John the Baptizer doesn’t really belong here, does he?
This is the time of year for shepherds and angels;
for nervous teenage mothers, and harried innkeepers
for dreams and visions of heavenly peace, not to mention sugarplums.
But this morning, our attention is once again directed to John, holding court by the Jordan River.
“Who are you…what are you doing here?” we may well ask.
And this is the testimony given by John,
“I am not a shepherd. Nor am I an angel, a prophet, or travelling astrologer;
I am outside the usual cast of characters.”
“What is your purpose, then? What brings you into our Advent celebrations?”
We’re not trying to be rude, but we know what we like,
and we don’t like John’s strangeness.
He don’t fit our idea of Christmas well observed –
there’s nothing neat and tidy
about the way John looks – or talks – or acts.
We want the prologue that we’re used to.
“Oh, if it’s a prologue you want”, says he, “then how about this;
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
You remember, from Isaiah.”
That doesn’t really soothe our minds, does it.
Isaiah prophesied of great upheaval in the current world order.
Isaiah called to a people in exile – bereft of their God –
and described God’s coming restoration (for the faithful) and judgement (for the rest).
This is not the kind of news we want to hear at the manger.
Yet here he is – roughly dressed, no fixed address –
one of those people it would be better to ignore.
Not caring an inch that no one approves of his manners, his appearance, or his speech…
and then there’s the troubling matter of his…his humility!
He will only define himself in the negative.
He insists that he is not the big news, that another is coming –
at whose feet John will gladly grovel.
This is no herald angel – no jubilant shepherd – no humble maid.
This is a voice to be reckoned with.
But what is he doing here?
In every age, the church has attracted and produced individuals
that confound our expectations and demand our attention.
Those who proclaim the promises of God –
faithful folks who propose new ways to imagine
restoration and right relationship with God are met with both hope and suspicion.
But John (and people like John) come along every so often
to remind the rest of us what it is we’re really waiting for –
what it is that God has promised to liberate us from;
they plead the cause of justice, against governments that offer only distorted visions of justice
they cry out for real equality – perfect peace –
pillars of God’s promised kingdom whose shadows are only faintly seen
by people who have traded God for the flavour of the day
So John lands in the middle of the promised land,
among those who call themselves promise-keepers,
and tells the simple truth:
“I’m not the promised one, and this is not the promised kingdom –
something better is coming.”
As we approach the cradle of Christ –
with all our preconceptions, all our traditions,
not to mention those sugarplums dancing in our heads –
it takes John’s voice to move us out of the dream-like state that Christmas has become for us.
Recalling Isaiah, John reminds us that Christ is not simply for our December amusement.
Echoing the words of a world changing prophet,
he stands alone against the common conceptions of the day – in defiance of them –
and dares the so-called ‘people of God’ to deal with the new perspective he offers.
The church has often compared itself to that ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’,
but the truth of the matter is this.
We regularly gather in worship to hear a single voice
tell the gathered faithful something of the wonder and promise of God’s gift in Christ,
and them we go home assured that all is well with us.
The truth of the matter is,
once the church door closes behind us, we all become like John –
our personal experiences of faith – our telling of the tale of Christ and the power of God –
all separate us from the world we live in,
and we need to decide what to do with the knowledge we receive
while we are safely gathered in this place.
Our baptism is not one of silence.
Our personal profession of faith is also a promise to speak out – to continue to profess…
We can refuse the part – we can say (and we do) that we’re not prophets –
we’re not John the Baptist (he lost his head, in the end…)
but the truth is we are sent into the world alone,
thrust into the wilderness that lurks beyond these doors with an incredible tale to tell,
and in the end, that makes us all more like John the Baptist than we’d like to admit.
Our job is not to pay homage in worship –
to simply observe the forms, admire the music, endure the preaching, and then head home satisfied.
The message in the gospel will not stay silent within us.
We are, each in our own way,
driven to ‘make straight the way of the Lord…;
to unravel our part in the gospel story – the grand tapestry of God’s handiwork
and offer that as our witness to a wondering world.
Advent 3, 2011 –
I am not in the entertainment business. I do conduct regularly scheduled meetings of people bound together by similar interests. There is music involved – speaking and listening – there is even an audience participation element (see music). We follow reasonably strict schedules, I make use of electronic amplification – there is a seasonal light show. There are undeniably theatrical elements in these gatherings, and no doubt, some of our number find these meetings mildly entertaining – even enjoyable…but I am not in the entertainment business.
