Sermon for December 13, 2015: Who warned you?

Listen to audio here:

I understand completely if you are feeling stressed about the state of the world right now.  Lately it seems that every day there’s something new to obsess about.  And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you got up this morning thinking you might come to church to get a little relief from that stress – to escape from the fear and anger that’s all over the news these days and spend time in a community of love and inclusion.  That’s why we’re here, right?  So I totally get it if today’s gospel made you want to turn around and walk out again.  After all, “You brood of vipers,” is a phrase that seems much more likely to have come from the mouth of one of our presidential candidates than the primary prophet of the New Testament.

Of course, John the Baptist is not someone that we in the clergy business would call “pastoral.”  As the scholarly website “about religion” puts it, John, “had an unusual flair for fashion, wearing wild-looking clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He lived in the desert wilderness, ate locust and wild honey and preached a strange message.”  I suspect if you went to John for counseling he would be less likely to offer you a listening ear and comforting words than he would to tell you to get your act together.  Which makes perfect sense – because John’s job was not to win over the crowds to a specific point of view.  The gospels are very clear that the purpose of John’s baptism was to cleanse people so that they would be ready for the arrival of a greater prophet.  His role was not to gather followers for himself, but to prepare people for Jesus’s ministry.  John not only told his followers that he was definitely not the Messiah, he said he wasn’t even worthy to tie the Messiah’s shoes.  John was a prophet not a politician.  He wasn’t there to tell people what they wanted to hear.  He was there to tell them what they needed to hear.  Maybe it’s still what we need to hear today.

I’ve noticed that recently there’s been a trend in nostalgia for simple ways of thinking about moral and ethical issues.  This fad is demonstrated by the popularity of books like, “Everything I need to know I learned from a Little Golden Book” and “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” which distill life’s most perplexing problems into clear and understandable principles like “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t hit people.  Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” and “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”[1]  It’s the kind of advice our parents gave us over and over again – well, that and “wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a truck.”  This counsel comes from someone much, much older than our parents or even their parents.  It comes from the mouth of John the Baptist.

“Whoever has two coats must share” them.  Don’t collect taxes that you aren’t owed.  Don’t blackmail.  Don’t lie.  Ethical instructions that were already ingrained in members of his society.  Rules of life that are already well-known to people in ours too.  And I bet that if you asked most Americans if they believe in these values, they would say “yes.”  Not only that, they would probably say that they try to live by them.  Many people would say that they do live by them.

Which makes it hard to explain the current climate of fear and anger in which we are living.  Because I don’t think that people are lying.  I don’t think they’re just saying they believe that hurting other people is wrong – that having more than your fair share is not okay – that judging people based on what they look like rather than who they are is not acceptable.  I just think that most of us don’t think that we do those things.  Or, if we do, it’s because we have a very good reason.

There was an article in the newspaper this week about a state corrections employee who was caught on tape “aggressively confronting” two Muslim men when one of them initiated a conversation with her about religion.  After telling the men that their religion was evil, she hit one of them with an umbrella and then threw coffee in his face.  She is then heard on tape saying, “You are very deceived by Satan.  Your mind has been taken over…You have nothing but hate, nothing but hate.”  When she was interviewed later, the woman told reporters that she just wanted to tell them about Christ.

For those of us hearing that story it seems hard to believe that this woman couldn’t see that her own actions might be viewed as hateful.  She seems to truly believe that she was trying to help those men.  She was completely confident in her rightness.  Because she is a Christian.  Because she has Abraham for her ancestor.

          Just like the members of the crowd that surrounded John the Baptist.  And he told them that it wasn’t enough.   It doesn’t matter who or what you say you believe in.  It’s how you show your belief.  It’s not enough to recognize the evils around us.  It’s not enough to distance ourselves from them.  It is our responsibility not just to declare our Christian values, but to demonstrate them as well.  Because being part of the community of God requires baptism by water and fire.

Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?  John tells us that we cannot – and we shouldn’t try to – escape the injustices and terrors and fires of this world.  We have to walk through them.  The good news is that we know how to do that – and it’s both much simpler – and much more difficult – than we learned in kindergarten.  Because living in the spirit – living by the spirit – living for the spirit – is about who we are and how we live – because as followers of Jesus, we live in hope.   It is hope that keeps us from fleeing from the wrath around us.  It is hope that permits us to walk into the fires of this world without fear.  It is hope that allows us, like John before us, to grow strong in spirit and in faith and to welcome the coming of the true Messiah with joy rather than fear.

Because we already know who that Messiah is.  John’s description of the one who comes with his winnowing fork in his hand may cause our hearts to skip a beat, but we need to remember that our Messiah, our Savior, comes first with love and with forgiveness – but only to those who open their hearts, who trust in him.  That is what separates the wheat from the chaff – the terrifying, exhilarating life-changing choice to trust in the Lord.  “The Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,” and “we need fear disaster no more.”

Yes, we must do as John the Baptist tells us.  We must look to ourselves.  We must recognize our sins and repent of them.  We must seek justice for those who have been robbed of it.  We must battle the fires of hell that are at work in this world.  But we can do it without fear.  We can do it knowing the Lord is in our midst – to save the lame and gather the outcast and to change their shame into praise.  Even in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us, we are immersed in goodness – not our own goodness, but the goodness of God.  And the stress we feel in this world is no match for the peace that can be found in the presence of God.

So go there.  When the stress of your life weakens you, seek the presence of God.  When the wickedness of the cruel and powerful enrages you, remind yourself that the Lord is near.  When the hardships of this world overwhelm you, try something completely different.  Rejoice.  Because the mystery of God’s peace is that it so often comes in the midst of suffering – and thanksgiving is the antidote for anxiety.  Rejoice.  Let me say it again, rejoice!  Let joy be our stronghold.  Let trust be our watchword and let peace guard our hearts and minds.  Prepare yourselves.  Something’s coming, something good, something great.  The air is humming – a miracle is coming.[2]  Believe it – and give thanks.  AMEN.

 

 

 

[1]Robert Fulghum, (2014), “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” (New York: Random House).

[2]Stephen Sondheim (1957), “Something’s Coming,” West Side Story.

I understand completely if you are feeling stressed about the state of the world right now.  Lately it seems that every day there’s something new to obsess about.  And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you got up this morning thinking you might come to church to get a little relief from that stress – to escape from the fear and anger that’s all over the news these days and spend time in a community of love and inclusion.  That’s why we’re here, right?  So I totally get it if today’s gospel made you want to turn around and walk out again.  After all, “You brood of vipers,” is a phrase that seems much more likely to have come from the mouth of one of our presidential candidates than the primary prophet of the New Testament.

Of course, John the Baptist is not someone that we in the clergy business would call “pastoral.”  As the scholarly website “about religion” puts it, John, “had an unusual flair for fashion, wearing wild-looking clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He lived in the desert wilderness, ate locust and wild honey and preached a strange message.”  I suspect if you went to John for counseling he would be less likely to offer you a listening ear and comforting words than he would to tell you to get your act together.  Which makes perfect sense – because John’s job was not to win over the crowds to a specific point of view.  The gospels are very clear that the purpose of John’s baptism was to cleanse people so that they would be ready for the arrival of a greater prophet.  His role was not to gather followers for himself, but to prepare people for Jesus’s ministry.  John not only told his followers that he was definitely not the Messiah, he said he wasn’t even worthy to tie the Messiah’s shoes.  John was a prophet not a politician.  He wasn’t there to tell people what they wanted to hear.  He was there to tell them what they needed to hear.  Maybe it’s still what we need to hear today.

I’ve noticed that recently there’s been a trend in nostalgia for simple ways of thinking about moral and ethical issues.  This fad is demonstrated by the popularity of books like, “Everything I need to know I learned from a Little Golden Book” and “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” which distill life’s most perplexing problems into clear and understandable principles like “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t hit people.  Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” and “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”[1]  It’s the kind of advice our parents gave us over and over again – well, that and “wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a truck.”  This counsel comes from someone much, much older than our parents or even their parents.  It comes from the mouth of John the Baptist.

