Saturday, December 22, 2007

Making it Real (Matthew 11:2-11)

During Advent, Christians proclaim two things – the world is not supposed to be like this, with all of its hurt and pain. And we say that God is beginning to change that world right now.

So a couple of reasonable questions spring to my mind, and if I’m going to say those things, I’d better have some kind of answer, because I bet someone will ask me.

First, they might ask me for some kind of evidence that what I say is true. Sure, they tell me. It’s easy to say God has a different idea of the world than what we see, but can you really prove things are supposed to be different than they are? People doing each other wrong seems pretty widespread – can you give me something that can help me believe those people are somehow different from what God had in mind for them?

In a sense, this is the question John has his disciples ask Jesus. John made some comments about the irregularity of the royal marriage. Today, that gets you your own TV show but back then it got him thrown in jail. From prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the Messiah, “the one.”

I don’t wonder that John asks this. Talking about the Kingdom of God and what it means in the world got him thrown in jail, after all, so I can see why he might wonder about what he’s done, and about Jesus. From John’s point of view, things don’t look at all like he figured they’d be once the Messiah showed up.

Through history, people have asked similar questions. If God is real, they ask, why do bad things happen? How does all this evil happen if a good God has anything to do with the world at all? In fact, since people are evil and bad things happen, that proves God isn’t real, doesn’t it? Of course John doesn’t go that far, but I’ve met people who have, and you might meet them sometime too.

Jesus could give John a great philosophical answer, which would explain this problem that people have wondered about since they started wondering.

But he knows that John doesn’t want something explained as much as he wants a reason to hope, so he offers that instead. Go tell John about the miracles you see, Jesus said. Go tell him lame people walk and blind people see and deaf people hear and the poor hear God speak to them.

And that answer turns the question about why evil exists around, too. If bad things prove God isn’t real, then what do good things prove? If murder proves there’s no God, how do we explain it when the victim’s family offers forgiveness and even love to the killer? Where does that come from?

John wants to know if he’s been on the right track or if he wasted his time and he sits in prison for nothing. Jesus’ answer lets him know he is definitely on the right track – the Kingdom he proclaimed is coming, and the healings and miracles he hears about bear witness to it.

Jesus’ actions also answer the second question we might get asked if we proclaim God works to change this world into what he wants it to be. What, folks might ask, is that world like? If things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, what are they supposed to be like?

Well, in that world, folks who are sick get cared for – sometimes they might even be healed by miraculous means. Nobody tries to pretend poor folks somehow don’t rate with God the way rich folks do. Like Isaiah says, the lamb sleeps next to the lion without fear.

And yeah, John, people don’t get thrown in jail for telling the truth to the powerful. Or for other reasons that have nothing to do with breaking a real law or hurting someone.

There’s a long list of what God wants this world to look like, and people who sit down and really think about it will find themselves overwhelmed by how big the job is. Maybe they feel as hopeless as John did, locked up by an evil king who wasn’t paying any attention to a Kingdom of God.

We can’t pretend the world is something it’s not any more than John could pretend he was still noshing on bugs and wild honey at the Jordan River.

But we can proclaim that God is here, at work in this world. And we can see signs of that all around us when we look. Some days we have to look pretty dadgum hard and maybe those signs are very faint.

They are real, though. And in and through them, God is making the real world new.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bugs, Vipers and the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12)

Let’s take a look at the man who prepared the way for Christ while we’re preparing for his coming during the season of Advent.

We mostly know John the Baptist because of his connection to Jesus, but he had a following of his own, and those followers were still meeting and spreading their word into the time of the early church. Paul meets them in Acts, remember.

So here he is out in the desert, wearing a camel’s hair coat that is not like the one you get at Brooks Brothers and eating wild honey and bugs. No wonder people came out to see him. He’s like the original “Man vs. Wild” show.

Once they came to see him, though, they also heard his message, and it made a greater impact than his appearance ever could. “Repent,” he said. “For the kingdom is at hand.” Thousands of people listen and seek baptism in the Jordan River. Jewish faith includes a number of ceremonial washings, and baptism symbolically combines them.

Their ancestors became a nation when they crossed that river behind Joshua, and no longer people who wandered in the desert like they had nowhere to go. They hope to leave behind their spiritual wanderings in turning to follow God as their guide and leader.

One day, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to see the hubbub. John picks them out right away, and calls them out just a moment later.

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Although it sounds like he wonders how they found out where he was, I can’t imagine John really meant that. If he’s drawing crowds from all over the place, he would expect to see these religious officials show up sooner or later.

I believe he means his question to present them with a choice about why they came. Are they there for their own reasons or are they there because of his message? They two won’t have anything to do with one another in the end.

Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. When John proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, he used a concept they rejected. They didn’t believe some kind of new kingdom was coming.

