Saturday, December 31, 2011
If the years go by any faster, as some folks even older than I am say they do, I will surely start having dizzy spells. What used to crawl along like a turtle never destined to arrive anywhere now moves with such speed that it seems that life is suspended from a zip line. However, every now and then, a date comes along which slows things down just a bit and there is an opportunity to stand still for just a span of a second between here and there. Such is the blessing of this day, December 31, 2011. A year is soon to end and another reving up to start, but first there is this moment.
I remember a guy somewhere along the way who when asked, "How are you?" he would always reply, "Better than I deserve." Such is how life has been. To look back is to be thankful to God for a life that is good. Family, friends, a place to live, good health, too much to eat, and never being bored with a day of retirement are certainly a few of the good things God has graciously put in my life. And in this last year, He has also put still another sacred place to serve and to preach.
There was a time at one of my appointments when I spent some time fussing at God in my prayers about where I had been sent by the Bishop. Like those ancient Hebrews who learned the art of whining and complaining, I remember telling God, "I deserve a better place than this." And as I was going on telling Him where I should have been, that Voice I have learned to recognize said, "You don't deserve any place." Once again, He was right. No matter where I was sent to serve and to preach, it was better than I deserved.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Watching him leave causes me to think of the church more as "The Community of the Broken" instead of "The Community of Believers." It has always grieved me to see folks leaving because the brokenness becomes unbearable. It still does. I remember two men who almost came to blows at a church softball league game and they were on the same team. They both stayed, but it always seemed strained between them. And two others at a different place exchanged such sharp words that each one made sure the other was not in the same group going to the Table for communion. Sounds strange, but sadly, true. Of course, most folks don't stay. They leave and carry their unresolved stuff and broken hearts to another place.
To watch still another one go because of the brokenness brings its own dark cloud of helplessness. We naturally want to separate ourselves from the brokenness around us, particularly, when it makes itself known in a place where community is supposed to be modeled. The church is a spiritual community with Christ as its head, but the church some seek is, unfortunately, the church of heaven, not the church of earth. The church of earth is as flawed as I am. Maybe, even as flawed as you are. Put us all together with all our brokenness and only the grace of God enables us to catch glimpses of the kingdom being worked out on earth.
I find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis', Screwtape Letters. In that small volume Lewis enables us to see that the sacred space we call the church is a battleground where evil constantly seeks to gain a foothold in the human heart. Maybe there really is a reason to pray that line of the Jabez prayer which says, "Keep evil away." Or, maybe Jesus had it right when He taught us to pray, saying, "Deliver us from evil."
Thursday, December 22, 2011
It has finally arrived. The last day of the Advent season has come and with it, Christmas Eve. Tonight's worship will take us to the manger where we shall behold the holy scene which fills us with such awe and wonder. At last we shall have a glorious moment of being so immersed and overwhelmed by the music that it will seem we are in some faraway field where the angel of the Lord announced the heavenly news of a Savior being born in Bethlehem. We will hear that ancient exciting story read from Luke's gospel, but only after we have also heard the dreadful somber word of Genesis 3 telling us we are sinners.
On a glorious night such as Christmas Eve, it has always seemed out of place to be reading about Adam and Eve and their awful choice. Yet, the two readings are so connected and so important for our ears and hearts to hear. Celebrating the birth of a Savior is impossible unless we understand we are sinners. If we are not sinners, there is nothing to celebrate except the memory of a wise spiritual leader. But, the truth is we, like that Garden of Eden couple, have made wrong choices which have separated us from any possibility of being in the presence of a holy God. We are sinners and we would be hopelessly undone were it not for this child about whom the angel said, "...to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior." (Luke 2:11)
I saw a guy on a street corner today holding a large cross as a silent witness to those of us who hurriedly passed by on our last minute shopping spree. In bold white letters he had written on the crossbeam, "Trust Jesus." My first thought about this John the Baptist kinda guy was that he had the wrong symbol, but then there is no need to worship the child in the wooden trough if we do not realize He was born to die on a wooden cross for each one of us. Only as we see it all can we kneel in Bethlehem with the awe and wonder of those ancient shepherds.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
It is almost time for the visitors to show up in the story. Luke tells us about shepherds visiting Jesus shortly after His birth and Matthew reports the somewhat later arrival of Wise Men from the East. John mentions neither in his nine word nativity announcement, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us." (John 1:14) Mark says nothing about any of it, figuring that everyone knew what happened. But, still those shepherds and Wise Men are about to make their annual trek to Bethlehem. And even though Bible accuracy would never permit them to stand alongside of each other in any nativity scene, their absence would somehow tarnish a tradition that was long ago poured in cement, accurate or not!
