Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Visit from the Christ Child

T'was the night we call Christmas.
And an innkeeper's mirth
Was spoiled by a woman
About to give birth.

His inn wasn't much:
A few rooms, a courtyard.
The town was quite small.
Making money was hard.

But the Roman tax census
Had filled every room.
His coffers were swollen
(Like the poor woman's womb.)

He should have been happy,
His mood quite ecstatic.
Instead her condition
Had turned things dramatic.

Her husband looked tired,
The woman looked beat;
The last thing he wanted
Was to show them the street.

But his inn overflowed;
Every nook and each cranny
Was stuffed with some guy,
Or his kids or his granny.

"I've got no more room!"
But as soon as he'd spoken,
The girl said, "Well, that's tough!
My water has broken."

"I'm about to deliver.
The pain's coming faster.
If I don't lie down,
It will be a disaster!"

He couldn't say "No,"
But he couldn't say "Yes."
So the innkeeper thought
"Here's another fine mess."

It had been a long day.
The guests needed tending.
Their demands were insane.
Their requests were unending.

His family and staff
Tried to meet every need,
Be it water, or firewood,
Or some animal's feed.

The thought of the beasts
Made him think: was he able
To put up the couple
For one night in the stable?

He could lay some fresh straw.
He could make things look neat.
It was dryer and warmer
Than to sleep in the street.

It wasn't ideal,
But it wasn't that bad.
And let's face it--it was
All of the space that he had.

Giving birth in a stable
Was hard to propose.
Might not the miffed husband
Punch him right in the nose?

He hemmed and he hawed;
The suggestion was made.
They weren't wild about it;
But they weren't too dismayed.

A hole in the hillside
Was all he could proffer.
It's not like they'd get
A more elegant offer.

They knew all the facts
And they couldn't complain.
What decided them, though,
Was the next labor pain.

So a servant was sent
To clean out the stall
And move in the family,
Donkey and all.

Meanwhile, another
Was sent into town
To find a midwife
And to bring her around.

When he showed them the cave,
They weren't too appalled;
And so in a thrice,
He had them installed.

The midwife arrived
With all of her tools.
She was not one who suffered
Those folks she called fools.

As for journeying far
With a wife great with child…
Well, to call this man stupid
Was, to her, way too mild.

The scorn for her clients
That she tried to maintain
Went away when she saw
The poor girl in such pain.

That the husband was helpful,
She couldn't begrudge him.
By the end of the thing,
It was clear she'd misjudged him.

The innkeeper, too,
(she'd delivered his daughter)
Was fast with fresh straw
And lots of hot water.

When they heard the babe's cry,
And saw the man's grin,
A wave of applause
Swept around the whole inn.

The women all came
To say "ooo" and to coo
And to tell the new mother
What from now she must do.

The men sought the husband
And offered him wine.
"Sit down by our fire!
Join us as we dine!"

They made bawdy jokes
And called him a hero,
Though he said that his part
In the matter was zero.

The midwife, seeing both
Babe and mom out of danger,
For lack of a good place,
Put the kid in a manger.

The excitement now over,
The guests settled down…
Till a whole flock of shepherds
Invaded the town!

They babbled about angels
Singing songs of God's favor,
And a baby named Jesus
Who was born to be savior.

"Where is the Messiah?
Point us straight to his throne.
We've come here to offer him
All that we own!"

Chagrined, the innkeeper
Softly said with a cough,
"There's the child, lying there
In that old feeding trough."

Unfazed the poor shepherds
Approached the small stable
And each brought a gift
Of whatever he was able.

The innkeep, though clearly
Worn out from his labors,
Was touched by the shepherds,
Most of whom were his neighbors.

If they said they saw angels,
If this child's the Anointed,
Could this place of his birth
By God's will be appointed?

He looked at the stall
And the new family.
Was there much more to this
Than his tired eyes could see?

