Lost and Listening

       Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it.  We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there.  It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest.  Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate.  They were not good times.  We proceeded to get epically lost.  After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road.  Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.

       Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me.  The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship.  We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes.  It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.

       God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us.  That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA.  I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning.  He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel.  It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land.  Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest.  It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.

       Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.”  The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be.  That’s why we have them.  They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand.  That was the system in place in 28 CE.  The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness.  The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding.  Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home.[1]  He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God.  After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.

       The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people.  Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches will be made smooth.  No matter where you live.  No matter your socio-economic status.  No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair.  There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God.  That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world.  Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control.  The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required.  This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple.  It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.

       This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week.  Not because Christ Church is the least.  We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community.  Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness.  Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us.  Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today.  Many were isolated from the vocations that we love.  For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers.  For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling.  Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.

       What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness?  What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity?  What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference?  Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day.  In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God.  What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow?  If only we would have ears to listen.  Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you?  Listen.  Amen.


[1] Luke 1:80

Make the Reason Love

       Can I admit something to you?  Just between us?  I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good.  In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real.  This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.

       You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles.  When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly.  The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms.  All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.

       Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom.  Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE.  After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II.  Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great.  Confused yet?  I know I am.

       Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”[1]  As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly.  Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested.  Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words.  Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday.  The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.”  Salome ran to her mother with excitement.  “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.”  Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter.  Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.

       I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.”  There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story.  John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence.  This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021.  Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John.[2]  No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace.  Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.

       As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day.  It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?”  Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”[3]

       I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God.  Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real.  As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them.  The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate.  We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer.  If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.


[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed

[3] ibid.

The Beginning of the Good News

The beginning of the good news is upon us.  Most years, I hear this opening line to Mark’s Gospel without much fanfare.  Usually, there is good news all around, all the time, especially as the calendar turns to December and the secular Christmas season of peace and goodwill shifts into high gear.  In 2020, however, good news has been few and far between.  Since March, there have been glimpses of good news, here and there, but mostly our attention has been focused on the daily reports of the number of people infected or killed by this novel Coronavirus, the ongoing reality of racism in our nation, and political discord at every level of governance.  On Wednesday morning, however, we got the beginning of the good news.  The first Coronavirus vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, and it should be available here in the United States in just a few short weeks.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, and for the first time since March, it might not be an oncoming train.

2020 has been a year spent in the wilderness, and with news of a vaccine on the horizon, it would be tempting to quickly run toward normalcy.  The wilderness is often associated with desolation and despair, but our Gospel lesson for this morning teaches us that the good news of God’s steadfast love begins not in the marble halls of power or the comfortable seats of money and privilege, but in the discomfort of the wilderness, on the margins, and among the vulnerable.  So, even with the beginning of the good news upon us, the author of Mark, the prophet Isaiah,  and John the Baptist all would admonish us to stick it out and to see where God is at work, even here in the wilderness.

The Gospel of Mark begins with two different wilderness scenes.  First, we find ourselves in the wilderness of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah’s story takes place before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrew people, a definite top-3 most wildernessy experience in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Stripped of their land, God’s Holy Temple, and, in many ways, their identity, for seventy years, the Jewish people in Babylon felt lost and totally separated from their God.  The opening verses of Psalm 137 tell the sad story of Jewish exiles weeping as they hung their harps in the willow trees that lined the Euphrates River, unable to imagine how they could worship their God or sing with joy in their wilderness experience.  Mark opens his Gospel by borrowing a quote from the Isaiah 40 lesson that Bill Collins just read for us.  It is the transition moment in Isaiah as the story moves from judgment and destruction to the promise of hope and restoration.  It is the beginning of the good news that God will restore Jerusalem, but even more, it is the assurance that God had never really left them all alone.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Babylon, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Mark then fast-forwards some five hundred years to the wilderness near the Jordan River where a new prophet had arrived.  The people of Israel were once again under the thumb of an oppressive foreign power.  Rome had first conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE and had ruled over Judea since about 37 BCE.  Although Herod the Great oversaw the rebuilding of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were taxed heavily in response.  The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation, worshipped their own pagan gods, and took significant money out of the Temple system.  The Jewish people still resided in Judea, but it was no longer theirs.  God once again felt far away, and try as the Pharisees might to restore Israel through holiness of life, the people of God were once again deep in the metaphorical wilderness when John the Baptist began to preach repentance in the literal wilderness.

