|Linda Hunt, in her Oscar-winning role as Billy Kwan.|
Scripture can be found here...
When I read this week’s passage I couldn’t stop thinking about Billy Kwan.
Billy Kwan is a character in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously,” starring Mel Gibson. Gibson is Guy Hamilton, a young Australian journalist sent to Indonesia in 1965, a turbulent time for the government under President Sukarno. It traces his attempts to learn the lay of the land, to learn his trade, even to compete with the other journalists. But the movie—and the story—belongs to Billy Kwan.
Billy is a brilliant Chinese-Australian photographer. Immediately upon meeting Guy Hamilton, Billy takes him under his wing. He says, “We'll make a great team, old man. You for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes.” When he says that, Billy means much more than his willingness to provide breathtaking images to be sent around the world with Guy’s copy. Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant, a beautiful British diplomat played by Sigourney Weaver, and sets the stage for the two of them to fall in love. Billy shows Guy the real Indonesia, off road, out of sight, the poverty, the human carnage that is a way of life in 1960’s Indonesia. Billy takes Guy to witness a grieving mother preparing her child for burial by candlelight, bathing his little body with water and jasmine blossoms.
At the climax of the film, Billy is in despair, because his idol, the President, has shown himself to be indifferent to the poverty and misery of his people, and Guy is more interested in his career than in the woman he loves or human suffering. After they part ways, we find Billy seated in front of a typewriter, typing over and over the phrase from the gospel of Luke, chapter 3: “What then must we do? What then must we do? What then must we do?”
Billy Kwan is a little like John the Baptist. He is looking for someone, someone special, someone who will fight for what is right, who will give people like him hope. Billy is looking for the real deal.
So is John. In this passage we meet both John and Jesus, but John takes center stage. We hear the clear message that John, too, is looking for the real deal, the one for whom everyone must prepare the way, clear the paths, level the mountains. And then John looks around him at the people—the people! Scores of them!—all the people who have come out to be baptized. And like any good preacher, he welcomes them warmly.
You brood of vipers! What brings you here? Did you see the handwriting on the wall? A likely story. Show me your fruits! Show me that you have turned it around, that you have truly repented. John’s tone is beyond grumpy. It’s downright insulting. And yet the people are not put off. They ask him a simple question.
What then must we do?
Confronted with the real truth about themselves—which is that they are in need of a life-change, a transformation—they want to know the specifics, the ins and outs. What then must we do?
And John tells them. To the crowds, he says, whoever has two coats, give one away, and whoever has food should do the same. To the tax collectors he says, Collect only the taxes that are owed; don’t overcharge and skim off the top. To the soldiers he says, Stop your extortion and intimidation racket. Be content with your wages. Don’t threaten people.
Do you notice what John is doing? He’s meeting people right where they are. He’s not saying, “Get a different job,” or “Move to the other side of the known world.” He’s not asking the impossible or even the improbable. He is meeting them right where they are. He is telling them to change the way they do one thing, something within their power.
And as a result, the people are filled with expectation. They are filled with hope! They sense that this time something is different. They get that John himself is the real deal, and they start to wonder… could this be the Messiah?
But John bats that away, because his job is to fill the people with hope and expectation for Jesus, not to fill them up with himself.
(That’s one of the best definitions of ministry I’ve ever heard, by the way. To create a space for the Holy One, while resisting the temptation to fill it up with yourself.)
You think I’m impressive? John asks. Just wait. Just wait for the one who is coming. I’ve poured water on you. He will fill you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
This is the moment when, at last, Jesus appears. Not as the flicker of hope promised to Mary before he was conceived, not as the baby born on the road and cradled in a trough of hay. Not even as the adolescent scaring the daylights out of his parents, staying behind in Jerusalem to get his first delicious taste of discussing weighty matters with the holy men. But Jesus, the adult, the one for whom John has paved the way. Jesus appears, and, like all the crowds of Judeans who flock to hear John, he likes something he hears, he agrees, and so he offers himself for John’s baptism. When we meet him—finally, finally—he is wet and sputtering, the wings of a dove beating around his head, and a voice in his ear: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
What then must we do? What then must we do?
We start where we are. The deacons and elders who will be ordained and installed today answered a question with “yes.” The question was, “Will you serve God in this place and time, in these ministries of leadership and compassion?” Will you give a precious Saturday to take part in a training session, plus a Tuesday evening every month? Will you reach out with compassion to our homebound folks, to those who are hungry, to those who have suffered disasters? Will you make decisions based on, not what is popular, but what God is leading you to do? Will you listen for the voice of God whispering in your ear? Will you let Jesus be your eyes?
What then must we do? Billy Kwan answers the question by saying, “We must give with love to whomever God has placed in our path.” Each of us is given the capacity to answer that question for ourselves, day by day. Each of us is invited to listen for the voice of God whispering in our ear. Each of us is emboldened to let Jesus be our eyes. Thanks be to God. Amen.