For various reasons, I've been to California almost annually for the last five or six years. California has a homeless problem, primarily an addiction problem. It's not necessarily that California produces more homeless and addicted people, but if you're going to be homeless, there could be worse places, especially in the winter.
This past summer, I was in Seattle. I've also been to Seattle several times. It's definitely changed over the years. Seattle, too, is struggling with homelessness and addiction. It's sad to see what it has done to the city in many ways. It's easy to focus on other places, though. I grew up in Metro Detroit. I'm used to hearing all the bad about our city. It gets old fast. I'm not trying to pick at wounds or delight in others' misfortune.
This summer, I spent a lot of time all over the city of Milwaukee. I live in Milwaukee. I love Milwaukee. But Milwaukee, too, has a population of homeless and addicts. As someone whose main modes of transportation are a bicycle and a 2000 S-10 with no AC (which means the windows are often down), I've had some very interesting conversations and interactions. It's heartbreaking.
It's also easy to get cynical. The first time I saw emaciated people swaying like zombie dancers in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, it caught my attention. What happened to them? I think it's the fentanyl mixed with something that does it. You see it a lot more lately. It's surreal, but over time, you get used to it. You get used to the zombies. They become just part of the landscape.
Late one morning this summer, I was driving down National Avenue in Milwaukee and saw a familiar sight: a woman bent over and swaying. Another zombie, I figured. Maybe she was on something. I don't know. Perhaps, however, she'd never touched a drug in her entire life. Does it matter? I was stuck at the light, so I watched her. Guess what she was doing? She was trying to pick up a little injured bird. She had seen it. She wanted to help it. She loved it.
John the Baptist could preach the law. He knew how to wield that club. He called the crowds who came to be baptized by him a "brood of vipers." These weren't only the zombies of society. Their number included religious people, prominent people. Nevertheless, he hit them with insults. Then he asked, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Luke 3:7).
You know who'd warned them? John! He wanted to be clear, though. He wanted them to know how they came to the water. This wasn't a cute religious rite or some fun spectacle. They came in desperate need. They came as zombies. We're all addicted to sin. We're all zombied out. That's why baptism is about death and life, sin and grace. They needed to know that.
The works weren't new; the people were.
Rattled, the crowd asked, "What then shall we do?" (Luke 3:10). John's answer is almost pedantic. He has no lofty advice, no new works—only the things they should have been doing before, though now with a new source and object.
How does Luke's account of John begin? "[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3). John didn't only preach law. John also preached the gospel. He preached new life. What do we hear after he talks to them about the fruits of repentance? "So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people" (Luke 3:18). The works weren't new; the people were.
I thought that woman on National Avenue was high as a kite, out of her mind. I saw her, and I was cynical. I lost sight of her humanity, of my neighbor. Meanwhile, she had found a creature in need, one many probably passed and never saw. She saw it. She wanted to help it. She loved it. In many ways, she was much freer at that moment than me.
John told the crowd, eager for or fresh from the waters of repentance and forgiveness, to see, to want to help, to love. How could they do this? That bookends our text. They were recipients of good news, which produces good works through us, especially despite us, not with new works but with new life in Christ. Faith sees your neighbor not as a means to an end, not as a way to score points, but as an object of love: Christ's love and yours. The works don't change, but the source and the object does.
God in Christ has given us new vision. Everywhere we look, we see him. We see him for us, crucified and risen. We see him in our neighbor, redeemed just like us. It's all Christ, from beginning to end. It is new life, not from us, but for us, not to earn, but already given.
What should we do? See Christ, even when no one else does, even where no one else does because that's how he saw us, and that's how he sees us. That woman was lost in that bird, and Christ is lost in you, and you get to be lost in Christ, who looks a lot like your neighbor. What grace upon grace! Amen.