Promise

Luke 2:1-20

 

Posture: Responding to Promise

Having a child—any child—is a kind of promise. It’s a promise of a different life. It’s a promise of a different future. It’s a promise of fulfilled hopes.

And yet birth—and life—can cause us to lose sight of all that promise. Too many of us dads (especially!) busy ourselves so completely with hospital bags and pre-birth checklists, with hospital approach routes and breathing (“HOO-HOO-HEE”), that we are unable to enjoy the magic that is happening until after it has already behind us.

As the days and the nights go by, and sleep deprivation wears on deeper and deeper, too many of us tend to lose sight of the mystery and the promise that we hold in our arms, and whose diaper (again!) needs changed, and who just completed a successful coup to take over every dimension of our lives.

School begins, and conflicts grow, and outside influences abound, and everything is second-guessed. And the mystery of the promise fades even more. Before long, if we’re not careful, we may become jaded about the promise. In the midst of chemical/hormonal imbalances, incomplete brain development, and what we feel is almost certain failure on our part, we may lose sight of hope.

But if we’re lucky, and we have such opportunity, for many of us, the passage continues from adolescence to adulthood and independence, and perhaps to new life and parenthood once again, to new responsibilities and new promises and relationships adapted. We take on some “grand” descriptions: grandmother/grandfather to grandchildren.

When this happens, relationships and promise again take a turn. And even with our own children, and our own parents, we may find ourselves rediscovering some of the promise that we once knew as we held a little baby in our arms, startled at this rather dramatic turn of events.

It must have been the same for Mary and Joseph as it has been for many of us. All the chaos of a birth: the arrangements and unexpected delays, the challenges of travel and the hinderances of health, the closed doors and the not knowing what we’re doing……

In the face of such obstacles, all of those hoped-for realities in Joseph’s mind must have just faded. The mystery must have evaporated in the face of the necessary. The promise must have been pushed aside by matters more pressing.

We parents—and perhaps especially we fellas—try to do the best we can for our family. Joseph tries to provide the best ways he knows how. And in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he must have felt like he failed completely……

And yet…… the time of the birth came (as it always does) whether we are ready or not. A little bitty baby is born—a promise himself—a promise of a different future and a different way of life and a different result to our human condition. This baby—this promise—suddenly lay squirming in Joseph’s arms.

I can only imagine in that moment—for at least that moment—the fear of traveling-while-pregnant must have faded. The heightened pulse and blood pressure from the difficulty securing a room must have slowed. The protective anger at such poor accommodations must have eased. And there was only the promise that remained: the promise of a baby—of any baby but especially this baby—wriggling in his swaddled blanket in Joseph’s arms.

Life will forever be different for Joseph—as any parent today can testify. Yet on account of this baby, life will forever be different for all of us. For this baby—squirming in his daddy’s arms—will save the world. He will come to be our friend, our mentor, our savior. He will show us such love, teach us such truth, and guide us in such a way that we might have life and life abundant.

And for those reasons today, we give thanks. We celebrate. And we remember and rekindle the fire that promise sets in our very souls. For the promise of Jesus, born into our world this day, we say, “Happy Christmas.”

 

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Fulfillment

 

Matthew 1:18-25

 

Posture: Responding to Fulfillment

As we near the climax of this Advent season, we have already reflected on many different experiences:

How does anticipation position us so we are ready to serve God and each other?

In what ways do we resist the confrontational nature of the gospel?

How do we reconcile faith with our inner questioning and uncertainty?

And now today……How do we respond to the fulfillment of our hopes?

What goes through our minds?

What changes in our physiology—in our body’s language and composition?

And how does the fulfillment of our hopes impact our lived-out faith as disciples of Christ?

The Story

The scripture reading today is well known among Christians. Now, the Sunday before Christmas Day, we have begun our move into the Christmas narrative itself, inserting ourselves as a fly-on-the-wall into these intimate, fearful, and joyous moments of Mary and Joseph’s relationship.

Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married……or so we would position them in today’s rituals and rites. In their own time and culture, it would be more accurate to say Joseph had contracted to wed Mary. While Joseph is certainly painted as a compassionate and caring individual here, the fact is that marriage in that day and age had nothing to do with love and everything to do with economics, social aspiration, and the cold, hard realities of a thoroughly patriarchal society.

Mary—throughout this episode—is not afforded a voice. Her opinion is not consulted. Her perspective is not presented. The version of Jesus’ birth told here in Matthew is not about Mary—it is about Joseph. It is about the hope of Israel. And it is about the fulfillment of that hope in an unexpected way.

As we begin, I think it’s important to realize that while we know Mary is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18), no one else seems to know this at the time. Of course, as Luke will tell, Mary has an angelic visit of her own—but (as I said) Mary gets no voice in Matthew’s gospel.

Joseph, in resolving to divorce her in v.19, reveals that he does not know about—or believe—any spirit-impregnating mumbo-jumbo. He only knows that a pregnant fiancée is scandalous, that the child is not his, and that an unfaithful fiancée is likely to be an unfaithful wife. Since the covenant has been violated, he intends to quit the covenant.

Yet still, as a godly person, he does not intend to cause irreparable harm. Unlike so many separations today, Joseph is not intent on lashing out and destroying the one he perceives has wronged him. He does not want Mary to suffer for her unfaithfulness; he just doesn’t want that kind of trouble in his life any more. Whatever hopes he had for this marriage have been dashed—and dead hope brings its own kind of grief, as we mourn a life we were invested in but will never breathe a breath.

Out of this grief—and out of this quiet wrestling—an angel invades Joseph’s contemplation. Like most angels, this one begins with an instruction to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph to go ahead with the wedding, that Mary has not been unfaithful but that her baby is brought into being by the Spirit; and the angel tells Joseph something about this baby’s future: call him Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins” (v.21).

Why?!?

There is……one more thing we learn here in Matthew, too. It’s an answer to the question that is first on our lips when our own hope is dashed. It’s the question we most want answered when our grief peaks. It’s the question “why?”

Why?……Why?……Why?…… How many times must Joseph have asked that question in the hours and days before the angel appeared? How often must he have shouted it at the heavens, or prayed it with the same intensity as will Jesus pray at Gethsemane?

How many times have we prayed “why?”, crying out in grief to the sky, or falling on our knees, or having it echoing around inside our empty soul?

How many times have we ourselves earnestly desired an angel break into our despair, offer us words of peace, and promise the fulfillment of all our hopes?

But alas, while such experiences happen, they do not happen to everyone, everywhere, or every time. They are, in truth, exceptions to the norm—as befitting their exceptional nature.

The answer to Joseph’s “why” is certainly an exceptional one. This boy who will be born in such exceptional circumstances has an exceptional fate—even more exceptional than his name alone suggests. This Jesus will not just be the one who will “save his people from their sins”; he will also be “Immanuel… God with us” (vv.21, 23), the presence of God promised by Isaiah hundreds of years and a nearly equal number of pages ago.

History Lesson

Now, there’s some interesting history behind this prophecy of Isaiah, not the least of which is that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed these words of Isaiah had already been fulfilled.

Here’s what Isaiah 7 is actually about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with other small states for protection against Assyria, the region’s 800-pound gorilla. Judah refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at its rear, moved to conquer Judah.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judah that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah tells the king to ask God for a sign of this prophecy, but the king refuses to put God to the test. Isaiah [then] sees this as a lack of faith, scolds the king, and gives him a sign: “The [maiden] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel [prophecy]. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judah by Assyria and…[the] painful future [that awaits].

(The previous paragraphs copied with slight alterations from HERE)

You see, from the perspective of Joseph and his peers, this is a prophecy that had already been fulfilled. It had been fulfilled when an otherwise unimportant boy was born to the house of the King of Judah, and when Syria and Israel were destroyed less than five years later. This otherwise unremarkable child is called “Immanuel” because his presence reminds ancient Israel that God has not forgotten them, and that God is at work to save them.

“Fulfillment”

It is this meaning, I believe, that led Matthew to see a connection to the infant Jesus. Like the Immanuel of centuries prior, the presence of Jesus reminds us of the presence of God. Like his namesake, Jesus will help us see that God is working to save us. Perhaps too, Jesus serves as a kind of clock for us, marking both the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God at his birth and its fulfillment when he returns.

