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.

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