John the Baptist was the beginning of the good news of God’s next move in restoring Israel, and indeed, all of creation.  John was the one appointed to prophesy of God’s comfort, to make straight the path, and to prepare the way for God’s anointed one.  Yet again, God’s word of hope came not in the mighty Temple or in the Roman capital city or from the mouth of a mighty warrior, but from the midst of the wilderness and from a man on the margins of society.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Roman occupation, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Traditionally, the wilderness is thought to be a forsaken place, a setting unsuitable for human beings, a scene to be moved through as quickly as possible.  The last nine months have reiterated that reality for many of us.  As the COVID-19 pandemic has lingered, I’m guessing all of us have, at one point or another, just wished we could snap our fingers and be on the other side.  From the prologue to Mark’s Gospel, however, we learn that the wilderness can be holy ground, the place where God comes to redeem creation, or at least, the beginning of the good news.  The wilderness is a place of struggle, no doubt, but it is also a place of hope, renewal, and promise.  Rather than closing our eyes and running through it as quickly as possible, the opening to Mark’s Gospel invites us to slow down and look for what God is up to in the wilderness.  The beginning of the good news is that God is always present – in the wilderness, in the waiting, even in pandemic.  As we experience the beginning of the good news of a vaccine, through Mark and the prophets Isaiah and John, God invites us to seek out hope and restoration amidst the struggle.

Perhaps it is perfect, then, that the beginning of the good news of the end of this pandemic comes to us in the Season of Advent.  Advent is, at its best, a deliberate time in the wilderness.  While the world has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the Church invites us to approach the mystery of Christ’s birth slowly and with intention.  Advent, like the wilderness, can be a place of God’s revelation when we are present to it.  As we slowly move out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ, be careful not to rush toward the finish line.  Take your time in the wilderness, look around, and ask God for glimpses of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world.  Jesus may not yet have been born in a stable in Bethlehem, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present, especially in the wilderness.  Amen.

More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

Testify to the Light

Long before I took any sort of flying lessons, I spent many hours in the right seat of my father-in-law’s single engine airplane.  Around the hangar, I learned that one of the pithy sayings in the flying community is that “every take-off is optional, but every landing is mandatory.”  The primary goal of a pilot is to bring the aircraft to a safe landing at its destination.  This requires all sorts of training as well as reliance upon many safety mechanisms both inside and out of the cockpit.  Travelling down Scottsville Road near Rafferty’s on a gloomy evening or foggy morning, you might notice a light occasionally streaking across the sky from south to north.  This light, which shines brightly out into the night sky is the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport Beacon.  One of the first things a student pilot is trained to look for in lowlight conditions is this beacon.  No matter where you might be above the earth, you should be able to see at least one white and green light calling you home.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, which can help a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules locate an airport and begin the approach process.  These beacons can be particularly helpful in an emergency, when finding an airport quickly can mean the difference between life and death, but on a less dramatic level, the reality is that if you can’t see the beacon at an airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

1

One of my jobs as co-pilot for my father-in-law was to find the beacon.  While he was busy getting the plane ready to land, communicating with air traffic control, and going through his check-lists, my eyes were fixed in the general vicinity of the airport, looking for that familiar light to flash across the windshield.  “Got it,” was my usual response when the airport beacon was in sight.  These two words were enough for Doug to know that the mandatory landing ahead of us would be as standard as a visual landing can be.  As the co-pilot, I am the one responsible to testify to the light.

John the Gospel writer is very careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist was not the light, but one who had been sent as a witness, to testify to the light that was coming into the world.  Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John the Baptist would die a martyr’s death because he lived a martyr’s life, as a witness to the light of Christ and testifying to anyone who would listen about the light that darkness could never overcome.  To stretch the flying metaphor a bit, John the Baptist was given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ long before the rest of the world could see it.  He was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light; calling everyone back to their home field.  John’s role was to invite everyone within earshot to open their eyes and see the light shining in the darkness.