But with Jesus, there’s more to it too. When Matthew says that Jesus’ virgin birth is the fulfillment of prophecy, we remember this is not the only prophecy Jesus will fulfill. A big part of the purpose of the gospel of Matthew is to connect as many of these prophetic dots as possible.

But “prophecy” and “fulfillment” are not fatalistic concepts in the New Testament, despite how we have read them over the years. For Jesus to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is not to say that he and only he is what Isaiah 7 intended. Rather, the fulfillment of prophecy takes place when faithful people choose to embody the hoped-for reality. Jesus is familiar with the scriptures of his Jewish religion—which was made up of the bulk of what we now know as the OT. And in particular places we can read about Jesus deliberately choosing to live into an OT text—deliberately choosing to “fulfill” an OT prophecy.

It’s obvious and mysterious and earthy and supernatural all at the same time. But it’s also the same sort of task that is presented to faithful disciples of Jesus over and over.

Fulfilling the Kingdom

Jesus spends most of his teaching and preaching ministry talking about the same thing. Know what it is? It’s the same thing John the Baptist talked about: the kingdom of God.

John will proclaim that the Kingdom is “near” (Matt 3:2).

Jesus takes it a step further to say it is “in you” (Lk 17:21).

Paul will talk about how we are to live in the world but according to a different set of laws and standards (Titus 3:1-8 and others);

and Peter will show how we “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

They’re all talking about the same thing—inching and pushing and plodding and fighting their way forward as they seek to bring the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God into the world.

So it is with us, as well. We are citizens of this nation, tasked with upholding justice and peace, and with praying for our leaders.

But this nation is not where our allegiance lies.

Each one of us must live the Kingdom of God into being.

Each one of us must contribute toward its fulfillment.

Each one of us has roles to play in order for “thy kingdom” to come, and “thy will” to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The past fulfillment of hope in Jesus reminds us of God’s presence, love, and desire to deliver us from the bonds that oppress us—both within and without. But that past fulfillment also drives our future hope, and our present labor.

In a world so deeply divided, who will know unity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world filled with such pain, who will know comfort?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world driven by consumerism and greed, who will know generosity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world where facts have become irrelevant in public discourse, who will know truth?—unless it is lived out by the Church–the people who embody the way, the truth, and the life—that is Jesus the Christ.

We have a role to play in the world, sisters and brothers. God is not finished yet. The Kingdom is not yet fulfilled. The cause of Christ is still advancing.

But are we advancing with it? Are we fulfilling the Kingdom of God through our choices and engagements? As we do what we call “the Lord’s work,” is good news being preached to the poor? Are captives and prisoners being set free? Do the blind now see? Are the oppressed liberated?

These are the things Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and mission. Are they fulfilled in ours?

Letter from Birmingham Jail

For some weeks and months, I have discovered my mind recalled a particular writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963. In so many places, Dr. King seems to speak straight to the circumstances of our world today, to the criticisms used against those pursuing justice, and to the difficult task that committed followers of Jesus are likely to have in the future.

As we reflect on “fulfillment” today, I regret that we have lived into the prophetic fears expressed by Dr. King instead of living into the life of Christ and Kingdom of God. Near the end of this substantial letter, Dr. King says this:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

(accessed HERE)

From dashed hopes, to fulfilled hopes, to dashed hopes again. This is our history. And this is where we stand today.

But it is not where we have to remain.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to fulfill Jesus’ life with our own.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to live in the Kingdom of God even now.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to stand with God against the injustices of this world, actively fighting the “powers and principalities” that crush the lives and spirits of those on the margins.

In doing so, we fulfill the life of Christ and advance God’s Kingdom.
Sisters and brothers: Gird up your loins. We’ve work to do.

Questioning

 

Matthew 11:2-11

Posture: Responding to Questioning

For Advent, we are following an unorthodox path through some very traditional advent texts. As we read these scriptures each week, we are exploring the way we posture ourselves on account of what we are experiencing. In other words: how do we think differently or feel differently or otherwise change when we experience anticipation, challenge, questioning, fulfillment, and promise? And what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?