Then a line from the Torah
Came into his mind
That the image of God
Could be seen in mankind

He looked at the figure
Of the babe in the straw
For a hint of whatever
Put the shepherds in awe.

But the infant just then
Seemed to seek out his face
And the innkeeper felt
Indescribable grace.

In the depths of those eyes
He thought he could see,
A soul that was older,
And wiser than he.

He saw there great love;
Joy and humor to spare;
Justice reigned in his heart;
Mercy also ruled there.

While lost in those eyes,
All his cares he felt cease.
What later he remembered
Was a sense of deep peace.

The two souls communed.
Not a word, though, was spoken.
One pair of eyes blinked,
And the spell then was broken.

It hit him--the beasts' smell,
The gifts shepherds gave.
He deserves more, he thought,
As he walked from the cave.

David's son lay in hay.
And what bothered him most
Was the world now would say
He was a bad host.

He strode to his room
Where his brood fled to rest.
A plan came to mind
Though he knew they'd protest.

On awakening, they grumbled.
Honor though was at stake.
Lest they fail as good hosts,
There was one choice to make.

So with bows and sweet words,
And intent to save faces,
The couple was approached
By the hosts to trade places.

Thrice they offered their room,
Twice the couple declined,
Thus with etiquette observed,
Swapping places, they reclined.

Gazing out on what was
His oddest night thus far,
The innkeep's last sight
Was a very bright star.


Did the inn survive long
After that night of glory?
Did the innkeeper hear
The rest of the story?

Did he know 5 miles north
From his dear Bethlehem
Of events that transpired
All around Jerusalem?

Did he know that the lad
Who was laid in a manger
Was three decades later
In bodily danger?

In the Shepherd King's city
He the shepherds acclaimed
Was accused and abused,
By false shepherds defamed?

Did he know that poor Mary
Grieved the fruit of her womb,
Who was nailed to a cross
And then laid in a tomb?

Did he hear that the one
Who was born in a cave
Was reborn in another:
His very own grave?

That the one whose first cry
Rose from straw like some calf
Was the same who first had
On grim Death the last laugh?

Did the aged innkeeper
Who maintained that poor mews
Ever hear the tale's coda,
That which made it good news?

Did he echo the song
Of the heavenly host
When he learned he was God's
First one-star earthly host?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Houseful of Virtues

The major feasts of the church are hard to preach about. After you preached on Christmas or Easter a dozen times or so, you feel you've exhausted everything you can say about them. I did not know what to preach on until yesterday. I'm doing the marriage preparation classes for the daughter of one of our winter people and since the couple are way up in the frozen North, we decided to do it by Skype. Skype had other ideas so we did it by cell and speaker phone, using materials I emailed to them. And while I was discussing the Biblical basis for marriage, it hit me. They were preparing for marriage, one of the biggest undertakings in the lives of most people. At the same time, it is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. And back in the waning days of King Herod's reign, a young couple was waiting for the birth of Jesus. And it wasn't just a big thing because they were going to be parents, it was also going to be rough because the bride got pregnant out of wedlock.

We tend to think of the Nativity as a Hallmark movie--heartwarming with a guaranteed happy ending. But actually, at the time, it looked like it was going to be a train wreck. Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In their society, betrothal was almost as binding as marriage. Still the couple was not to have sex. And if the groom found out that his fiancée was not a virgin, by the law of Moses, she could be hauled out of town and stoned. So when the angel announces to Mary that she is going to conceive and have a son, she had little reason to be joyful and every reason to be fearful. This might not just end her wedding; it could end her life!

Small wonder Gabriel has to tell Mary not to be afraid. This is scary news! As if taking the risky step of getting pregnant before the official wedding were not enough, the angel says that Mary is going to bear God's Son. Raise the divine Savior of the world? No pressure there! Taken altogether, it's enough to make the sensible response to this offer a big fat "No, thanks!" Why does Mary say "Yes?"