This morning, as we gather on the First Sunday after Christmas Day and hear the familiar, yet lofty words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, we are also welcoming two new members into the Body of Christ.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit that Maya and Alex will receive today, they will join with us as inheritors of the primary vocation of John the Baptist and every disciple in every generation as witnesses of the light.  In just a couple of minutes, we will all make a pledge to support these two young people in their life in Christ by living our lives as examples of what it means to testify to the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to notice that the world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but filled with the light of Christ, Christians of all ages are called to shine in the darkness,  With God’s help, we are called to show Alex and Maya what it looks like to share the Good News of Jesus, and to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.

A little more than two years ago, when we baptized Jocelyn, Maya and Alex’s big sister, I asked you to consider how you might live into the commitment you made.  “As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?”[1]  Today, I wonder how those same practices of discipleship are helping you shine the light of Christ in a world filled with darkness?  How is God inviting you to testify to the light?  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry Christ’s light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  No matter how dark it might seem, the beacon of Christ’s hope is always shining, always visible, and always calling us home.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/giving-our-lives-to-god-a-sermon/

A Brood of Vipers

I say this often, but I’m constantly amazed at how Biblical texts that are so familiar can be seen in new and different ways.  I mean, we hear the story of JBap at least three Sundays out of the year – that’s nearly 6% of all Sundays – and yet, this morning, as I read, once again, Matthew’s telling of the John the Baptist story, I realized something new.

Because it is so familiar, it is easy to read this story quickly and to let your mind fill in the blanks.  In my head, this is the story of all of Judea and Jerusalem coming to hear John preach and to be baptized by him for the forgiveness of their sins.  Maybe I’m conflating the story from Matthew 11, when Jesus asks the disciples of JBap what they were looking for when they decided to follow John, but I’ve always heard John’s strong rebuke, “You brood of vipers” as being directed at everyone who came out to the Jordan to see him.  I’ve read this to be John’s call to repentance for all who came, but especially toward those who came for the circus; to see John’s wild clothes and to do what everybody else was doing.

In reality, the rebuke isn’t directed at the crowd generally, but specifically at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came from Jerusalem.  Now, this can get dicey if one reads this text with the lens of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, but even there, we miss the point.  It isn’t John decrying the Jewish establishment, as if the Christian version of institutional religion is somehow more pure, but rather, John’s words are directed at real people, specific people, who have corollaries in contemporary society.  John pointedly and directly called the religious leaders of his day “a brood of vipers.”  He accused them of making following God’s commandments comfortable for themselves, but rigorous for their adherents.  He dared to suggest that their way of leading God’s people wasn’t producing real fruit.

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As a minister of the Gospel, it’d be easy for me to brush this harsh critique of religious leadership as directed toward folks like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, but when Matthew says that many Pharisees and Sadducees came to see JBap, he undermines my ability to make this a niche market rebuke.  Rather, it seems that John’s words were directed at all who would dare take on the mantel of religious leadership in a community.  Dare I say, these words are directed toward me; toward you, dear reader; and toward anyone, lay or ordained, or steps out in faith to lead the people of God toward a deeper relationship with God.

Our titles and degrees will not save us and our ministries.  Rather, those who dare to lead will be judged based on the kind of fruit their leadership produces.  Rather than seducing people in with easy, cultural, moral therapeutic Christianity, John’s rebuke invites Christian leaders to do the hard work of naming sin for what it is, calling people to repentance and amendment of life, and motivating them to be about the good works of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

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Telling people what they want to hear is a whole lot easier (and more lucrative), but it’s not the work to which ministers of the Gospel are truly called.  No, we are called to help folks do the hard work of sorting the wheat from the chaff in their own lives so that when the Lord Jesus returns, he might be met with joy rather than fear and sorrow.

Preparing the Way

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The work to which John the Baptist was called had long since been established.  As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a JBap.  They didn’t know when he would come, what he would look like, how he might sound, or if and what kind of bugs he might eat, but they knew that someday, one like John the Baptist would find his way into the wilderness in order to prepare the way of the Lord.