This week, we attend to questioning. Specifically, I want to focus on the questions that arise within ourselves–our self-doubt, if you will.

Matthew

In our text, John sends some folks Jesus’ way. He wants information–and he wants it discreetly. John, our text says, is questioning whether Jesus is in fact the messiah.

Now I cannot overemphasize how unsettling this is.

John is a relative of Jesus, and John’s own birth was filed with angelic appearances and divine promises. Their fates were intertwined before they each took their first breath.

When Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, he is immediately recognized as the one who “will wash you in fire and with the Holy Spirit” and who will thresh us within and without, gathering our wheat and burning up our chaff (Mt 3:11-12).

When Jesus indicates an eagerness to be baptized, John suggests it should be the other way around (Mt 3:14).

And as Jesus is baptized by John, God’s own voice echoes from the heavens for all to hear: “You are my son, whom I live; with you I am well pleased.”

So after all of this, John is really going to question whether or not Jesus is the messiah, the Christ? It’s staggering to think about.

But the fact is, there will be times in each of our lives where we come to doubt the things we are most certain about.

And there’s another piece too: As human beings, we tend to question ourselves when those we love question us.

When I was graduating from High School, I very nearly joined the marines. I had begun to feel God calling me to be a pastor, and like Jonah, I was running in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see that yet, of course, but others could. When men I loved like parents and grandparents (veterans themselves!) staged a sort of intervention, urging me to go to college first, it got me thinking. It got me questioning. And ultimately those questions led me to the truth of who God was calling me to be.

Jesus, remember, is a fully human being. He is God–and fully that, too–but he is immersed in a fully and completely human life, body, and existence. And I can’t help but wonder if John’s doubts about Jesus’ identity might have been a bit contagious. Was this, I wonder, one of those places where Jesus struggles with who he is?

Maybe we can’t answer that question with any certainty in this text, but there are other stories where the questioning and discerning of Jesus’ own self is more clear.

Temptation

The first of those comes right after that baptism experience. As you may remember, Jesus is whisked off to the wilderness by the Spirit. In the wildernesses of our lives and world, resources are few and pain is magnified–yet these can be times of great spiritual growth and divine clarity.

Such is the case for Jesus. He is tempted three times, each one representative of a different future.

He is tempted to turn stones into bread–to use his miraculous power to satisfy his own interests. But if he can feed himself with stones, he could do the same thing for everyone else too. This temptation is to be a new Moses to Israel, leading them and feeding them (as with manna) once again.

But no, Jesus decides; this is not the kind of messiah he will be.

Jesus is also tempted to perform some amazing stunt. Is that the kind of messiah he should be? A sort of wonder-working, miracle man whose amazing performances would bring Jesus fame and fortune?

No, this too is not who Jesus will be.

The third identity Jesus wrestles with is being the most powerful ruler…[“Top Gear” style] of the world. As king of…well… everyone, just think what Jesus could accomplish!

But once again: no, that is not who Jesus will be.

Jesus will wield his power for another purpose, performing miracles cautiously, and resisting any attempts at political gain. Whatever kind of messiah he will be, will be revealed, but now Jesus has faced these questions, and has so resolved to live out something different.

Syrophoenician Woman

A second story that reveals Jesus’ internal questioning and discernment may be found in Mark 7. It’s found in Matthew 15 as well, but the story is central to Mark’s telling of Jesus’ life and ministry. Up to this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has centered his ministry on Jews and only Jews. He’s teaching Jews, performing miracles among Jews, and healing Jews.

But in Mark 7, things are getting too hot for Jesus, and he slips out of country to fly under the radar for a while. But even outside the Roman province of Judea, word gets around. And a Gentile woman–not even a Semite!–comes around trying to get Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus flatly refuses. Jesus states clearly that his ministry is to Jews. And Jesus uses a derogatory slur, known from other sources to be one used by Jews of Jesus’ day to refer to “people like her.”

The woman, however, will not be deterred. She comes back at Jesus, showing her wit and determination. And for some reason, Jesus softens to her, and concedes to healing her daughter.

