I am not a Starbucks person. I don't get that fratalian language where the largest size is the only one that doesn't translate “large.” I don't like how bitter their coffee is. I don't like paying $5 for something that tastes like hot chocolate from a packet. I am just not a Starbucks person. And yet, Starbucks has taught me a great lesson about the gospel. Diana Butler Bass, a favorite professor of mine once asked, “how can the church implement one size fits all programs in a world where there are 82,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks?”
This is a profoundly challenging and beautiful question that is also deeply Biblical. In our Gospel lesson this morning we find John the Baptist along the Jordan River preaching to a crowd of people who had come to be baptized. Luke tells us that the crowd had come to the banks of the Jordan because they were filled with expectation. They were hanging out in the dangerous wilderness with the crazed Baptist because they were hungry and seeking. Hundreds of years had passed since Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel had laid out promises of a Messiah. The people were so very hungry for the restoration of their land and their God that, at least according to Mark's version, all the people of Jerusalem had come to hear his preaching and to be baptized by him. Pharisees, Sadducees, Mothers, Fathers, Stonecutters, Carpenters, Widows, Orphans, Children, Adults, Tax Collectors, and Soldiers: people of all sizes, shapes, and creeds had come to see this man, and they all came with the same question upon their heart.
“What should we do?” “What should we do to bring about the forgiveness of our sins? What should we do to restore this land? What should we do to bring about salvation for all flesh? What should we do to prepare the pathway of the Lord? We know it is going to happen. We are filled to overflowing with expectation. Now what should we do to be ready for it to happen?”
And just like 82,000 people can leave Starbucks with something different in their paper cup, so too could thousands upon thousands leave the presence of John the Baptist with a set of preparation instructions that were unique to their particular lifestyle and situation. The Good News of God has never been one size fits all. Instead, God has always been interested in the peculiarities of the individual: from his one on one conversations with Adam in the Garden of Eden to his presence just last Sunday in a white rental car with Louisana plates while a group of us stood on the sidewalk and waved goodbye to Betty Schultz. God is keenly interested in you, not y'all, just you.
Theologians call this idea, The Scandal of the Particular. I'll let Nora Gallagher explain it, It is “The idea is that God, the enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” cares about each and every one of us, not en mass, but each of us as one particular person. The God of Creation—Aristotle's Unmoved Mover or Plato's Divine Source— stooped to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, he cares even if a single sparrow falls to the ground. This "Yahweh" was completely low-brow to the Greeks, it was a scandal: from the Greek skandalon, which means ‘snare or stumbling block.' And yet, it's a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one, singular, particular life.”
Have you ever given that idea any real thought? The God of all Creation cares for you, one particular person among the 7 billion who are alive today, cares enough to number the hairs on your head. Cares enough to sit with you when you are sad or scared or lonely. Cares enough to give you room to learn and grown and make mistakes. Cares enough to send a wild-eyed man to the banks of the Jordan River to proclaim the good news that salvation is available to all. To the Hebrew's who came to see John it was an idea that had almost been forgotten. To the Romans who came to see him it was a stumbling block. To us today, it is almost too good to be true. But the great news is that it isn't too good to be true. It is too good not to be true.
And so we return to the banks of the Jordan River and hear John's response to the crowd's questions.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Inherent in that answer is its opposite, “Whoever has no coat must put his pride away and accept the gift of a brother; and whoever has no food must do likewise.” To the Tax Collectors, the traitors that they were; collecting money from their own people for the pagan Roman government, John commanded, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the Soldiers, Roman men working in Podunk Palestine, one of the worst assignments possible, John's advice was, “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Summed up, John's sage wisdom is, “be nice, share with one another, and don't steal.” Wow, thanks buddy! Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten. Great!
But maybe that's the other side of this scandal of the particular. The particular is often pretty mundane. Opportunities to follow the will of God don't have to mean selling all your possessions, moving to Kenya, and preaching the Gospel in Swahili. Most often, the will of God is quite simply, “be nice, share with one another, and don't steal.” A impossibly simple as that might sound.
While I was in seminary, I had the distinct pleasure of having a Spiritual Director, someone who would regularly sit down with me to talk about the life of the Spirit. Her favorite question was, “Where was God in that?” There were times when that question infuriated me. God is not in the annoying classmate who can't get the date of the Reformation in her notes even after the professor repeated it four times. God is not in my email inbox. God is not in the traffic light. God is not... God is not... God is not... I made all sorts of excuses and reasons why God was not where he most certainly was. Because if God is anywhere, it is in the mundane, ordinary, boring annoyances of everyday life. Being a participant in the Kingdom of God is as simple as having the faith necessary find God in the midst of it all.
So then, as we sit here on the Third Sunday of Advent, filled with expectation for the coming of Jesus on Christmas Day, what should we do? What should we do to prepare for his coming as a baby again this Christmas? What should we do to prepare for his second coming to judge the world? What should we do?
There are more than 82,000 ways to answer that question because God has a specific plan for each of us, but off the top of my head I can think of some things he might say. Welcome the families of family promise this week with open hearts and open hands. Spend a minute and drop a Christmas note to someone you haven't talked to in a while. Invite someone to Christmas Eve who hasn't gone to church in a while. Shop less. Spend more time with family and friends. And, as Paul reminds us Rejoice, don't worry, and accept the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
In the end, however, I probably can't give you any better advice than John the Baptist gave the crowd 2000 years ago. Be nice, share with one another, and don't steal. Simple rules for living that remind us that God is everywhere, even in the midst of the mundane and boring annoyances of life; pointing us down the path of salvation. Amen.