What Should We Do?
Based on Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Spiritual writer, Stuart Strachan Jr, tells a story to open our reflection time this morning. He asks us, “…Do any of you know the name of the inventor of dynamite? It might sound familiar once you hear it, it’s Alfred Nobel. In 1867, Alfred Nobel, who was a Swedish chemist, invented a new high explosive which he named ‘dynamite.’ He believed that his invention would make war so horrible that it would never happen again because it would become so awful, so terrible, that no one in their right mind would be willing to inflict that kind of terror somebody else. Surprisingly(?), he was wrong…perhaps if he was a good Christian [Presbyterian], with a thorough understanding of human depravity, he wouldn’t have made that mistake, but I digress.
Instead of ending war, dynamite made it more devastating and wide-ranging than ever before. He was horrified, but also had no idea what to do. He also, it has to be said, made a fortune from its sale. And then something interesting happened. One morning, around the turn of the century, he awoke to read…his own obituary, it read: ‘Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died yesterday, devised a way for more people to be killed in a war than ever before. He died a very rich man….’”
There is a spiritual challenge in this story for us, isn’t there?! On the one hand, we can look at an innovator like Alfred Nobel and say that he should profit from the sale of his discovery. That is the way that the capitalistic economy is designed to work, after all. Look at all the good that his invention did – it changed the way that we extracted minerals from the earth and how we were able to connect the East to the West with the transcontinental railway. If some humans used this invention for lethal purposes, well that is their sin not Alfred Nobel’s or ours…right?!
Our scriptures for this week call to us to wonder aloud about how we are living our lives and to hear again how God might like us to change. The prophet Zephaniah tells the people that they should repent of their sins and if they do, then God promises better days ahead. Paul tells the believers in Philippi just exactly what they are to do – to be humble and full of prayer and they will know the peace of God. John the Baptizer calls out the people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and when they ask what they should do – he gives them specific answers. Before we go farther, let us go to God now in prayer, asking God to guide us so that we will always know what we should do…
The prophet Zephaniah, before our reading today speaks of the people of Jerusalem in this way, “…The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets, are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law….” God goes on to say that God will “…remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly….” It is in this light that our reading for today picks up with joy and praise for a God who will make all things right. The people will not ask God what they should do, because “…they will do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths….”
Paul tells the believers in Philippi exactly what they are supposed to be doing in the time while they await the return of Jesus the Christ. Paul encourages them to, “…Rejoice in the Lord always…Let your gentleness be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God….” If they (and we) would just do this, Paul promises that “…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus….”
John the Baptizer is in full prophet mode in today’s reading. He is castigating any and all who come near for his baptism of repentance of their sins. He tells them that it is not enough to be a descendant of Abraham – they have to repent and bear fruits that are worthy. Everyone who does not bear fruit worthy of the kingdom of God will be destroyed in the time to come. The people are worried and wonder aloud to John about how they can do things that are worthy. John tells them, share what you have with those who have not; don’t lie, cheat or extort each other, be content with what you have; don’t bring false witness against anyone.
Alfred Nobel, we are told in the opening story, had no idea what to do about making money off his invention which was being used to subjugate and destroy the world around him. Some 50 years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project which developed the first operational atomic bomb similarly said, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Neither scientist knew what it is that they were to do, now that they had unleashed before unknown powers of destruction. Oppenheimer lamented his role in the release of such power, but Nobel actually did something to repent for the damage caused by his discovery.
We pick up the story following the reading of his obituary in the newspaper. “…The newspaper had made a mistake, Alfred’s older brother was the one who died. But, as you could probably imagine, the obituary had a profound effect on him.
He realized he didn’t want to be known primarily as the person who developed the most effective killing machine of his generation and amassed a fortune doing it…that sounds more like the villain to a story than the protagonist right? So, what did Alfred Nobel do…well, he founded the Nobel Prize – an award for scientists and writers who foster peace. Nobel said, ‘Every man ought to have the chance to correct his epitaph in midstream and write a new one.’
What had happened? Alfred Nobel, through the grace of God, was given a chance to make amends. He was given the opportunity to repent. To choose forces of good over evil, and ultimately when he did pass away, he would be known not just for creating the destructive agent dynamite, but for creating the most well-known peace prize in the entire world….”
It is important to reflect on Alfred Nobel’s statement that every person should work to correct how they are remembered in the world…to repent of their actions that cause harm or make the world a less desirable place in which to live. It is indeed a noble sentiment. If only we had something that we could use that could guide us in the way of right living and help us to know how to repent of our sins! Maybe a book that contains divinely inspired writings and prophetic sayings; teachings on how to put away worldly living and seek to live in a healthier and more healing way. A book like the Bible!
God has always raised up prophets and teachers, and inspired writers and preachers to help us make better decisions. God gave us God’s-self in Jesus to walk among us and teach us how to live in right relationship with God and with each other. After Jesus’ ascension, God sent the Holy Spirit to us to continue to nurture, guide, counsel and empower us to put into action the things we hear repeatedly in the Bible. Yet, like the people who came to be baptized by John in the Jordan, we still ask the same question about how to live a different and more loving life…what should we do?!
Friends, preparing for the return of Jesus is neither chemical nor atomic science – it is what we used to know as common sense. Like Alfred Nobel, God tells us that we all have the chance daily to change how we are choosing to live; to change our minds and hearts through the grace of God into ones that are humble, peaceful and loving; to put it bluntly…to daily repent of our sins and seek to live in right relationship one with another. Jesus told folks repeatedly to “go and sin no more”. John the Baptizer answered when asked, “What then should we do?”, that the people should stop taking advantage of one another; to share from their abundance so that all have adequate clothing and food; to not lie or bear false witness. Paul says that we should let our gentleness be known to everyone and that we have nothing to worry about if we just ask God for what we need – not what we want, but what we truly need.
In this time in-between when Jesus first came and when He comes again, we know what we should be doing. The only question is…will we? May God have mercy on us all! Amen!