I lead worship. I am a minister of the Christian Gospel. I offer sacramental and pastoral support to the gathered people of God in my communities, and I am weary (and wary) of the temptation to use entertainment to attract people to our endeavours.
Entertainment is something you choose because it lifts your spirits, and helps you forget your troubles (unless you are a fan of horror movies, which do all of that with a tinge of terror – making your personal problems seem small by comparison). Worship is an encounter with the divine, and an invitation to accept the divine presence in our less than perfect reality. Worship invites compromise, asks difficult questions, asks us to think for ourselves about the stunning claim God makes on our lives through Jesus Christ, and that is not often very entertaining – it is life changing… and therin lies the problem.
We have convinced ourselves that life is fine (and getting finer). We have everything we need (in the North American/Northern European world, at least). We are occupied with entertainment and nothing else matters. The Christian Church (when it is genuinely the Church) professes otherwise, therefore the church is irrelevant. So says the large majority of my friends and neighbours. Not out loud, of course. They would never outwardly mock my career choice (not if they would be my friends..) – no, they speak by not speaking – by staying away – by declaring with their time, and talents what they think is important. That’s fine.
The church has her strengths, in addition to her many weaknesses – the gospel has its advocates and more than sufficient detractors – and still the call of God does not go unheard, or unheeded.
God’s call has convinced me that we don’t always know what is good for us. The gospel assures me that even when I get it wrong, and confuse my will with divine justice, or when we go down a path that makes worship into nothing more than a pleasant way to pass the time on a Sunday morning, there is still something grander going on than we imagine. We have been invited to life – encouraged to love – and not a life and love of our own limited invention or imagining, no, through Christ we are welcomed into the life and love of The Divine One.
Entertaining? Not at all! Interesting? Every moment.
Worth giving up an hour on a Sunday? Why don’t you come and see?
Aug 30, 2011
By revjeff (re-posted from a sermon I preached at Union Presbyterian Church, Thorburn, NS)
This week, my status as a technological dinosaur was confirmed.
While replacing my cell phone, whose contract had expired, I made the mistake of asking for “just a phone” – not a camera – not a mini computer with a full ‘texting’ keyboard not a combination GPS – web-browsing – book-reading smart phone – just a phone. The sales rep gave me a look of combined shock and sympathy.
I don’t mind being a dinosaur – it doesn’t mean I’m anti-technology; (I have a cell phone, don’t I?)
I can run a computer, and I appreciate the internet for what it is – a big distraction with occasional bits of useful information, through which I can do my banking, order books and book flights and hotel rooms and rental cars.
No, my resistance to a technological takeover is theological. I don’t believe God is anti-technology either – any more than God is anti-industrial, or anti-recreation – my theological argument boils down to one word – Incarnation.
Incarnation is a big deal as far the Christian Church is concerned- you might say it sets us apart from the crowd – for God chose to appear – in the flesh, as we understand it – in the person of Jesus, whom we call The Christ.
Having tried several other applications – burning bush, pillar of fire, thunderous heavenly voice, badly dressed desert prophets – God ultimately chose to ‘take a meeting’, and that has made all the difference for us. Incarnation is what makes the church different from the culture – especially this culture, that has come to believe that technology can make everything (including relationship) simpler and better.
Now, I have encountered people in on-line forums with whom I have had meaningful dialogue. I have reconnected with classmates, caught up on the news, discussed and debated the state of the church. But none of these things, in the end, are as satisfying as a meeting over lunch, or a conversation shared in the course of an otherwise tedious road trip.
Nothing beats seeing the look of discovery on a friend’s face when you tell them your good news; there’s no gift like an encouraging smile when you share your dreams, or confront your fears with someone you’ve come to trust.
That is the gift that the disciples receive on this day, in that locked room. The technology of their world, rough as it might seem to our advanced eyes, has been turned against them. They are no longer welcomed in the usual social circles. In the eyes of the world they are accomplices, not apostles. They are isolated and afraid, and rightly so, when Jesus comes into their midst.
Yet He would banish their fears by being with them. He will set their minds at ease by showing them his reality – letting them touch and wonder. He will do this as long as it is necessary – one week later, for Thomas, he offers the same solution.