Even though they likely appeared in Bethlehem at different times, the smelly shepherds and the regal Wise Men both belong there with the newborn Son of God. When Joseph heard the angel in the dream saying, "...you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins," he would have naturally assumed that "His people" were Jews and only Jews. His culture would have allowed no other explanation. Yet, from the beginning it is clear that the lowest rungs of society (shepherds) and non-Jewish people (wise men from the east) would be welcomed and included in the saving ministry of Jesus.
There is more good news from Bethlehem than can be absorbed in a lifetime of remembering the story. But, certainly, one thing not to be missed is the birth announcement which says that all are welcome. Social and economic status as well as other discriminating markers are not to counted as factors to keep folks away. There is room for everyone of us at Bethlehem and Golgotha.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
'Tis the season to think, to reflect, to meditate on Emmanuel. Matthew's gospel lifts up the name and makes us understand that the meaning of the word is "God with us." Sometimes we are tempted to wonder if it is true. When life seems to be crumbling into broken pieces around us, it is easy to start thinking that God is not actually as present as the Christmas story would indicate. And sometimes, even in those difficult moments when we question His presence, honesty requires us to wonder if somehow we missed Him along the way.
I remember one particular morning when I was serving the Perry Church. It was a morning filled with discouragement. I went to the office that day sure that God was nowhere in the picture. I hardly noticed the people in the office since I was walking in this dark cloud. However, one five year old called my name, ran toward me with outstretched arms so I, black cloud and all, knelt on one knee to receive her hug. Later in the morning on the way to the hospital in Macon I was fussing at God, complaining, telling Him how little He cared. It was there in the car south of Macon that God spoke with such clarity that I knew it was His voice. Do you know what He said?
He said, "I gave you a hug this morning." And, I missed it. I thought it was just a hug from a child.
Is that not how it is with us many times? We wallow in our cloud of discouragement and walk in our situations of impossible circumstances without seeing how God is leading us along and sometimes, even giving us hugs along the way.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
One of the songs of the Advent season is "Emmanuel, Emmanuel." It is an easy to sing chorus with a powerful message. For years I have made a practice of including this song in the order of worship to be used each of the four Sundays in Advent. If someone does not know it, my hope is that it might get rooted in their heart before the season ends. The words of the song are: "Emmanuel, Emmanuel, his name is called Emmanuel. God with us, revealed in us, his name is called Emmanuel."
The "God with us" name first appears in Isaiah 7:14. The gospel writer, Matthew, goes back to that verse and offers the interpretation for his rendering of the Christmas story. There are many names which can be given to the One born long ago in Bethlehem. In Isaiah 9 he is referred to as "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." In other places we hear titles such as "The Good Shepherd, Light of the World, Lord, and Savior. " Still, the name Emmanuel carries with it an important, powerful, and much needed word for our day. "God with us." Jesus is the One whose birth and life announces, "God with us."
Certainly, this is a good word for our day. Despite all the talk of social networking, so many experience such loneliness. It has often been said that the loneliest place in the world is a crowd and many are discovering that their retreat to the Internet puts them in a similar place. The good news is that we are never alone. Even those who refuse to acknowledge the divine presence in the world live in the world He has created and in that world not a single one of us lives outside the love and grace of the God who sent His son to Bethlehem to let us know "God with us." Always.
While Matthew does not actually say it was Gabriel, surely he must have been the unnamed angel who showed up in Joseph's dream life. Obviously, he was an angel on a mission. First, he appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist telling him that not even old age would keep him and his wife, Elizabeth, from having a son. And then he shows up a few months later in Nazareth to tell the virgin Mary that she will bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit. As an angel on the prowl, it only makes sense to figure he is the one who said the convincing word to Joseph as he was trying to sort out the unbelievable news about Mary's pregnancy.
What the angel did was to challenge Joseph to make the harder choice. The easy choice would have been separating himself from Mary. The easy choice would have been allowing his ego to dictate his actions. The easy choice would have been choosing a way other than the way God had chosen for him. The angel said, "...take Mary as your wife..." (Matthew 1:20), but it would have been easier to simply walk away from her.