We really don't know. We can surmise that Mary is a devout Jew. But a lot of people who are happy to pray to God would get freaked out if he asked them to do something as big and risky as this. So on top of being pious, she is courageous. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, courage is the key virtue. You have to have courage to carry out any of the other virtues. An otherwise moral person lacking courage cannot be counted on to take a stand when it counts. You may be against discrimination but without courage will you confront those practice it? You may be for peace but without courage will make your stand against those who make war? You may be for mercy but without courage will you make your voice heard against a merciless system that society supports? Without courage your morality is just good intentions.

Mary, like all Jews, was hoping for the Messiah, God's Anointed One, to come and liberate her people. To be told by the angel Gabriel that God chose you to bear the Messiah had to be thrilling. But why couldn't God wait until their wedding? Why threaten her marriage and her life like this? Mary had to be wondering. Gabriel doesn't tell her why it had to be now. Her choice is to take it or leave it. Mary screws up her courage and trusts in God. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word." And when Gabriel left, Mary must have let out a long, trembling breath. What now?

Has the angel also visited Joseph, her fiancé, she wonders? Does he know about God's plan? Joseph has a reputation as a righteous man. That means he's very scrupulous in the observance of his Judaism. Having a pregnant betrothed will mess that up. They will either think Joseph jumped the gun or that Mary is damaged goods. He will not be respected in the village and local synagogue. In an honor/shame culture that's a lot to bear. Joseph could denounce Mary and let her be stoned to death. But he doesn't want to. That means that, even if the marriage was arranged, as virtually all of them were then, Joseph cares about Mary. He may even love her. Instead he is thinking about divorcing her quietly. In a small village like Nazareth, that will probably mean she must be sent away so that her secret doesn't come out. Better than death for her, but still it means she will leave her family and live as a fallen woman, unless she pretends to be a widow. Widows with children were the poorest and most powerless members of Jewish society. So Mary is embracing a choice that will probably end in death by stoning or disgrace and poverty. She is truly a courageous woman. No wonder God chose her.

Joseph, we may deduce, is a decent guy. He could have vented his rage and disappointment on his pregnant fiancée by having her honor and her life torn from her. He chooses not to. He's merciful. Still, if Mary told him she was bearing God's child by the agency of the Holy Spirit, he obviously isn't buying it. He's probably feeling a mixture of anger, jealousy and sadness. He falls into a troubled sleep and has a dream. An angel tells him the truth. He awakens and chooses to be thought of by the community as a horny guy who couldn't wait. And that takes courage, too. He's going to raise a son whose origins the whole village will gossip about. He will never be considered quite the upright man he used to be. But he is willing to live with that.

Both Mary and Joseph are just ordinary people who, when asked to do extraordinary things by God, find the courage and faith to do so. And I think we may deduce some other virtues they possess.

They must have had hope. They are poor people living in an occupied country. Their foreseeable future is a hard and possibly short life together. Living to 50 is considered achieving a ripe old age. Joseph is a builder, then as now a dangerous profession. Mary could die of disease anytime she delivers a baby. The taxes they pay, levied by the Romans, collected by corrupt collaborators, are exorbitant. Yet they dare to hope that God will act through them, that they will rear the Messiah. Granted, the appearance of an angel is dramatic, yet afterward, they must have asked themselves if it were real or a fever dream, an hallucination. Because faced with the hard facts it must have been tough to cling to the words of an otherworldly being. But they had hope, the future tense of faith. They believed God's promise of salvation and a better world. When obstacles came up, they must have encouraged each other with "Remember what the angel said?" and grasped each other's hand and stepped towards a future the world told them was just a fantasy.

They must have had love. Had either of them embarked on this task out of nothing but duty, they would have grown to resent each other. Yet Luke tells us they were still together 12 years later, going to Jerusalem with Jesus in tow. The gospels tell us they had other kids, Jesus' brothers and sisters. True, it could have been one of those loveless marriage but if it were, where did Jesus learn of human love?

