Just recently, as I was coming into the office, I pulled up at the stop sign on the intersection of Scott Street and Shackleton Street here in Belmont. A driver, coming up Shackleton Street on my left stopped, I presume to give way to me because I was on her right, even though I had the stop sign against me. Needless to say, I hesitated, so she indicated with her hand for me to come out. I hesitated further, because I was unsure whether he was going to make a move because I had yet to make a move. In the end, with some anger, I pulled out and crossed Shackleton Street to make my way down Scott Street.
I am sure that the other driver was being nice. I think I even felt to see whether I had my clergy collar on to give a risen why I might have received such nice treatment. However, I was angry and I had a few raised pitch and volume words to say from the safety of my car and through the silencing of the closed windows. I was angry because if she had have moved in the confusion of who was to do what, and we had a collision, I know who the police would hold responsible when they arrived.
I appreciate her efforts at being nice, however it did not affect a positive outcome.
Coincidentally, as I was driving home, I witnessed a similar incident of confusion between a pedestrian and a driver. The pedestrian began to cross the road. However, when she realised that are car was coming she stopped. Out of niceness, the car pulled up so she could cross. But now, in the confusion neither the pedestrian nor the driver did anything, until finally both moved at the same time, and the pedestrian was nearly run over.
I remember reading a definition of ‘nice’ once as, ‘interesting but ugly’. That is certainly not how our contemporary dictionaries define it as, ‘pleasing’, ‘agreeable’, ‘showing tact or care’, ‘suitable’ or ‘proper’. Although, if someone gave me a Christmas gift that I thought was ugly, in a desire to be tactful and pleasant, I might describe it as nice; interesting but ugly.
My tendency to be nice is because I am afraid to tell you the truth, not because I am trying to protect you, but because I am trying to protect myself. I am afraid that if I tell you the truth, you will not like me; you will reject me.
In the end, if I do tell you the truth, even though it may cause you some pain, it has the potential to strengthen our relationship in the future. It may be that you do reject me for speaking my mind, but that, then, is the choice that you make. It was not the purpose, the intention, of me saying what I said. Being ‘nice’ may have its place, but in the end it achieves nothing, at least, and the endangerment of life, at worst.
Niceness, being nice, is not one of the qualities that we see in the prophets. For the prophets, niceness was to risk the spiritual welfare, the eternal salvation, of God’s people as individuals and as a nation. Those prophets who were nice and only spoke what the people and kings wanted to hear were described as false prophets. The true prophets had to give voice to the judgements they made and were rejected for doing so.
So it is that we are confronted by the prophetic words of John the Baptist,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 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 to Abraham. Even now the axe 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.” (Lk 3:7-9; NRSV)
These words are not pleasant, amiable, tactful, or even proper. They do, however, affect a response in those who hear them; the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” (v 10), the tax collectors asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” (v 12), and the soldiers asked him, “And we, what should we do?” (v 14).
Where the other gospels address the Pharisees and Sadducees particularly, Luke has John the Baptist addressing the whole nation, “You brood(s) of vipers.” This is a challenge to counteract an assumed position of rightness before God. John the Baptist identifies the subtleties of their failure to bear fruits worthy of their repentance. As one commentator put it, challenges their smugness in their religious life.
I wonder what John the Baptist would say if he came in our midst today, ‘Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have always been Anglicans and therefore Christian;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up Christians who are Anglicans.’ Should we be shaken from our religious smugness, being comfortable in our religious situation? Are we bearing the fruits of repentance? Is this perhaps why God is not raising up Christians who are Anglicans, amongst us?
I have no doubt that God wants to raise up people to be a part of his people, to draw people to himself, through us. So an alternative question might be, what are we doing, or not doing, which is impeding God from doing so?
John’s ministry included a baptism of repentance – bear the fruits worthy of repentance. Repentance literally means to change your mind – in this case to change your mind toward God. Like those viper’s to whom John was addressing in his day, perhaps it is so easy for us to believe that we have turned toward God. But prophecy is a ministry in the subtle.
One of the fruits of repentance, perhaps is given in verse 15,
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.
There is an awakening expectation.
I am so aware that those who have had a heartfelt experience of what Jesus has done in their life, of how they have been saved, and from what they have been saved, are motivated to want that for others as well, and will be enthusiastic about entering and undertaking ministries that will enable others to share in it as well. This, I think, is the fruit of repentance, the signs of the changing of their heart, the turning of their lives.
And I love the way this passage about John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry concludes,
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
So with many other blunt but encouraging words, he proclaimed the good news to the people. For Luke, I suspect, the good news is another way of describing the One who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and will sort the wheat from the chaff, Jesus Christ. But it has the tinges of John the Baptist’s desperate love, deep and passionate, the same love that the Father has for his people, which will lead him to tell what he thinks or else they will go to hell in a hand cart.
As we consider the writings of the prophets we get a picture of the prophetic ministry and the expression of the gift of prophecy. The intention of the prophets was to raise hope, draw those to whom they spoke to the promises that God had made to his people. This is not a prediction of the future, but a looking forward with hope. Therefore, we challenge the concept of prophecy as a telling of the future and redefined its biblical context as one of making judgement about the state of the world and God’s people, according to the prophets understanding of the nature and character of God. The prophetic ministry is one of love, defining love not as a wishy washy niceness, but, as we would call it today, tough love. Having made the judgement, the prophets give voice to their perceptions, because it is more loving to do so than to be nice.