If we allow the scenario to be a model for us,we have no choice but to understand that God often challenges us to lay aside the easy way for the hard way. Walking by the guy in need of a hand-out is easier than offering a helping hand. Forgetting spiritual disciplines is easier than practicing them. Harboring ill will is easier than forgiving. Had Joseph said, "No," instead of "Yes," his story would have been radically different. Such is true for us as well.
When the angel Gabriel told Mary the extraordinary news about her part in the birth of Jesus, it must have seemed to him like "Same song, same verse." Her response was, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34) Only six months earlier he had heard about the same words from Zechariah who was told that his past-the-child-bearing-age wife was going to give birth to a son. When told the unbelievable news, Zechariah had said, "How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years." (Luke 1:18)
The Christmas season has a way of causing us to believe that impossible sounding things are possible. Too many times we want to define what God can do by insisting that His activity be inside the boundaries established by such words as logical, practical, and common sense. We are more comfortable with a God who works within the perimeters we have established as acceptable. Of course, such a God is also one we can control.
Have you ever wondered what might happen if we actually asked God to work in those areas of our life that we have put aside as impossible? Most of us have prayed about certain needs only to come to a place of giving up, deciding that God is either not listening, or not going to act. Maybe the remaining days of Advent would be an opportune time for holding up before God some of our impossible stuff. Do so in faith, remembering how Gabriel said to Mary, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)
Finally, he is gone. Most of us are glad. John the Baptist does not make a good first impression with all that talk about something being so wrong with us that only radical change will make any difference. And if we do keep him around awhile, we find ourselves growing weary of the smell of locust on his breath and the look of his beard matted with honey. For two Sundays now the writers of the lectionary have imposed his unwanted presence upon us, but enough is enough.
This fourth and last Sunday of the Advent season brings new characters into view. They are the ones we have been anticipating. At last we see Mary as she struggles with the good news, Joseph as he wrestles with his ego, Zachariah and Elizabeth as they deal with a surprising unplanned pregnancy, and the angel Gabriel flitting about on one mission and then another. It all gives to us the assurance that the Star will soon be seen over Bethlehem and that Shepherds and Wise Men will soon begin their journeys. This Sunday marks entrance into exciting time. It has been worth the wait.
So, use these days to bask in the glory of the story. This story of Jesus being born among us is truly a great story, full of human struggle and divine intervention. It is a story worth reading not once, but several times. Read it again...and again. Each day read it. Read it slowly. Read it aloud to slow yourself down. Let is soak into your soul again so that the much anticipated worship an celebration of this next weekend will indeed be like gushing streams of water in a hot and dry desert.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Even though set in the midst of the story which takes us to Bethlehem, the birth of John the Baptist has its own drama. If you could ignore the content and just count the verses pertaining to John and the verses pertaining to Jesus in the first chapter of Luke, the first time reader might wonder about the main character of the story. One of the places where the John drama reaches it high point is in the 76th verse of that first chapter of Luke. Filled with the Spirit and speaking prophetically, Zechariah, the father of John, speaks of his first born, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people..." It is clear from the story that this father knew his son belonged to the Lord.
Over the years I have watched other fathers and mothers as they gave their children to the Lord. Such is the essence of what we are doing as we bring them up in a world where faith in Christ is supremely important. Sometimes those children end up taking that faith so seriously that it puts them in some kind of full time ministry as adults. I have watched more than one set of parents immersing their sons and daughters in such a life of faith within the church and wondered if they realized they were not rearing children to be like other children. Instead of becoming community power brokers, their children were more likely to become Christ's servants. Not every Mom and Dad really wants their child to wear the mantle of a servant instead of the prestige of the professional money maker in the community.
Zechariah knew his son. He knew His God. He knew the two would be inseparable and he became a partner in what God wanted to do in the life of one he so longed to have in his own life. Turning loose of those we love the most is a hard thing to do. Ask any parent. Ask the Father who watched His Son be born midst the smell of an animal's stall.
The guide to daily Advent scripture readings I am using includes not only gospel and epistle readings, but readings from the prophets and the Psalms. It has been interesting to read passages I would not normally read during the Advent season. One of those passages is Psalms 146:5-10. Listen to some of the words in this passage. "One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed..."
Like the ancient Hebrew who told of the mighty acts of God by telling the stories of how He interacted with His people, so do we. Especially during these days do we find ourselves remembering and reading and telling the story of the Bethlehem event. It is a story we have heard from the generations before us and we have already been a part of those believers who make sure it is passed on to the generations which follow us. It is a story stored in our hearts and in only a few days, we will hear it sounded once again in the air around us.
