Turnaround Artist – Rev. Henry Brinton
December 9, 2012
What do you call a person who takes a broken organization and repairs it? Someone who helps a dysfunctional company to work again, while making it profitable and successful.
A turnaround artist.
Lee Iacocca was a turnaround artist when he made Chrysler profitable in the 1980s and 90s. Mitt Romney earned the title when he became CEO of the Salt Lake City Olympic games, and ensured that the games made a profit and ran smoothly.
John the Baptist was a turnaround artist as well.
Now John was not a CEO or the president of an organization, but he came into a dysfunctional system and proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). This baptism he offered was of “repentance”— literally an experience of “turning around.” When people received his baptism, they make a commitment to turn away from sin and turn toward God.
So what was the mess that John walked into, and what dysfunctional system did he begin to turn around?
The Gospel-writer Luke goes into significant detail to describe what was going on when John appeared. The time was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias” (v. 1) — Tiberius was the stepson of Augustus Caesar and appears throughout the ministry of Jesus. He was neither well-loved nor respected, even by other Roman leaders.
Does this sound familiar? Just a third of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press. This is a decline of 31 percent since 2002.
But maybe things were better on the local level in Jerusalem. Well … not so much. “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” (v. 1), the region that included Jerusalem. From the moment he began his rule, Governor Pilate insulted and antagonized his Jewish subjects. He knew he was weak, so he used his soldiers to knock people around. Pilate was both despised and feared by the people.
And how about Herod, the “ruler of Galilee” (v. 1). Herod was an unbalanced and dangerous leader who was allowed to serve as “King of the Jews” by the power-people in Rome. Although Jewish, he lavished money and attention on pagan temples, which probably pleased the Romans and disgusted the Jews. Insecure and paranoid, he murdered all those around him whom he suspected of being disloyal.
Philip and Lysanias — we don’t know much about them, but Luke’s inclusion of their names indicates that political power was deeply divided in the region. Same for his mention of the religious leaders Annas and Caiaphas, who were both high priests. In politics and religion, people were constantly struggling for power (vv. 1-2).
Here in the United States, we are all worried about falling off the fiscal cliff, and we lament the partisan gridlock in Washington. These are serious concerns, but they are really nothing new. John the Baptist faced the very same thing.
Luke tells us that at this particular time — “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias” — “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (v. 2). John was far from Rome and far from Jerusalem, free from the partisan wrangling going on in those power centers. There, in the middle of the desert, the word of God came to him at a specific time.
Let me say a word about time. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there are two words for time: Chronos and kairos. Chronos is sequential time — minute by minute, day by day, year by year. It’s where we get the word chronological. The “fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias” is a way of speaking of chronos time.
The other word is kairos, which means an opportune time. Kairos is the moment where something special happens. You might say that kairos is qualitative time, while chronos is quantitative time.
Here’s an example: On Thursday, January 26, 2012, my college roommate Jay Tharp had his confirmation hearing at the Senate, on his way toward becoming a federal judge. January 26 is a date in chronological time. That night, Nancy and I hosted a dinner for him and his family at a restaurant in Washington, in celebration of his nomination. We did that not because the date was January 26, but because it was an opportune time — the time was right for a festive dinner. That’s kairos time. We will remember the event long after we forget the particular date that it happened.
In the New Testament, kairos means “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (e.g. Mark 1:15, “the kairos is fulfilled”). When the “word of God came to John in the wilderness,” it happened at the opportune time, at the right time according to the purpose of God. God’s kairos time suddenly inserted itself into the chronos time of Rome and Jerusalem.
So what happened at that moment? Luke tells us that John the Baptist “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3). He did this with the power of the word of God, a spiritual power that is far different from the political power of the leaders around him.
What John challenged the people of the region to do was repent — which means “turn around.” He was the turnaround artist, employed by God to enter a dysfunctional system and repair it. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance, which means that he washed people clean in the Jordan River and then sent them out to walk in a new direction. Once baptized by John, a person was supposed to behave in a radically different way.
John tells people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8), which means that they will share their clothing with the naked and their food with the hungry (v. 11). It means that tax collectors will gather no more than the proper amount (vv. 12-13), and that soldiers will not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation (v. 14).
Luke is not afraid of telling the truth about the ways that people mistreat each other, and why they need to turn around.
All of this is a fulfillment of what God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah many years before: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (v. 4). The words of Isaiah are eternal, because they are spoken in kairos time, at the opportune time. They are never to be limited to a particular chronological moment, because they are part of God’s kairos, God’s appointed time.
This passage from Isaiah describes the preparations that need to be made for the visit of a king. The roadway must be properly prepared, including the elimination of treacherous curves by making “his paths straight” (v. 4). Valleys are filled, mountains and hills are made low, and rough places are smoothed so that nothing will get in the way of people seeing the “salvation of God” (vv. 5-6).
At this particular moment, John is doing the work of preparing the way for Jesus. Jesus is the king who comes to bring us the salvation of God.
So how should we respond to the message of John the Baptist? His words come to us in the middle of our dysfunctional systems, just as they came to the people mired in the politics of Rome and Jerusalem. The message is the same today as it was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias: Turn yourself around. Walk away from sin, and begin to walk in the straight path that leads to Jesus Christ.
If you have two coats, share one with the homeless. If you have food, give some to the hungry. If you collect taxes or sell professional services, don’t cheat people. If you are a soldier, police officer, teacher, business leader, judge, or politician, don’t use your power in ways that are abusive. Everything you do should show the world that you are walking in the way of Christ.
Since Christmas is coming, you’ll probably run across a performance of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, which appears in theaters and on television every year. In that play, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge has his own kairos moment, when the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley appears on Christmas Eve. The ghost is suffering, wrapped in a chain of cash-boxes, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy steel purses.
Says the ghost: “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!” He regrets that he misused many important opportunities in life, since he was focused entirely on making money.
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” says Scrooge.
“Business!” cries the ghost, wringing its hands. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Jacob Marley arrives in order to turn Ebenezer Scrooge around, and in the end he succeeds. John the Baptist comes to turn us around — to turn us away from sin and selfishness, and to turn us toward Jesus. John appears to widen our vision of what our business is, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Will he succeed? That depends on whether we seize the moment — the kairos moment. God is breaking into our dysfunctional systems, with the goal of turning us around. Amen.