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.”
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.”
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.