Jesus doesn't come across as someone scarred or disillusioned by growing up in a passionless or dysfunctional home. He isn't rigidly righteous or recklessly rebellious or anxious to please, the usual traits of kids raised in a fractious household or by emotionally distant parents. He's tough when it's appropriate, forgiving when it's needed, tender with the fragile, courageous when faced with injustice and cruelty. Jesus is the best adjusted person in the Bible.

And some of that has to be due to the environment he grew up in, to the parents God chose for him: Mary, the fiercely courageous girl, ready to face disgrace or worse to fulfill God's plan; Joseph, decent, merciful, self-disciplined, thick-skinned in the face of public opinion. Even when Mary was expected to deliver and Joseph has to go to Bethlehem to register some old family plot of land the Romans wanted to tax, they don't split up. He doesn't leave her with her folks while he takes care of business; she doesn't insist on staying home where she knows she'll be attended to by family and friends. If he's going to traipse 80 miles south, she was going with him. Whenever and wherever the baby came, they would be together.

I'm not saying the trip was a pleasant one. I'll bet poor Mary felt every bump of that road transferred to her sore bottom by way of the donkey's spine. I'll bet Joseph felt even more helpless and useless than most expectant fathers when Mary went into labor in a cattle stall. But they got through it. And after that it was just a matter of raising Jesus to be a good Jew and a good man. And they did it. They lived and loved together till death parted them. And the world, through Jesus, was the richer for this humble hardworking couple who said "Yes" to God and meant it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Awesome or Awful?

One of the most anticipated films of the new year is the Hollywood remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I've seen the original Swedish version and it is a terrific mystery/thriller. But as good as the plot is, what really sticks in your mind is the central female character. Lisbeth Salander is a researcher and computer hacker who is as emotionally shut down as she is brilliant. We find out that Lisbeth has been abused by the authority figures in her life. Far from making her passive, Lisbeth is a formidable foe to her enemies. Still, she is no superhero and she takes quite a beating in the trilogy of stories. But in each movie there is at least one scene that features what the website TV Tropes calls a Crowning Moment of Awesome. You know what I mean. It's the point where all hope seems lost, all avenues of escape are closed, and someone you care for is about to die when suddenly a character does something so mind-blowingly and brilliantly heroic that you want to jump up from your seat and scream, "Yeah!" It can even stir you if the action is violent (which it is) and you are a pacifist.

There is a reason for this. The books' late author, Stieg Larsson, was haunted by the gang-rape of a girl he witnessed when he was 15. He was ashamed of the fact that he did not try to stop it and became a crusading journalist and an ardent feminist. One can see in Lisbeth a heroine who stands up to men who hate women.

You'll notice that during Advent that not only are we looking back to Jesus' birth but also forward to his second coming. And while he originally came into this world incognito, as it were, and offered humanity forgiveness, reconciliation to God and entrance into his Kingdom, the second time will be different. At that point, the offer will have expired and everyone who didn't take advantage during the enrollment period is out of luck. This time Jesus is coming as the rightful Lord of all the earth. All evil will cease and all those who are unrepentant will be judged and punished. No more Mister Nice God.

And that bothers some modern Christians. If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the embodiment of God's love, how do we reconcile that with the picture of him in the apocalyptic passages of the gospels and in Book of Revelation: the conquering King who passes final judgment on his enemies?

It didn't bother the people of the Bible. They longed for real justice. There were no appeals in their legal system. If a dispute was within a family, the patriarchal head of that family had absolute authority to decide such matters. Obviously familial favoritism could creep in. If more than one family was involved, the matter was decided by the village elders. If there was a disparity in the relative power of the families in conflict, the decisions were made on the basis of political considerations, of what was best for the peace of the village, not what was just for the individual. For complex cases or matters involving disputes between tribes, judges could be engaged--at the expense of the parties involved. And as money entered into the process, so did real corruption. Jesus used an unjust judge as a character in one of his parables and nobody objected. And one can see why. In line with the other cultures of the Middle East, there wasn't always a separation between the roles of judge and prosecutor. So if your judge was not impartial, if he were bribed by your opponent or accuser, you could be in big trouble. Again and again through his prophets, God decried a system where the winner in a legal action was not always the one who was righteous, but the one who was richest.

