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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Find a Mentor

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Making Change - A New Year sermon series from Luke, week 1 of 6

Preached January 10, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship

(on the Sunday after the U.S. Capitol invasion)


Back at the beginning of Advent, Caitlan and I decided to do something a little different. Instead of hopping around the different gospels, we read and preached from Luke 1, until we got to Jesus’ birth in Luke 2 on Christmas Eve. Last Sunday, Caitlan stayed in Luke 2, and read and preached about young Jesus, who was right where he was supposed to be, in the community of faith.

This New Year, Caitlan and I are going to stay in Luke. From Advent and Christmas, through Lent all the way to Easter, we are reading and preaching from the Gospel of Luke. Its called the Narrative Lectionary and is designed to help us hear and understand whole books of the Bible a little better than the Revised Common Lectionary does.

Today, we are starting a new sermon series that will get us to Lent called Making Change. We are going to be studying the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 3 to 9, and looking at the key steps Jesus took to make good effective change and imagining how we could use those same steps to make good effective change in our lives and communities.

So let’s pray, then turn to Luke 3 and listen for the word of the Lord…


Scripture Luke 3:1-22

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch (meaning political representative) over Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch over the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch over Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah (and Elizabeth), in the wilderness.

3 John went through all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 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.

5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth;

6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7 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? 8 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 of Abraham. 9 Even now the ax 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.”

10 So the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply, John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has two meals must do likewise.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should WE do?” 13 John said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should WE do?” John said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats, or false accusation, and be satisfied with your base wages.”

15 As the people were filled with hope, and all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be THE Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than me is coming; I am not (even) worthy to untie his shoelaces. He will baptize you in Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with insatiable fire.”

18 So, with many other encouragements, John preached the good news to the people.

19 Note, Herod, the tetrarch/politician who had been rebuked by John because of (his relationship with) Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the (other) evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to all (his evil) by (eventually) shutting John up in prison.

21 Still, when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “YOU are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am very pleased.”

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Sermon Commit to the Change & Find a Mentor

Let’s say one purpose of preaching is to make change in the people. As a preacher myself, I am confused by John’s approach to preaching. It does make some sense why he puts himself where everyone needs to come, down by the water. I can even understand why he walks up and down the water’s edge, to make sure everyone hears what he has to say, whether or not they came to hear it or want to. And, what he has to say is called, “good news.” I understand it is new, for sure, not something the people are accustomed to hearing. But good?

Here’s what John preaches to the people… “You brood of vipers.” Imagine if Caitlan and I started each sermon with that kind of accusation upon you all, as individuals, as vipers, and upon this community, as a brood. There aren’t many people who enjoy being pointed at or pointed out for their viper-ness, or who appreciate their congregation, community, or country being called a brood. I can’t imagine we would have many folks who came or tuned in go away happy or come back next week for more of the same.

Do you see why I am confused? I feel quite sure John’s approach to making change would be deemed totally inappropriate for a pastor and preacher in our community and across our country.

Still, something in John’s way and John’s world made this approach work. He barks at them, then wants to know who warned them to flee, to dodge the consequences that were about to land on them from all the sin they had either committed themselves, or defended and dismissed in others, or ignored and accepted as beyond our control, just the way it is. They had somehow become aware there would be consequences for greed and lies, corruption and cheating, violence and injustice.

The people are not offended by John. Some sought John out and they accept what John says about them and their community. Some old old habits and ways of doing relationships and business and government are going to get cut down like diseased trees because they don’t bear good fruit. There’s so much sin and brokenness in them and their institutions, their economy, their politics, their culture, their country that God is going to pick all of it up in a winnowing fork, and toss all of it up into the breeze, and the little bits of goodwill fall back down and God will use those as seeds for growing new ways of doing community, and all the rest will blow with the wind into a pile over by the fire to be burned away forever.

The people hear John imagine God doing that, to them and their community, their country, and they aren’t defensive. They aren’t defiant. They aren’t angry. They don’t block or unfollow him on Facebook. They don’t turn their backs, walk away, shaking their head, giving up on John as too radical. John’s words land on them and they catch the weight, confessing it is theirs to carry. John’s call for repentance, for turning this whole thing around, sticks their soul like a vaccine needle, and they don’t flinch away from it but lean into it and accept it as the medicine they need to cure the personal and systemic ills they have chosen or that were passed down to them as infections from former generations plaguing their community and country for so long.

People of every profession, every gender, every race, every age, every social status are suddenly equally aware of the problems across their community and country and the coming consequences, and when John speaks this hard truth, they are all equally willing to admit and accept how they have been and still are part of the problem. They don’t point fingers at the other people as the problem. They don’t shout back at John with, “Oh yeah! Well what about”-isms. They don’t arm up, mob up, and attack. They don’t cancel their membership and stop contributing. They exhale, close their eyes, bow their heads, and ask John a humble question.

John’s speaking hard truth cuts through the sinful patterns and convenient lies they’ve accepted or been told or told themselves. John’s speaking truth finds its way inside their darkest corners and shines light on the junk they inherited or committed or still believe but don’t see, and they see it, and they know they need to make change.

They even begin wondering if John might be the messiah, the Christ, the God-appointed leader they’ve been waiting for. Think about that. They hear a preacher call them vipers, call their community and country a brood, and state hard truths about how systemic sin will have to be rooted out of all their relationships and institutions, and they wonder if this might be the leader God promised. That IS the kind of leader we all know God would send, and they wonder if John is that leader, THE Messiah, so they ask John, “What should we do?”

Imagine if the response to systemic racism in our country was to ask those oppressed by it, “What should we do?” and we did that. Imagine if police and law enforcement agencies, when shown the data on racially biased policing, stopped and asked “What should we do?” and then did it. Imagine if politicians when they were first shown the threat of the novel Coronavirus one year ago had humbly asked the best medical professionals, “What should we do?” and then did it. Imagine if those being frothed into a frenzy by politicians and biased media sources didn’t believe theories and falsehoods, didn’t riot and invade the capitol, but humbly paused and asked honest officials and judges, “What should we do?”

John answers their question, “Share anything you have with anyone who doesn’t have.” What if they didn’t earn it? What if they don’t deserve it? Share it anyway. Bill collectors, tax collectors, debt collectors, rent collectors ask, “What should we do?” John says, “Collect no more than you need.” What if the market would let us charge more? What if we could increase our profits and give ourselves raises and our stockholders' dividends by holding down wages, not offering benefits, or better yet, shipping jobs overseas? Collect no more than you need. People with power over others, police, military, politicians ask, “And what should we do?” John says “Don’t threaten, or lie, or use your position of power to enrich yourself.” What if we get inside information and could make money on the market? What if we could nudge contracts to go to the businesses of our best donors? Do not threaten, cheat, lie, steal, and be satisfied with the base income your position pays.

John was Jesus’ mentor. If we watch how Jesus teaches and preaches for the rest of Luke, what he will say, and how he will say it, it will sound very much like John. Jesus was sent into the world to save the world, to change the world for the better. At the beginning of his public ministry, the beginning of making the change, Jesus sought out John, listened to him, learned from him, was baptized by him.

What changes in our lives, our community, our country do we know we need to make? To make those changes, will we take the same steps Jesus took to make change? Will we commit to making the change no matter how hard it might become later, and will we find and follow a mentor who is already on the path of making that change happen?

Making change begins by committing to make the change, and by finding a mentor already making that change to learn from and follow.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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