Now this might just look like a one-time thing–a weird story where Jesus doesn’t look or act or sound much like the Jesus we love and know. But I told you this is a centerpiece for Mark’s gospel, and it is. It is a turning point. After this, Jesus engages more and more with non-Jews. After this, Jesus starts talking about how God will act through him for all people. After this, Jesus grows into the Christ that looks much more familiar.

This confrontation–this time by a stranger and outsider–leads Jesus to question and reflect on the scope of his work. Through those questions, his ministry priorities shift and expand to include even you, and even me.

Gethsemane

The third story of questioning is that of Gethsemane, recorded in Matthew 26. Jesus, if you will remember, is about to be arrested. He knows his time is up. He knows he’s headed toward death. And Jesus doesn’t like it.

Three times, the bible records Jesus asking God for there to be another way–any other way.

Three times, Jesus asks to be let loose of the destiny he foresees.

Three times, he prays with such an intensity that Luke says “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44). We always pray the hardest when we are the most desperate for our fate to change.

Three times, Jesus questions whether he has to go through with this, but his questioning only strengthens his resolve: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt 26:39).

Conclusion

Questioning–as you may have heard me say before–can never erode truth. Truth is truth and questioning and doubt can only prove it true.

If it is true that (barring abnormal interference), gravity will pull a dropped book to the ground [drop book], then gravity does not cease to operate simply because someone refuses to believe in it. No matter how genuinely you do not believe in gravity, the book will still fall.

Such it is with all truth. And Jesus–remember!–is “the way, the TRUTH, and the life” (Jn 14:6). If Jesus is the truth, then all truth comes from God, no matter what it’s source looks like here on earth.

 

Here’s the thing: Some of you may be uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus ever questioned anything about himself or his ministry. But these are some pretty clear places where Jesus asks God if he can do something else, or where what Jesus does in the future is changed by the encounters he has. If we’re going to take the bible at what it says, we’ve got to accept that–even as we wrestle with it.

The fact is we live in a world that is inclined to disbelieve. It is a world that will question us over and over, a world that will not be satisfied even by proof. If we pretend our faith is not open to questions–and worse, if we pretend to never question it ourselves–we will reveal our hypocrisy and irrelevance.

The fact is: even as we are called by God to step out in extraordinary ways, we may be filled with questions and doubt. That’s ok, I believe. Actually, that’s as it should be.

So what then do we do?

We live into our calling, being honest that it does not fit us. When we put on the mantle of Jesus, it’s a bit like being a kid and putting on your father’s suit jacket. It’s huge and ungainly and it makes us look so small and puny. It seems impossible that we could ever fit into it. There was a day that came when I (mostly) fit into my dad’s suit coat. And there will be a day when I will fit into the mantle of Jesus, too.

For now though, we can trust the truth of Jesus to stand up to our questions.

The truth of who Jesus would be could certainly stand up to John’s questions, even if it felt shaky at the time. When John sends folks to question whether Jesus really is the messiah, I have to wonder if it got to him. Maybe it shook Jesus’ own confidence in his ministry to have someone so close express such doubt.

But I also think Jesus realizes that he cannot really answer the questions in himself and from John. So instead of a straight yes-or-no, Jesus tells them to “go back and tell John the things you have heard and the things you have seen” (Mt 11:4).

Maybe the only real way to combat our inner questions is to live with both eyes open.

What have we seen? What have we heard?

When doubts meet evidence, we find certainty, at least for a time. When we see “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers cured, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the good news preached to the poor,” we can understand a little more about the narrow path of discipleship and God’s mission. And when we participate in it, maybe others can come to understand about it all a little more too.

With God’s help, maybe we can live out that greatest teaching of all: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

 

Confrontation

 

Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12

 

Confrontation

For Advent, we are following an unorthodox path through some very traditional advent texts. As we read these scriptures each week, we are exploring the way we posture ourselves on account of what we are experiencing. In other words: how do we think/feel/change when we experience anticipation, challenge, questioning (from inside ourselves), fulfillment, and promise? And what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?

This week, we attend to confrontation.