In rare instances, very thorny cases might be put before the king. In the First Book of Kings, Solomon decides a case in which 2 prostitutes are fighting over whose baby died and who had rights to the surviving baby. Solomon's psychologically insightful judgment cemented his reputation for wisdom. But the king was only human and he, too, had prejudices and political and personal reasons that could interfere with the impartial administration of justice. What happens if you can't get justice from the highest human authority? The only person who can make things right is God.

So God's promise that he would one day settle all human affairs with a final judgment was received with hope by the powerless. The prophets called it the Day of the Lord. It was the day when all injustices would be redressed, all the righteous would be vindicated and all the evildoers would be punished. It was awesome and if you were hadn't broken God's law, you had nothing to worry about.

But as any attentive child knows, observing the technicalities of the law is not the same as true justice. Smart evildoers have always figured out ways to game the system. They work out ways to keep to the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And then as now, you could find lawyers only too willing to help with whatever semantic slight of hand, far-fetched interpretation, or exploitable vagueness is required.

Jesus singled out one as an example. If a person had money or property that was supposed to go to the support of his parents, he could declare it "Korban" or a gift dedicated to God, and he was relieved of his obligation to his aging folks. Even if he regretted it later, the Pharisees said such a vow was binding. It outraged Jesus that they would use one's duty to God as an excuse to neglect one's duty to people. This was something the Pharisees did in their use of the Sabbath commandment to try and stop Jesus from healing the sick. And individuals and groups still pervert the laws of God and the laws of man to harm others. But God is not fooled by sophistry nor bound by technicalities. As he told Samuel, he doesn't judge by externals; God looks into people's hearts. And it is in the heart, Jesus reminds us, that evil is conceived.

Of course that ups the stakes for all of us. If God judges us on our true intentions, if to him all hearts are open, all desires known, if none of our secrets are hid from him, as we say every Sunday, who can truly plead innocence? Who hasn't been so angry at someone that you wished them ill? Who hasn't gloated over the misfortune of someone you don't like? Who hasn't envied someone else's life or coveted their stuff? Who hasn't desired someone you're not married to? Who hasn't found rationalizations for not helping someone or for not doing what you know you ought to? Who hasn't, in lieu of a lie, at least refrained from correcting a misunderstanding that serves the same purpose? And this is on top of the harmful words and acts of selfishness or aggression we actually commit.

We can't very well plead that an exception be made in our case. That's the same favoritism that screws up human attempts at justice. If all wrongs must be made right, we ourselves must submit to God's justice. And that realization is what turns the Day of the Lord from a promise into a threat, from a dream into a nightmare.

So is that the choice: no real justice ever or absolute justice that leaves us all condemned? It would be, except for one thing--God's forgiveness. If we confess our sins and repent, he will forgive us. But isn't that a violation of strict justice? Isn't that a trick for getting out of paying for our sins?

It would be if what was most important to God was adherence to specific rules. The problem is that if rules are all that count, it doesn't matter if those rules were arbitrary, like the rules of a game. In a game all that matters is that you follow the rules. Your motive for playing, be it sportsmanship or anger or arrogance or greed, is irrelevant. The kind of person you are is irrelevant. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He was also surly, combative, racist and a difficult father. O.J. Simpson is both a Hall of Famer and a felon. What matters in games is how you play them.