“Whoever has two coats must share” them.  Don’t collect taxes that you aren’t owed.  Don’t blackmail.  Don’t lie.  Ethical instructions that were already ingrained in members of his society.  Rules of life that are already well-known to people in ours too.  And I bet that if you asked most Americans if they believe in these values, they would say “yes.”  Not only that, they would probably say that they try to live by them.  Many people would say that they do live by them.

Which makes it hard to explain the current climate of fear and anger in which we are living.  Because I don’t think that people are lying.  I don’t think they’re just saying they believe that hurting other people is wrong – that having more than your fair share is not okay – that judging people based on what they look like rather than who they are is not acceptable.  I just think that most of us don’t think that we do those things.  Or, if we do, it’s because we have a very good reason.

There was an article in the newspaper this week about a state corrections employee who was caught on tape “aggressively confronting” two Muslim men when one of them initiated a conversation with her about religion.  After telling the men that their religion was evil, she hit one of them with an umbrella and then threw coffee in his face.  She is then heard on tape saying, “You are very deceived by Satan.  Your mind has been taken over…You have nothing but hate, nothing but hate.”  When she was interviewed later, the woman told reporters that she just wanted to tell them about Christ.

For those of us hearing that story it seems hard to believe that this woman couldn’t see that her own actions might be viewed as hateful.  She seems to truly believe that she was trying to help those men.  She was completely confident in her rightness.  Because she is a Christian.  Because she has Abraham for her ancestor.

          Just like the members of the crowd that surrounded John the Baptist.  And he told them that it wasn’t enough.   It doesn’t matter who or what you say you believe in.  It’s how you show your belief.  It’s not enough to recognize the evils around us.  It’s not enough to distance ourselves from them.  It is our responsibility not just to declare our Christian values, but to demonstrate them as well.  Because being part of the community of God requires baptism by water and fire.

Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?  John tells us that we cannot – and we shouldn’t try to – escape the injustices and terrors and fires of this world.  We have to walk through them.  The good news is that we know how to do that – and it’s both much simpler – and much more difficult – than we learned in kindergarten.  Because living in the spirit – living by the spirit – living for the spirit – is about who we are and how we live – because as followers of Jesus, we live in hope.   It is hope that keeps us from fleeing from the wrath around us.  It is hope that permits us to walk into the fires of this world without fear.  It is hope that allows us, like John before us, to grow strong in spirit and in faith and to welcome the coming of the true Messiah with joy rather than fear.

Because we already know who that Messiah is.  John’s description of the one who comes with his winnowing fork in his hand may cause our hearts to skip a beat, but we need to remember that our Messiah, our Savior, comes first with love and with forgiveness – but only to those who open their hearts, who trust in him.  That is what separates the wheat from the chaff – the terrifying, exhilarating life-changing choice to trust in the Lord.  “The Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,” and “we need fear disaster no more.”

Yes, we must do as John the Baptist tells us.  We must look to ourselves.  We must recognize our sins and repent of them.  We must seek justice for those who have been robbed of it.  We must battle the fires of hell that are at work in this world.  But we can do it without fear.  We can do it knowing the Lord is in our midst – to save the lame and gather the outcast and to change their shame into praise.  Even in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us, we are immersed in goodness – not our own goodness, but the goodness of God.  And the stress we feel in this world is no match for the peace that can be found in the presence of God.

So go there.  When the stress of your life weakens you, seek the presence of God.  When the wickedness of the cruel and powerful enrages you, remind yourself that the Lord is near.  When the hardships of this world overwhelm you, try something completely different.  Rejoice.  Because the mystery of God’s peace is that it so often comes in the midst of suffering – and thanksgiving is the antidote for anxiety.  Rejoice.  Let me say it again, rejoice!  Let joy be our stronghold.  Let trust be our watchword and let peace guard our hearts and minds.  Prepare yourselves.  Something’s coming, something good, something great.  The air is humming – a miracle is coming.[2]  Believe it – and give thanks.  AMEN.

 

 

 

[1]Robert Fulghum, (2014), “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,” (New York: Random House).

[2]Stephen Sondheim (1957), “Something’s Coming,” West Side Story.