We know the Pharisees as those mean guys who always argue with Jesus, but they had a wide range of members. Originally, the Pharisee school began with the idea that the people who claimed they followed God should act like it. If your life didn’t look any different from someone who didn’t follow God, how was God honored by that, they asked. Over time, they kept refining their guidelines and adding to what they received from Moses, so they become the legal hairsplitters who say anyone that lifts more than a thimbleful of honey to their lips on the Sabbath breaks the law.

They would come to see John to check out what doctrine he was preaching and make sure it matched the Law and the prophets’ writings down to the last degree. They had no interest in all in listening to the meaning of his message, just its details.

But, John’s question cuts off their agendas and confronts them with the reality he proclaims. God’s kingdom will break into this world, and begin transforming it right now. Even though we understand that God will one day remake the world entirely, we still face the same two questions John asked his listeners.

The first comes to us before we are believers. God says to us, “I am changing this world. Will I change you too?” His ultimate plan is to restore the world to what he always meant it to be, and to restore in us the image of himself that has been a part of us since before our births.

When we, like John’s listeners, hear that the “kingdom is at hand,” we confront the choice to let God make us a part of that kingdom breaking into the world or to deny that reality.

And if we are Christians, the incoming kingdom presents us with a choice as well. We may have already agreed that God will change us and allowed that change to begin. Maybe we’re resistant or stubborn and we change slowly, but we have answered the first question. Now comes the second. “I am changing this world,” God says. “Will you be one of the ways I use to change it?

“You have heard the good news,” he tells us. “Now will you be one who brings it as well?”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

It's Not Supposed to Be Like This (Romans 13:11-14)

Paul’s admonitions seem like a strange thing to read during the first week of Advent.

In Advent, we make ready for the birth of Christ. What does that have to do with getting rid of quarreling? Some might suggest they quarrel during Advent to make ready for the annual major family brawl that happens over Christmas, in fact.

I think the problem comes when I fail to see that Advent is not the time when we get ready for Christmas. During Advent, we get ready for the coming of Christ. Paul writes post-manger, so he doesn’t know about how to get ready for the Christmas holiday. He only knows how to get ready for the coming of the King, and I think he’s the one who gets it right and not us.

Paul speaks specifically about how we make ourselves ready, and if we read the prophecies about the Messiah, we know that there’s even more to it. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah says, and tells us to make a path in the desert and make the crooked way straight. Two commands come to those who want to prepare for the coming of the King: Make yourselves ready and make your world ready to receive him.

Well, wait just a minute. Isn’t there something in Christian teaching about how we can’t completely put those things aside? Isn’t there something about how our own sin blocks us from fully opening ourselves to God? After all, if we could com-pletely cleanse ourselves of our wrong in order to make ready for the king, why did he come at all? If we could make right what we’ve done wrong in our relationship with God, then why would Christ come at all, let alone die on a cross?

And of course we know we can’t make ourselves right with God. Experience teaches that even if we want to believe something else. So how in the world would we make our world right, and if we can’t do it anyway, why bother trying? The golf course or the porch or the lake or our beds look mighty good Sunday morning, so why bother with a church or any of that stuff? God’s going to fix it all anyway, so I might as well do what I want, when I want, right now.

But we don’t prepare ourselves or our world for our own sake. We don’t try to live more like God wants us to live just so we can get to a certain level that makes God like us more or allows us to show off how holy we are. Our efforts themselves, no matter how lame they might be, are part of our proclamation of the gospel.

Yes, I said that – we proclaim the gospel when we try to make ourselves ready for the coming of the King, even though we know we can’t get it right or finish the job. How?

Remember, when we begin to follow Christ we agree to live as God calls us to live. And that way differs from the way the rest of the world lives a lot of the time. We love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, rather than love something in this world or love ourselves that way. We love our neighbors as ourselves, recognizing that they are children God loves as much as he loves us. We love one another, because Jesus told us that’s how other people know we follow him.

We don’t pretend we live in a world without hate, violence and fear. We know we do, and we know those things cause human pain and misery every day. When we try to live out the life of love and devotion to God, we don’t close our eyes and go “lalalalalanotlistening!” to the real darkness and sin in our world.

What we say is, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”

As Christians, what we say and do is supposed to tell everyone we meet that what’s wrong with the world is just that – wrong! God didn’t make it that way. He made it good, and even though human sin has spoiled it, he still intends to re-shape it someday into the world he always intended.

We may not see that new world in our lifetimes – heck, I don’t even know if I see a new “me” some mornings. But we believe God will make it happen. When we prepare for that new world by living our lives according to God’s call, we proclaim it. God designed something different than what we deal with on a daily basis, and he wants us to show that to the people who may not know about it yet.

“Getting ready for Christmas” may mean busy-ness, and chasing around through crowded stores in order to spend money we won’t actually make until sometime in March. It may mean stress and overwork, or gloom, despair and agony. For some people, Christmas just magnifies those things as a part of their regular life.

But the good news of Christmas is that things aren’t supposed to be like that, and in Christ, God shows us how they are supposed to and one day will be.