That personal contact and gathering together – to share the good news that all is not lost – to remember the world has not conquered – becomes the hallmark of the followers of Christ – the backbone of the Christian church. The church remains different because we share this passion for personal contact. Because we insist on gathering together, sometimes in fear (though rarely with the doors locked these days) so that we might see and believe that Jesus is raised – that hope is not lost – that God is with us.
In an article in the Christian Century (discovered on-line) on the importance of Incarnation throughout the story of Jesus, Margaret Geunther writes:
“Jesus’ appearance in the midst of his frightened friends is a story of incarnation, and reminds us that God came and comes among us, experiencing and loving our humanity. We are aware of this at Christmas, when we hear that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Then the churches fill, and even nonbelievers are drawn instinctively by the powerful image of God coming among us in the perfection, loveliness and vulnerability of a baby. Yet Good Friday is about the incarnation too. Jesus on the cross is an icon of suffering, a powerful statement about the flesh and particularly about its terrible vulnerability. His Passion reminds us of our almost infinite capacity to inflict and suffer hurt. Easter comes as a real relief from the uncomfortable physicality of Good Friday…He still comes in everydayness. He still says: see my hands and my feet. Don’t avert your eyes from my wounds out of politeness or disgust. Look at them. Put your finger here. Don’t be afraid. Remember the incarnation. I came among you first in human flesh–flesh that can be hungry and fed, flesh that can be hurt, even killed. Flesh that can embody God’s love.” i
We can’t have this experience on-line. There is no application – no phone smart enough – to convey that sense of peace and assurance that we get when we gather together, to remind one another of God’s activity among us.
Gathered as a body of believers, the wounded, risen body of our Saviour is made real to us. Only then can we find the courage we need to face the world for whom he died and was raised.
iMargaret Guenther “Mediated through the flesh – John 20:19-31 – Living by the Word – Column“. Christian Century. FindArticles.com. 10 Apr, 2010. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n12_v112/ai_16847106/
Do the words of Jesus make it hard for us?
You bet they do! Love your enemies – pray for those who persecute you.
Pour love on the loveless, and mean it!
This is not the way we would live if given the choice (and we are given a choice…)
but this Sunday (Epiphany 3, year C), Jesus takes words that are not his own,
and offers us hope along with his usual challenge.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Good news, he says –
the same good news promised by the ancient prophet, recorded in Isaiah (61: 1-2 & 58:6) –
good news if you consider yourself discouraged and oppressed;
good news if have fallen out of favour with God…
but we are God’s people, aren’t we?
He has done it again – given us something to wonder about – something to hope for –
and something to fear in one eloquent moment,
from the centre of a crowd who thinks they know what he is all about.
And we are that crowd.
We think we have Jesus figured out – we think we know what Jesus would do –
and we discover what he thinks of the people we don’t understand
(and subsequently don’t like very much…)
He has made fools out of our knowledge,
and we love him for it –
The time is running short – the last-minute club is attracting new members at the mall – the frantic/panic of the days before Christmas has gripped most of the county, and I, for once, am out of it. My plans are made – my purchases safely hidden, the cards delivered and the turkey is on ice. There remains nothing but the experience of celebrating, sharing, laughing and eating with friends, neighbours and family. Being well prepared is not all it’s cracked up to be – I miss the adrenaline rush of my typical, late-December trip to my favourite down-town shops; teasing the clerks (and being teased by them) – pretending nonchalance when in truth I was completely panic-stricken (okay, I don’t miss that part so much…)
This year, I promised myself, would be different – and it was. It is. It’s Christmas, and the difference is waiting to be discovered. I pray that you discover a difference in your celebrations this Christmas too.
church without ‘Church’…
In response to those “contemporary” church experts who would warn of dwindling attention spans in this technological age, and to all who call upon gadgetry to “enhance” the worship experience, I offer you this nugget of truth. Yesterday evening, a capacity crowd was held spell-bound for two hours by words spoken and sung. A public reading of Chas. Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, with choral music of the period to set the mood took place at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow, NS. There were no props. No costumes. No special effects beyond those created by the human voice falling on two hundred pair of listening ears. The story was told – the message received. As presenters, we asked only that those who gathered might lend us their imaginations – and they did.