God's laws are not the rules of a game and the purpose is not scoring points. God is not interested in us simply becoming good at following rules but in our becoming good people. God is interested in us being the type of people who don't have to think about the rules because the behavior they prescribe has become natural to us. God's rules are like the rules of good health. We ought to just naturally eat the right foods in reasonable quantities, get enough sun and exercise and do most things in moderation. But we don't. We eat bad foods and we eat too much of them. We sit around too much and overdo some things while neglecting others. To get better we must be honest with our doctor, let him work on us, change our lifestyle and follow doctor's orders until we get better. God's rules are the rules for living a healthy moral and spiritual life. To get better we must be honest with him, let God work on us, change our lifestyle and follow his orders till we get better. Maintaining health in both cases entails making the rules just part of who we are.

God's justice isn't about restoring rules but restoring people. It's about healing our injuries, not evening things up by giving those who harmed us corresponding injuries. If someone kills a loved one, all human justice can do is punish the perpetrator. It can kill a murderer but it can't undo our loss by bringing back the dead. But all things are possible with God. He can and will restore what and whom we have lost. He can even heal the perpetrator, provided that person repents and wants to be healed. God's plan is to bring the earth and its inhabitants back to what he intended it and us to be.

Does that mean all people will be saved? The Bible never promises that. For one thing, it would require God to override the will of the unrepentant. He is the God of love and love must be voluntary. If a man offered his love to a woman and the woman refused, we would not consider it loving for him to perform psychological reconditioning or brain surgery on her until she did reciprocate his "love." That would be worse than rape.

God will allow those who refuse his love to do so. Jesus used 2 images of the consequences of rejecting God. The one everyone thinks of is a fiery hell. This is obviously a metaphor. The word he used for hell is Gehenna, literally the valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem's garbage dump. The city's refuse burned there night and day, which made it a vivid picture of the burning shame of those who refused God's healing and forgiveness and find themselves irreparably broken and outside the city of God.

Which brings us to the other image Jesus used: exile. Jesus' favorite picture of the Kingdom of God was a wedding banquet, the biggest, most joyful event in the life of a village. Everybody came and the celebration lasted for a week. No one wanted to be left out. But in Jesus' parable that is what happens to those who weren't ready, like the foolish virgins or the man improperly dressed. Weddings weren't secrets. Everyone knew they were being held and had plenty of time to be ready. In the honor/shame societies of the Middle East, it would be an insult not to come or not to enter into the spirit of the festivities. It would be like a guest at a reception loudly insulting the bride and groom. Even today he would be asked to leave. And in that culture, it would be a deep shame as well as emotionally devastating to be excluded, to be an outcast, to be separated from your family and community.

The result of rejecting God is to find yourself outside his people and his Kingdom. God will not force anyone in. Again, without an inward change, no person would be able to enjoy or even stand being part of his Kingdom. But since God is the source of all goodness and joy, these voluntary exiles from his Kingdom won't find any of that outside his presence either.

Because of humanity's selfishness and sinfulness, we will never know full justice in this life. That will only come about when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ returns to put everything right. Which would be terrifying for all of us except for his mercy and forgiveness. If we let his Spirit work on us now and follow his orders for our moral and spiritual health, we will have nothing to fear. All the consequences of our sins have been taken on by Jesus.

In films, the hero's Crowning Moment of Awesome is almost always him delivering a deathblow to the bad guys and their schemes. It may also be him coming to the rescue of someone else. It is rarely the hero saving the bad guys. But that is precisely what Jesus' triumph is to be. It is not their deaths but their rebirth he is seeking. It is not their final corruption but their ultimate redemption he desires. It is not their condemnation but their commendation as good and faithful servants he wants to pronounce.

There are 2 ways to get rid of the bad guys. One is to kill them all. That's how they do it in our films. The other is to make them into good guys. That's the method Jesus prefers. When he comes back, he wants his enemies to be his allies. And he wants us to pass the word and model the change in our lives. People will respond to this awesome news…if we only do it justice.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

That Crazy Dude in the Desert

Today was the 25th anniversary--to the day--of the dedication of our church sanctuary. This year is also the 30th anniversary of our parish and the 10th of my leading it. Our Bishop came to our service and he preached instead of me. So here's a sermon from a few years ago that's still quite appropriate.