One of the reasons I look forward to the Christmas worship each year is the opportunity to read the story again. Last year I could only read it to myself. This year I once again have a people who will gather with me to hear it read one more time. I can almost hear it in the air, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus...(Luke 2:1) Almost,...almost,...but, not yet.
Monday, December 12, 2011
We sometimes forget he said it, but Jesus remembered. Not only did he remember, but He remembered it in the presence of His disciples during their last moments together before He ascended into heaven. Interesting. The words of John the Baptist from the Jordan River launch the public ministry of Jesus and shortly before He disappears into the clouds, He brings John the Baptist back on center stage one more time.
What we often forget was not only remembered by Jesus, but by each one of the gospel writers (even John). As each of them tell the story of John's ministry at the Jordan River, they remember John saying, "I baptize you with water...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Luke 3:16) One of the daily readings for the third week in Advent opens the Scripture to the first chapter of the book of Acts. In that section of the Word, we hear the about-to-ascend-into-heaven Jesus saying, "This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." (Acts 1:5)
To be honest, I was caught by surprise. I had not expected an Advent reading that would take me to the image of disciples being baptized by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, there it is. I suppose it is a reminder that if Mary could be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit for divine purposes, it should not surprise us that God would desire to do the same for us. Could it possibly be that the preparation of Advent is making our hearts a desirable place for the Spirit to be at work? Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
If John the Baptist is the one who keeps saying to us, "Get ready," it only makes sense to wonder what we should be doing. As Luke tells the story, it was a question asked when John was walking around preaching, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight." (Luke 3:4). After listening to the Baptizer there were those who started asking, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:10-14).
"What should we do?" is not a bad question. Actually, if we are serious about making our hearts ready for the Christ-event, it is a question that makes sense. When asked, John's answers seem rather surprising. Something which really smacked of being super spiritual would be the expected response; however, the Baptizer takes us in exactly the opposite direction with his mundane and common sense answers. To one who asked, John said, "Give some of what you have to those who have nothing." To another, he said, "Be sure to do what is right." And to those who had some power over others, he said, "Treat others with respect."
Wow! What should we do? Maybe reading the Bible all day is not the answer. Maybe writing a daily Advent reflection for a blog is not the answer. Maybe it does not even have anything to do with attending all those special worship services which fill the church calendar during December. Maybe it is just about doing the right thing and living in the right way with those around us. Who would have thought it?
Friday, December 9, 2011
The 9th chapter of Isaiah is remembered because it has within words that have been sung more times than anyone could ever count. We have all heard choirs singing, "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace..." Reading the words causes us to hear that magnificent chorus in our hearts. But, this particular chapter of Isaiah is about more than just music during the Christmas season. It is about hope.
The Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. The sun still rose over them each day, but the land in which they dwelled was a strange land filled with strange words and strange people. Jerusalem was home and it was far away. No one really had any expectation of seeing the land of Abraham again. In this setting Isaiah speaks for God, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them has light shined...For a child has been for us, a son given to us." (Isaiah 9:2, 6) It is the language of hope. Light has penetrated the darkness. A child has been born. Something new is beginning to happen. Look and see.
It is a message every generation longs to hear. Common to every generation of people are those experiences which seem to overcome optimism and take away hope. Those moments come in a host of different ways. We are all touched by them. We have all been ready to succumb to the darkness. Isaiah's words remind us that darkness is not permanent. Not even the deep darkness imposed upon us by our own wrong choices can stand against the light of God's grace and mercy made known to us through the Christ who was born in our midst. Thanks be to God for the hope He has planted in our hearts.
The image put forth by the Baptizer in John's gospel is one which overshadows the trivial things which most often captivate our attention in these day of December. When John speaks of Jesus as "the Lamb of God," our thoughts immediately go to a deeper place than the secular voices take us. Even before we see baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by the adoring nativity crowd, we are caused to see Him as One who has come to die. However, his death is not a normal death, but one which has life giving power for each one of us who in faith says, "Yes" to what He has done for us.
To meditate on "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," (John 1:29) brings to mind an older contemporary song and a piece of ancient liturgy. The song which just keeps going over and over in my mind is the one which says, "Behold the Lamb, Behold the Lamb, Slain from the foundations of the world, for sinners crucified, oh, holy sacrifice, Behold the Lamb of God, Behold the Lamb." It is a simple song, but it contains a world of truth. And, then, the piece of liturgy remembered comes from the ritual of Holy Communion. They are words repeated in such a way as to remind us of Simon Peter. As you read these words, allow yourself the freedom to say them aloud. "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace."
