and brutality.” In other words, God’s Word, through John the Baptist, a true prophet, became very specific. That’s the way God is: God always gets specific with our lives.

I, too, would like to be specific. You ask the question, “What can I do? What can I do to live a more holy life?” For all of you who have parents, take care of your parent, especially those parents who are elderly and need your special care. Adopt a friend in the Friend-to-Friend ministry.  More than 60% of the people living in retirement homes never have a personal visitor, and you are needed. Some families in our church went down to work at the soup kitchens during the twelve days of Christmas and helped distribute food there. They said it was an incredible experience to do so. Work in our homeless shelter; stay overnight or become a driver and provide a meal on a regular basis. Work in the food bank here in Des Moines. Take care of your relative, friend or neighbor who needs special care and concern from you.

When God gets into us for just a moment, a minute, a fraction of time, we often ask the question within, “What can I do?”  And then, God gets very specific.

A long time ago, the Baptist was preaching. He was powerful, an authentic prophet, a real messenger from God, who spoke the true Word of God. His words were powerful; his message was powerful. One group responded to him, “Get off our backs. We’re good Jews, good Presbyterians, good Methodists, good Lutherans. What are you, a spoil-sport? A guilt inducer?” But there was another group who heard God ‘s word from John. Maybe it was just a moment, a sentence, a paragraph. God got inside of them and started to change their hearts, and therefore they asked the question: “What can I do? What can I do?” It is one of the most important questions of life.

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