The Beginning of Ethics
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

December 13, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:7-18

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, and people flock to him. They live in a time so tumultuous, so difficult, so uncertain, that a man dressed in a shirt of hair, eating locusts and honey, preaching repentance and turning from this world seems like a good alternative.

And we might well be either offended by or laughing at this passage, depending upon our view of insults. “You brood of vipers.” Such language!

John goes so far as to say that religious membership is no benefit against the wrath of God. Do not presume to say, “But Lord, I am a member in good standing of First Congregational Church of Charlotte.” Can God not raise up a new congregation whenever God wants?

His warnings take his listeners out of their comfort zones and immediately into the realm of ethics: “What then should we do?” Ethics is the fancy philosophical word for how we make decisions, how we choose what we do and why.

Within Christianity and Judaism, ethics begin within the commands of God. This is not to say that we do not also draw upon the wisdom of our forebears, the knowledge offered by science and reason, the traditions of the church, and our own experiences. All of these are a part of our deliberations. Please note that popular opinion and common sense are not included. Why? The popularity of an opinion has nothing to do with its goodness or rightness. And common sense is so often about self preservation and securing our own future, whereas the Bible is about trusting God and practicing faithfulness.

Have you ever wondered why God commanded Adam and Eve to go forth, be fruitful and multiply? Do any of us really believe that if God had not commanded people to be sexual that we would not be? Does anyone really need to tell a teenager to be sure to be all messed up with emotions and hormones and desires? No, these are a part of the most natural processes within the human experiences.

But because God has commanded it, now it falls within the realm of the ethical. Now we need to think about who, and how, and when, and why. Now we need to discern what is right and what is wrong, what is healthy and what is harmful, what is normal and what is deviant. Even our most instinctual and thoughtless of reactions is brought under the umbrella of that about which we must be intentional.

This does not make life less messy. But life was going to be messy anyway. The messiness of life now falls within our responsibility, which also means that it becomes something about which we have the ability to respond.

Our society currently expresses itself by sexualizing everything, particularly women and girls. Huge posters of women in their underwear are always up in the high temple of consumerism, the mall. And if they were not there, we might well wonder if the stores are closing. But have a woman breastfeed her child in the food court and see if people do not get uncomfortable. Another example: Girls get sent home from school if their clothes are deemed distracting to the boys. What is the lesson here? What is being taught, regardless of the intentions of the policy, is that a man’s sexuality is a woman’s responsibility. This is the opposite of ethical teachings about being responsible for our own bodies, our own desires, our own actions. It is a disservice to our girls and our boys.

And John tells all of them, “If you have two coats, give one away to someone who needs it. And if you have more food than you need, give it to someone who is hungry.” Common sense says that if we have two coats, keep one in case something happens to the first one. Fashion says that we need our casual coat for everyday wear and our good coat for special events. Popular opinion asks if someone does not have a coat, what did they do wrong so that they do not have what they need. The command of God through John is “got an extra one, find someone who doesn’t have one and give it to them.”

And even tax collectors show up! How low in people’s view are these people that they are singled out among sinners? John exhorts the tax collectors to not collect more than they are ordered to. John commands soldiers to not extort or steal more than their wages. These are people in positions of power, who have the opportunity to use their power to gain for themselves at others’ expense. If there is an underlying idea to all of John’s teachings, it is that there are other people. To take and keep only for ourselves is to deny the image of God in those from whom we take, to deny the need of those from whom we keep.

The life of faith is primarily a life of trust. Trusting in God to provide and to make new, relying upon the grace of Jesus Christ to bring us through, leaning on the everlasting arms. But our trust and our reliance come with responsibility. We are given the ability to respond: to choose to share or to keep, to choose to feed or to let go hungry, to choose to remember the image of God in our neighbor or to think only of ourselves.

May our responses to all of life’s messiness also trust in the goodness of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God.