It might have been worship – it was, in one sense. Dickens writes passionately about real justice, goodwill and mercy – Gospel sentiments, all. All that separated us from the Holy Catholic Church last night is that we did not require any further commitment of our congregation – nothing more was expected of them. If our efforts changed the lives of any who heard the story, we will never know it. We will distribute the proceeds of the ticket sales to the appropriate charities, we will return to our regular tasks, and I, for one, will wonder for weeks if ‘the Church’ might learn a lesson from our experience.
approaching Holy Week
The tasks are piling up. The services are far from finished. Anticipation is not my favourite emotional state – not at this time of year. I’m heartily sick of waiting for the weather to break – for the roads to be passable – for the sun to shine and the garden to emerge, but wait I must. God knows patience is a virtue, and God knows my virtue is failing, but praise God this is the time of renewed virtue – this season of resurrection; proof of the remarkable resilience of, not the human spirit, but the Divine intention for the human spirit. Let the waiting be brief, but let it begin.
a protest of a technological sort…
Today marks the beginning of a new phase in my relationship with the cyber-world. Today, I quit Facebook. Sure, it starts as a useful idea – especially if you find yourself half a continent removed from classmates, neighbours and family – and I appreciated the “contact” I seemed to be making with those far-flung folks…but like any good idea, it was destined to bring out the cynic in me. The incessant advertising – applications that restricted your use until you ‘invited’ friends to join – an interface that, in the end, seemed designed to foster the ultimate in lazy habits: all updates brought right to your homepage – no need to seek out particular individuals. No need to roam facebook hoping – praying to find that someone had posted something interesting, useful and, at the same time, not too intensely personal…
I longed for the good old days – when, if you felt like talking to someone, you talked – voice to voice, if not face to face.
I longed for the days when I knew less about the habits, arguments and grammatical errors of my younger relatives and the acquaintances of my children.
and I resented the artificial need that was created in me when ever I turned on my computer – the need to discover who was on, who was posting – who was saying what to whom.
I was feeling too needy – too intrusive – and too damn well connected in an artificial way – so I quit, and in a strange way, I feel like I can breathe again. I can reveal myself to others on my own terms – I can intrude only on those whose trust I’ve earned, and I can spend my time on-line blogging and studying the blogs of others in relative obscurity…
or so I tell myself.
expressions of joy…
Made for joy – so says the newest incarnation of the Catechism of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Joy in serving; joy in worship – joy that finds expression in a million different ways – but have we, as the people of God, lost sight of this heavenly purpose?
Our days are increasingly burdened with care; driven by predictions that are to easily brought to life; societal changes on a global scale; and erosion of those things which we had become convinced (in our first-world, western feelings of primacy) were underwritten by the god of our own choosing…
you know the arguments –
God wants us to be “free” – God supports our prosperity, our democracy and, naturally, God is a capitalist, having negotiated such a marvelous transaction for the remission of sin…could the doctrine of Atonement have become an icon of capitalist perfection? well, why not, as we creep closer to making gods of ourselves through reckless consumption and the relentless pursuit of progress…
That is why the gospel message of Jesus and the reality of Christ is so disconcerting. Jesus words and actions and his living example don’t appear to condone a capitalist approach – at least, not in the way we imagine he should. Jesus does not condemn prosperity, so much as he dismisses it – “Take up your cross…” he says. “Don’t worry about tomorrow…” he says. “You know not the day nor the hour…” he says, so put away your anxiety, your forecasts and your fantasies of continual growth and improvement in all things economic. These are the attitudes that draw us into perpetual competition for things we don’t really need, at the expense of those wonderful, grace-filled gifts of God.
Accept that nothing can be known except the realities of the moment, and take such joy in knowing and living those moments that, in the midst of that joy, you might see clearly the grace of God.
That’s Kingdom living. that’s freedom in Christ. That is life abundant – offered through the work and witness of the Risen One.
In sharing – in loving – in seeking and occasionally finding. In work that is worship, and in worship made work. In life, in death, in life-beyond-death, God’s gift to us of Salvation – of Righteousness – of Life Eternal – does not come about through some unequal transaction of “blood for no blood” or “sin for no sin”. This gift is rather the logical culmination of a life lived in real joy – joy that transcends our self made grief (which is sin), joy that overcomes our self-imposed exile from the presence of God (which is sin) – joy that is revealed and made real to us in the person and work of Jesus, whom I call Christ. In Christ we meet one who is both human and divine – one for whom the transition from earthly to heavenly is as natural as breathing; one wo encourages us to release our hold on the artificial – all those things which we invent to take the place of God – and take hold of his reality; of God-with-us.