Whenever we truly allow ourselves to meditate on the image of the Lamb of God, we find ourselves in a place where confession, and adoration, and worship springs forth from our heart. It is a good place to enter into and stay during these days of Advent.
While most folks would say one Sunday of John the Baptist is more than enough, for some reasons those who created the ordered scripture lesssons for the lectionary's Advent season decided the Baptizer should show up a second Sunday. So, still he prowls around spewing his message about repentance. However, this week he causes us to become even more focused on Jesus as he speaks of Him as "the Lamb of God." (John 1:29)
It is a word of identification that carries us back to the Old Testament. As we are called to behold the Lamb of God, our minds race back to the story of the scapegoat, the one who carrried the sins of the people out of the camp. We are reminded of the lamb slain in place of Isaac. But, surely, the story which most often comes to mind is the way the blood of the slain lamb provided a means of deliverance for the Hebrew people that last night they lived as slaves in Egypt.
Even before the ministry of Jesus begins, John the Baptist is speaking a word which identifies Jesus as the One who will be another sacrifice with saving power. However, this time it will be different. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the difference as he wrote, 'but when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, 'he sat down at the right hand of God.'" (Hebrews 10:12) Another sacrifice will not be needed. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God whom we know as Jesus was all that will ever be needed. The problem of human sin has been handled once and for all. John the Baptist points us not to the fragrant smell of fresh hay in a manger, but to the smell of divine death which provides for us what we can never provide for ourselves. Life.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Shadow dwellers. Some people are shadow dwellers. They do not live in the sun, nor do they seek such a place. They are content to serve in the shadows where there is little praise. And quite often, the shade in which they stand is caused by the person standing next to them. When we think of shadow dwellers, we think of Aaron who stood in the shadow of Moses. Sometimes they are spouses such as Sarah, the wife of Abraham, or Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of course, John the Baptist was a shadow dweller. This one who identified himself as a voice crying in the wilderness said, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
The world around us is full of shadow dwellers. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of one, but most of the time they serve without being seen. Certainly, they serve without the applause and attention received by somone standing close by. Years ago while in Vidalia, I preached a revival in Wrens (about ninety minutes away). The plan was to drive back and to each day. Ike, a layperson at Vidalia said, " "I'll drive you each night so you will be fresher to preach," and he did. A shadow dweller. At Richmond Hill, John often sat out of sight on the steps leading to the chancel area and prayed for me while I was leading worship and preaching. He was another shadow dweller.
We do not always see them right away. But, then, such is the nature of serving God as a shadow dweller. One thing is certain. The ministry of those who stand in the spotlight is empowered by the shadow dwellers and always diminished when they are absent. If we look carefully, all of us are likely to see a shadow dweller standing alongside of us.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
The Old Testament lectionary lessons for these days are so powerful, so rich, so full of images. While the gospel lessons have us focused in the present moment on John the Baptist, it is Isaiah 40:3 which lets know he is not an afterthought, but a part of the plan which God was working out through the generations of history. Looking back the gospel writers saw the divine connection between what God was doing in the prophet Isaiah's day and what He was doing in their own day. Reading passages like Isaiah 11:1-10, Isaiah 40:1-11, Isaiah 43:1-21, and Isaiah 62 can only enrich our lives and provide us assurance that God is, indeed, the One who is in charge.
Seeing the connection between what was and what happened only solidifies our understanding of the way God works in the same moments in our lives. Even as John the Baptist was no afterthought, but a planned part of the divine unfolding of history, so it is true that we, too, are created for purposeful living. Sometimes we are tempted to think that the unfolding of our own personal history is surely outside of the realm of divine concern, but the texts of these Advent days give us every reason to see and hope differently.
We are not alone. He has promised to be with us. The rivers of difficulty will not overwhelm us. He will bring us through. When there is no place to go and no one cares, He is our refuge and helper. When we need a Word to carry us forward, His speaking will somehow sound through the silence. When we read the Isaiah texts and let them soak into our soul, we begin to understand the way they relate to a specific moment in history and our own as well.
Already I have noticed it. Both in the world and in the sanctuary. We are not even one week into December and the Christmas songs are filling the noisy space of department stores. And, from a smattering of received church bulletins, it seems the songs of Christmas made their way into the sanctuary this past Sunday. Songs like "Joy to the World," "Angels from the Realms of Glory," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" are already being sung. In the early days of Advent, I have always enjoyed other songs. "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" are a couple of must sing hymns during these days. "Emmanuel, Emmanuel" is another one.