As much as they knew about this person who was to come, it seems to me that their might not have been much consensus about what it meant to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  Certainly, they didn’t expect someone to literally come with shovel in hand, or, later, riding on a bulldozer, to level the valleys and flatten the mountain tops.  What is it they were expecting?

Given the response to John’s preaching, echoed in all four Gospels, the crowds knew something was up with this John the Baptist character.  His location helps.  Isaiah is clear that the one who is to come will be found in the wilderness.  If you can say anything about John’s geography, it was certainly out there.  Beyond that, it seems that maybe the promised prophet for whom they waited would have a surprisingly popular unpopular message.

Mark puts John’s task this way.  “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Repentance is pretty unpopular in 21st century American Mainline Christianity, but I have to think it has never really been a hit.  Nobody really likes to hear that the way they are living their lives is out of touch with God’s dream.  Nobody is keen to be told how to live.  Never has this been the most popular topic on the Best Seller list.  Except, of course, when it comes to John the Baptist.  For some reason his message of repentance, of turning from the old ways and toward a new vision of the Kingdom, brought crowds.  Huge crowds.

Even if “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” is hyperbole, it wouldn’t be put this way if fifteen people had come to see John.  This message of repentance was bringing them out in the thousands.  As his popularity grew, it became increasingly clear, this was the one who was to come, the one who would be sent to prepare the way.  Well, it became clear for John, at least.  We do hear, however, that he felt the need to clarify his role.  He was not the Messiah, but rather, there was one who would be coming after him.

Hearing the story of JBap as often as we do, it can be easy to forgot how incredible it is.  How long it had been since prophecy was heard.  How eager the people were for a Messiah.  How popular his unpopular message was.  And how humble he was to continue to point toward someone else.  His job was to prepare the way, and he did it with grace and humility.

The Burden of Doubt

There are a lot of things in life that weigh us down. Stress might be the number one culprit of the burdensome life. Brain chemistry issues can lead to depression which can become a weight too heavy to bear. Money running out before the month does weighs heavy on many people in America these days. But in the realm of religion, Christianity in particular, my gut says that doubt is the heaviest spiritual weight. And it isn’t just a modern phenomenon.

Finding the context of a given lectionary text is always important.  Given that this is my first week back after three weeks up at Sewanee, I’ve been a bit behind schedule in my exegetical sermon prep this week, but I have finally realized that this Sunday’s lesson has a weighty context indeed.  JBap is rotting away in Herod’s prison, a victim of his own piety, Herod’s weakness, and Herod’s [brother’s] wife’s cunning.  Sitting in jail has given JBap plenty of time to reflect on his life and ministry, and as he pondered on these things, doubt began its insidious creep.  Jesus, whom John baptized, was clearly the Anointed One, God’s beloved Son, and yet his ministry didn’t look like the one who would come to restore Israel.  Jesus spent way too much time on the margins: in back water towns; beside unclean water wells; engaging with people who couldn’t further his career politically or militarily.  And so JBap began to wonder.

Is this Jesus really the one?

The weight of his doubt continued to grow until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he sent some disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one.

I think many of us can relate to John’s plight.  We who have decided to follow Jesus have, at first, gladly cast off our burdens and taken up his easy yoke.  In time, however, we’ve noticed the load getting heavier and heavier.  Even as Jesus invites us to stop adding things to the wagon, we begrudge him for not making things lighter.  Doubt creeps in and weighs us down even more.

Is this Jesus really the one?

Again and again, Jesus answers our doubts in the same way he did JBap’s.  “What do you see?  What have you heard?  The blind can see.  The deaf can hear.  The captives have been told the Good News.  My yoke really is easy and burden really is light.  If you’d just stop adding unnecessary burdens to the load and follow my way, you’ll understand.”

It is hard to give up those burdens, to be sure.  Somewhere deep down inside, we really like the idea of being able to carry all our crap with us.  But it holds us back from our full potential.  It keeps the Kingdom at bay.

Is this Jesus really the one who can set us free?

Yes. Yes he is.