I wasn’t a pastor very long before I discovered it to be a vocation that involves a great deal of confrontation. At less than a year into the job, I recall a man–a church member–in my office, screaming and cursing at me, threatening me and the church with lawsuit after lawsuit until it bankrupted us, and promising me that he would use every dime of his (repeatedly spoken of) wealth to slander and ruin us forever. The tipping point that brought us there? He had been in charge of building us a website, which had been “in process” for three years but he had yet to produce anything tangible. I told him we were going to have someone else do it.

As he cursed me a blue streak and threatened me with lawsuits, imprisonment, and more, imagine you were in my shoes:

What do you think I felt?

What would you imagine was going through my brain at the time?

How do you think my own physical posture changed during the confrontation?

What does confrontation feel like? When someone “comes at you”–both guns blazing or even in a quiet, sneaky way–what happens in you?

Most of us respond with anger, at least on some level.

Most of us feel our pulse race, and our blood pressure rise.

Most of us clench–our fists, our abs, our teeth……something!–as the tension rises.

Most of us think thoughts of outrage, perhaps mixed with hurt and betrayal.

Some of us move forward, puffed up to meet the challenge; others instinctively retreat.

Confrontation–in all truth–may be the most reliable way to create conflict and imperil relationships. Which is part of why John the Baptist’s tactics here should stop us in our tracks.

John & Pharisees

Here’s John, dressed in vintage camel hair, an up-cycled leather belt around his waist, munching on some sustainably-sourced locusts and honey, perhaps completing the picture with a hipster beard and a can of pomade in his back pocket. His counter-cultural ways are somehow influencing a new culture, something he calls the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.

And this resonates with people. Many flock to him on the yet-to-be-gentrified shore of the Jordan River, where he teaches and gives people a symbol of their new citizenship in this new culture, the Kingdom of God.

Let’s picture John–in all his hipster self–showing up here. Every day he stands down by the river and preaches to whomever happens to be nearby. Many of us, I’d imagine, would simply ignore him and expect he go away after a short time.

But what if he didn’t go away. What if he regularly draws a crowd–a crowd that starts to include our church members, members who might even choose on Sunday morning to go down to John at the river instead of coming to our church? What then?

Among other things, I imagine some of us pastors and preachers might start taking John a bit more seriously. Maybe we’d even go down to the river and have ourselves a listen–incognito, of course: we’d be the ones in big Hollywood sunglasses and hats.

But John–being John–would see right through even a Marx Brothers eyeglasses-nose-and mustache disguise. We clergy folk have come out of genuine curiosity–some of us anyway–yet John attacks us verbally, calling us “vipers” and threatens that we will be “cut down” and “burned.”

Confrontation.

How do this feel? What do you think? What changes in your attitudes and actions?

There’s a reason that successful, Christ-like evangelists do not use John the Baptist as a pattern for their ministry.

Confrontation for Everyone!

But recognize that John is not just confrontational with the religious leaders. His call is a call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and when folks accept that call, they “confess their sins” and are “baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matt 3:1, 6 NIV).

Now those who have ever attended a Christian church with any regularity are pretty comfortable with the language of repentance. But repentance is never a familiar or comfortable thing.

The call to repentance is an accusation of guilt--and no one wants their sin named.

The call to repentance exposes that we are subservient to a higher authority–and none of us wants to admit that we are not in complete control of our lives.

Moreover, true repentance is followed by action. “Prepare the way; make paths straight” means to make this world look more like the Kingdom of God so it’s easier for the two to fit together–“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Confrontational Realities

These are confrontational realities. And advent is one of the best times to come to terms with them.

You are a sinner. [repeat]

Your lot in life is hopeless unless you learn to submit to the God who created both you and the universe with like complexity and care.

And knowing the right things?……Knowing the right things is not going to save you. The Pharisees knew the right things, yet John condemns them and issues the charge: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v.8).

None of us should be altogether comfortable with any of those three statements. We should never become comfortable with these confrontational realities until that day when we will be changed–when “we shall be like [Christ], for we shall see him as he is,” as we read in 1John 3:2.