2007 was not a good fall for Hollywood. Sure they made a lot of their money in the summer with big blockbusters about superheroes or soldiers or androids or cops fighting aliens or supervillains or robots or serial killers or anything else that can be killed without conscience. But in the fall, Hollywood releases its serious films, the ones for adults to discuss, the ones to be considered for Oscars. And that fall, no one was going to see the many critically acclaimed films that had come out about the war in Iraq; instead audiences preferred a Disney film about another animated princess who was exiled by an evil sorceress to a place where there are no happy endings: New York City. As Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, creator of “The Princess Bride” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,“ observed, in Hollywood "nobody knows anything." But you and I know why “Enchanted” trounced the other movies, and it’s not just that it’s well-made, funny and heartwarming. The majority of Americans were tired of hearing about the war. Unlike, say, the Vietnam War, there was no longer much debate about whether the Iraq War was started for the right reasons or carried out in the right way or would result in a win-win situation. So these films were not seen so much as exposes as rehashes of issues explored ad nauseam on the news. When reality is bad, people want good news. So in Advent, as we await the coming of Jesus, the ultimate in good news, who invited John the Baptist, that ranting nut in camel hair, that bug eater, that crazy dude in the desert, to the party?

“You brood of vipers" is hardly a friendly greeting. Nor is talk of throwing the chaff of mankind into unquenchable fire generally considered polite conversation. John the Baptist is not a diplomat. And he would pay for that, when he tells the king that he has violated God’s law and is guilty of incest. And yet people flock to John and listen to his scorching invective. Are they all masochists?

You see, things were bad. Israel was a small country, occupied, oppressed and taxed by the pagan Romans. Not only were the political and economic conditions bad for the Jews but their nation had lost its way religiously and ethically as well. The Sadducees, the priestly class, had come to an accommodation with their gentile rulers so that they might have a free hand in wielding religious authority over the people. The Pharisees were trying to make the rules of the Torah relevant to contemporary life but instead they seemed to be making the simplest tasks harder. And their hypocrisy was evident. They did what most powerful people do: not so much break the rules as change the rules to favor them and their practices. Everyone knew this. But unlike today, there wasn't a lot of public talk about these issues. There was nothing like the first amendment, the news media, or the internet then. Neither the Roman nor the Judean authorities were tolerant of criticism. So it was a relief for the people to to hear someone tell it like it is. John was giving voice to what everyone thought. John was speaking like a prophet of old. As is more obvious in Luke’s account, John draws the same connection between idolatry and social injustice that the prophets did. The way the people see God can be inferred from the way they treat those created in his image.

The extent to which the Jews agreed with John can be seen in their response to his call to be baptized. This was something usually reserved for gentile converts to Judaism. It symbolized an end to one's past life and rebirth to a new life in God. John is saying, “You must start over as God’s people” and the Jews of his day were saying, “You’re absolutely right.”

Far from John’s message being perceived as a downer, Luke tells us John preached the Good News. How can what he said be called that? John certainly couldn't be mistaken for one of today's popular preachers who tells you God wants you to be rich. Nor did he say, “God loves you just the way you are. Don’t change a thing.” The Jews weren't foolish enough to fall for that. They knew society was sick. John’s news was good precisely because he wasn't saying: “This is just the way things are. Get used to it. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Only when you look at reality that way is it bad news. When you resign yourself to the way things are, when you say you can't change things, when you say you can't change yourself, when you say you can't win, when you say you might as well curse God and die, then it's the worst of news. But John was saying, “Here's what's wrong. Here's what needs to be done. And with God’s help, you can fix it.”