John the Baptist's message can loosely be translated to be: "Get ready. Something is about to happen, but it has not happened yet." Viewed in this way, it is the message that calls us to live in a state of anticipation. In our culture of having everything now, it is hard to get folks to buy into the benefits of delay for the purpose of anticipation. One way to move in that direction is to intentionally deny ourselves the music we might want to sing, or to withhold the Christmas hymns until Christmas. When "O Come, O Come All Ye Faithful" is withheld and sung for the first time on Christmas Eve, it becomes such a powerful experience of joy that it brings tears to the eyes and such a tightness to the throat that singing is for a moment impossible.
Such a discipline of withholding can enable us to get in touch with the spirit of Advent. Make no mistake. To do so is to live with tension. But, then, maybe part of the tension comes from the fact that we are aware that something is about to happen, but it has not yet happened."
Sunday, December 4, 2011
How it all got started and who was first is a matter of speculation, but what is certain is the fact that John the Baptist was baptizing folks at the Jordan River and crowds of folks showed up. He must have been a curiosity since few people would have been drawn out there to his place in the wilderness by the message he was preaching. Mark and other gospel writers say, "John the baptizer appeared (was baptizing) in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4) What John was doing must have been of God for people are not normally attracted to someone preaching about repentance.
Repentance is no easy word. It is a word which speaks of a radical response. The meaning of repentance is not captured by wishing something had been done differently, or by merely expressing sorrow for some deed. To say,"I'm sorry," is a long way from what the Bible means as it talks about repentance. To repent involves turning completely from some act or action which is inconsistent with how Jesus taught us to live.
Our sinful actions and attitudes may be justifiable and defendable, but if they amount to something Jesus would not do were He present, then they represent something from which we are called to turn. Repentance means my unkindness is to be replaced with kindness; my judgmental spirit with mercy; my holding to a grudge with unconditional forgiveness. The work of repentance is hard work. Not everyone who gives lip service to it really wants to do it.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
I was really introduced to John the Baptist some years ago by a preacher friend named Russ Elkins. He was a part of a preaching peer group with which I also claimed membership. Once a week we would gather, one of us would preach for the others, and then we would spend some time offering some friendly, but constructive suggestions. Of all the peer groups of which I have been a part over the years of ministry, this one is remembered as one the best. Prior to Russ' sermon dealing with the early Advent text about John the Baptist, I had read about him, but never really met him.
Russ introduced him to me as the kind of guy you would not want your daughter to bring home saying, "Daddy, this is the one." Matter of fact, as Russ portrayed the Baptizer, he would not be welcome in most of our churches. Dressed in camel hair clothing and with locust on his breath, smelling him would likely happen before seeing him. Of course, that voice which loudly sounded the message about repentance would like be a prelude to sight or smell.
As the one called to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, he preached this message of repentance which at its core declared that something radical had to happen to assure readiness. In John's day, it was baptism. Jews were not baptized. They were already God's people. Only non-Jews who wished to become Jews were required to submit themselves to the water cleansing. So, when a Jew stepped into the Jordan, it represented a radical act. It makes us wonder a bit about our own preparation for the celebration of the coming of Jesus. Would it be characterized as mundane, or radical?
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Few of us who call ourselves preachers would choose to be identified as "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness." (Mark 1:3) Such may be descriptive of the preaching of John the Baptist, but we would rather he not be our model. As we read the gospel record about the Baptizer, we see him as a single solitary voice proclaiming a message no one really wants to hear. His preaching was so radical and different, there were no others who might be thought of as homilectical kinsmen.
Those of us who preach are often guilty of wanting our preaching efforts to be liked. The temptation is to choose being liked over preaching with such truth that it is painful and difficult to hear. When John preached his message of repentance that declared something wrong which needed straightening out, he was not concerned about the consequences. He even looked at the religious power brokers of his day and called them "a brood of vipers!" His preaching was offensive, or as we say in rural South Georgia, "It stepped on some toes!" It finally cost him his head.
Unlike John, we often search for another way. In our system, the church is our employer and not pleasing our employer can result in not being employed, or at the very least, working under difficult circumstances. It may be understandable why we might hear ourselves wondering how a part of a sermon might be too strong or offensive and then choosing not to preach it, but in these early days of Advent with John the Baptist prowling about, you cannot help but think about what he would say about us if we chose comfort over faithful forthrightness.