A Confrontational Christ

Keep in mind–this is not just John’s call to repentance we’re talking about. John’s message is the same one Jesus picks up in his ministry. And Christ’s ultimate role–as John describes it–is to winnow (or thresh) us as wheat, separating the chaff in us (and among us) from the grain. Christ is the one who will gather the wheat and destroy the chaff completely.

Now, we’re talking in parables, but don’t let that diminish the gravity of this kind of confrontation, either.

It is confrontational to have our “chaff” separated from our “wheat”–to have someone sift through who we are and what we’ve done and decide what was meaningless and what mattered, what was bad and what was good. We can’t stand someone judging us based on the sliver of our closely-guarded selves that we reveal to the world; let alone peer behind the curtain into our dark and spiderweb-ey soul.

But even more than that: burning our chaff destroys parts of who we have been. And if we’re honest, it’s hard to let go of even those bad parts of our past.

When I was younger, I drove fast–I even raced my friends at times on the streets, albeit usually in rather ancient and asthmatic vehicles. I know it was wrong. I readily admit it was wrong. But there’s something kind of thrilling that it is something I once did.

My first car was a 1959 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday Hardtop, bought from the original owner. It had been parked in his garage since 1972. Beautiful lines on that car. I fell in love with the lines and woke up with a car with some serious problems, which I attacked straight on. But a change in academic priorities resulted in my Oldsmobile fund drying up. For nearly two decades, she sat–she and I hundreds of miles apart. In theory, I would have been glad to sell her, but I never tried that hard. When she finally transferred ownership only this year (believe it or not), my heart broke. In a sense, that Oldsmobile was a pile of chaff in my life. But in ways that are difficult to articulate, I still feel less whole without her.

Threshing ones soul and burning the chaff is a confrontation, to be sure.

Jesus–in his person and his message–is always more confrontational than we readily acknowledge. When beginning his ministry, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, asserting that these verses are fulfilled in him. They speak of “good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” “sight to the blind,” “freedom for the oppressed,” and so on. These are not idle phrases. They are a political statement as much as a religious one–this is how you describe revolution. And when Jesus takes up John’s message about the immanent Kingdom of God……well, what do you think that meant for the current government? It’s no wonder the religious and secular politicians of the day conspired to kill him.

Making It Personal…

Now, there’s a reason I’ve spent so much time exploring how all this feels and affects those in the NT story. The reason is this: the message of Christ is the same today as it was two thousand years ago. It is still a call to repentance; it is still a call to make way for the Kingdom of God in our lives and world. It is still confrontational.

If I preach a quality sermon that is encouraging and affirming–one that tells people to “stay the course” and “keep doing what’s right”–I’ll hear feedback about it being meaningful, impactful, and powerful. I may be told it is one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached.

But if I preach a quality sermon that is challenging–one that exposes places that need healing or change, or one that outright names a sin in our culture or world–in a case like this the feedback will be all about how I stepped on toes, I was divisive, I need to stay out of politics (even if I said nothing of politics), and that people will stop coming if I continue preach like that.

This isn’t universally true, but it is a pattern: affirm people where they are and I did a great job; suggest people need to change and I should improve my resume as I might be needing it in the near future.

Christ confronts us. Christ calls us to repentance. And this advent season we must wrestle with God and ourselves as we prepare for the coming of the Christ.

Advent, you see, is not about outreach. It is not about others. It is about getting our own souls and our own houses in order. That, I believe, does create the only solid foundation for successful outreach. But that is a sermon for another day. Unless we have learned to be honest and aware of our own individual sin and reliance on God, any attempts at getting others to follow our religion will fail, because to the outside–to the mainstream culture–we will look like hypocrites……”whitewashed tombs,” as Jesus says in Matthew 23:27.

Let this be a season where we invite our confrontational Christ to expose us for the hypocrites and sinners we are.

Let this be a season where we pull back the curtains and allow the light of Christ to dispel the darkness within us.

Let this be a season where we learn to give up the broken pieces of our past and present, trusting that our true wholeness will be found in Christ.

Let this be a season where the rubber of faith meets the road of life, and we too learn to be liberators after the fashion of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Amen.