The specific way John says this is “repent.” Contrary to popular belief, the word doesn't mean “cry big tears, feel sad, beat yourself up.” It means, “rethink, reconsider.” The first step in making any change is to recognize that what you're currently doing isn't working. You need to rethink your approach. When it comes to your own contribution to what's wrong with the world or with your life, you need to change your heart and your mind. That can be painful, but you have to look at the negatives before you can effectively change them. As the CEO of, Greg Helmstetter, says, “If you don't identify the issues preventing you from reaching your goal, you won't be able to overcome them.”

Of course, after identifying the problem, you need to do something about it, or, as John puts it, produce fruit befitting repentance. In an article for AARP magazine, Helmstetter gave some advice for an exercise program that can be used for any situation that requires change: List all the reasons you can't do what you ought to do. Then each day tackle a different obstacle. Keep it at it until you have overcome every one. That's pretty good description of repentance in action.

The rest of John’s message is the reason to repent: “For the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God. Matthew, evidently writing for a community of Jewish converts, uses a euphemism for God, just like modern Orthodox Jews write “G_d” rather than “God.” However they referred to it, John’s audience was looking forward to the Kingdom of God. That would be the answer to everything: justice, well-being, harmony between people, harmony with God. This Kingdom would be ushered in by the Messiah, God’s anointed prophet, priest and king.

Of course, people immediately thought that John was the Messiah. But that wasn't his role. He was the King’s herald, preparing the way. He had to start by putting people onto the right track. So while the popular picture of the Messiah was a warrior sent to defeat the Romans and reestablish an independent Israel, John emphasizes the universal moral aspect of the Messiah. Before the Son of God, being a descendant of Abraham counts for nothing. Being a king counts for nothing before the King of Kings. The Messiah will not be swayed by the externals or incidentals that impress humans. As God’s agent, he will look upon the heart and judge with equity. And that’s scary.

If we're honest with ourselves, we realize that nobody undergoing the judgment of a just God would come out of it well. Who would really like to be judged completely objectively? Who would like to have their life held up to the standards of the 10 commandments? Or to the 2 great commandments: to love God with all you are and to love your neighbor as yourself? Or to be judged by what you should have done but didn't? Are you one of the trees that bears fruit or one of the barren trees fit only to be cut down and burned? Are you the wheat to be saved or the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire? Sound a bit Old Testament? John is often considered the last of the Old Testament prophets. Which should remind us of the fact that the New Testament, the new covenant, begins with Jesus.

Not even John was completely ready for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be. From his prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is really the one everybody was waiting for. As evidence, Jesus sends back word of his healings and his preaching of the Good News. Sitting in prison, awaiting death for simply preaching God’s Word, John had forgotten something about God. And though he called Jesus the Lamb of God, he didn't really plumb the depths of what that meant. What was missing from John's understanding of God’s plan is the same part that Jesus’ disciples didn't get at first: that the God of justice is also a God of mercy and that, out of his great love for humanity, he would take upon himself the consequences of our sins. This is the fundamental difference between Jesus Christ and all other conceptions of God--his self-sacrificial love for us. Most speak of God’s peace. Many pick up on God's justice. Some may talk of God being merciful. No other religion proclaims that God loves us enough to become a real human being and die in our place. No other religion would dare take an instrument of death and make it a symbol of hope. No one else can conceive of God being that big, that selfless, that forgiving, that loving.

John's role was to remind us of the problem that the Messiah was coming to fix--our sinful hearts. They turn life into hell and merit a similar punishment for the perpetrators. The solution is to repent, to rethink and redirect our lives. This is essential if you want to live in God’s Kingdom. But who will show us the way to live under God's royal rule? And who will pay the price of transforming rebels into God's citizens? That is beyond mere man. So exit John and enter Jesus. But if anyone thought the babe of Bethlehem would be less trouble than that crazy dude in the desert, they are in for a big surprise.