Sunday, December 10, 2006

(Advent 2) What it Takes to Change the Landscape

Advent 2: Love invites repentance
Luke 3:1-6

I like John the Baptist. I like him a lot.
I don’t understand him completely,
but I like him.
I always have admired him...from a distance.
But now I’m coming to like him.

This wilderness prophet and baptizer is one of the more
colorful characters in the Bible.
And I admire colorful characters.
Because it’s not in my nature to be all that colorful.
Muted earth-tones suit me just fine.
You can tell that by looking at my side of the bedroom closet.
Lots of brown and beige and olive green in there.
I never have wanted to stick out in a crowd.
So I’ve admired the man John the Baptist,
the way I might admire... Willie Nelson or Jelly Roll Morton.
Because they’re colorful people.

But this Advent, as I looked at these texts again,
I have begun to like John the Baptist.
What I wouldn’t give to sit down in a coffee shop with him,
and talk for a few hours.
We could be friends.
With the exception of his insect diet, his animal wardrobe,
his living in the wilderness,
his miraculous birth,
and his penchant for yelling at people,
and calling them “broods of vipers,”
except for that, he and I have a lot in common!
I’m serious about that.
Strip away those cultural oddities,
of which we really don’t understand the significance,
and get down to the core of his message,
and I would have to say, “Amen. Preach it, John!”
It’s basically the same thing I try to preach,
only without the yelling and name-calling.

But I’ve only lately come to realize that.
I used to think John’s message was a one time only message,
to prepare the way for Messiah Jesus.
Which explains why it might seem strange to our ears.
Because we live in a different age.
We’re not waiting for the Messiah anymore.
We’ve already seen the salvation of our God.
But if you think about it,
John the Baptist sounds remarkably current.

Sure, he lived in the Middle East, 2000 years ago.
But think about the Jewish community he was preaching to.
This Hebrew community of faith, children of Abraham,
were losing sight of their peoplehood,
they were becoming more distant from the covenant.
Because they were under extreme pressure.
The Empire of Rome was slowly crushing their identity.
Many people didn’t notice, and didn’t care,
how much they were becoming like the Greeks and Romans.
But some groups tried bravely to hold onto their identity—
Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Nazarites.
They wanted to restore Israel’s sense of peoplehood.
They had vastly different methods in mind,
different convictions, different assumptions.
So there was a lot of conflict among them.
Sometimes even violent.
Meanwhile, the people of God were losing
their community moral grounding.
Now think about that description of the people
John the Baptist was called to preach to—
a faith community once close, cohesive, in covenant,
now severely fragmented, polarized,
under intense cultural and political pressure,
a faith community losing their peoplehood in a hostile culture,
a faith community losing touch with the core
of who God called them to be in this world,
because they began to assimilate into it,
rather than engage it with their faith.

Does that sound vaguely familiar?
Sounds to me like the 21st-century Western church.
Sounds an awful lot like us.
Once in close, cohesive covenant
now fragmented, sometimes polarized,
under pressure from a secular dominant culture
that is often hostile to Christian community.
Confused about who we are,
about our community moral grounding,
about how we are to live Christianly
in this culture that we have embraced without thinking.

When you think of the spiritual state of affairs
in these two faith communities—
1st-century Palestinian Judaism,
and 21st-century Western Christianity—
I think we are more alike than we are different.
And I think John’s message has something to say to us.

In fact, John’s message wasn’t original to him,
he borrowed from an even earlier time in Israel,
when Isaiah was calling the people back into covenant,
while they were floundering in exile.
John’s sermon came straight from Isaiah 40.

So over the span of three vastly different cultures,
over two-and-a-half millennia,
the message still applies.
“People of God,” the message goes,
“remember who you are.
Repent. Return to your God, to your covenant.
Return to your mission and identity as a people of God.
God is fully of mercy. God will abundantly pardon.
God wants to move among you,
to form you as a people,
to partner with you, as a people,
to establish God’s reign in the world,
to bring about what is right and just,
to restore what has been broken.”
So repent, my people. Prepare the way for the Lord.

That is John’s message—
a message to the lost people of God.
Repent, people. Repent.
This is not the kind of repentance
that we modern Western Christians tend to think of.
This is not me, individually, being remorseful, regretful,
being emotionally convicted of my personal sin.
That might happen,
as a result of hearing this message to the community.
Individuals like me, might feel sorrow and regret,
for particular ways we’ve been disobedient to the covenant.
And that sorrow might, hopefully,
bring us to confession and repentance.
But repentance is not the same thing as sorrow and remorse.
Repentance is literally, change in our way of thinking.
If you break down the Greek word, metanoia,
that’s precisely what it means.
To think again. To change our mind about something.

Or, in the case of a whole community of faith being called to repent,
as John the Baptist was doing,
I think the best way to put it in plain English is this:
“People of God, change your old ways of thinking.
Think rightly about who you are, about who God is,
and about how you are called to live in this world.”
Repent. Think again.
And your sins will be forgiven—as a people
and as individuals.

Knowing the kind of community John was preaching to,
that’s a powerful message.
The people had become lazy in their thinking.
They failed to see what the Roman domination
was doing to them as a community of faith.
They were losing their story as God’s covenant people.
They were failing to think of themselves rightly,
in relation to this powerful Roman Empire,
whose pagan culture was taking over the world.
Some of them were getting caught up in the political struggle.
Some were in active conflict with each other
over this or that bit of religious trivia.
But their major failing was that they no longer
thought of themselves as God’s own people.
And it affected how they lived.

Obviously.
We can’t avoid this connection between thought and life.
We’re not off the hook,
just because the word repentance means to change our thoughts,
rather than our deeds.
We’re not just called to do mental gymnastics,
or simply to play around with thoughts, for their own sake.
The change of thinking John was talking about
cannot be separated from doing or being.
Change of mind brings change of life.
As Douglas John Hall wrote,
“Christian thinking is a dimension of Christian being—
a very important dimension...
Doing is an extension of thought,
and thought is already deed.”
That’s one of the points Jesus was making
in his Sermon on the Mount,
when he said that it wasn’t just murder,
but angry or evil thoughts toward another person,
that would bring God’s judgement on us,
and when he said that lustful thoughts
already enact the evil of adultery.

So repentance is to change our way of thinking.
And thinking rightly will lead us toward living rightly.
And if our thought does not lead to right deeds,
it cannot be Christian thought.
Obviously, Christians have no monopoly on good deeds.
People can do good deeds for a wide variety of reasons.
Even Christians can do good, for less-than-Christian motives.
That doesn’t change the reality that there is, for the church,
such a thing as thinking Christianly.

And that is what I call us to this morning,
as the community of faith at Park View.
I invite us to become a repentant community.
As a church, let us think again.
Let us think Christianly.
Let us think our faith clearly, with the mind of Christ.
Let us examine our thought patterns as a community.
Our thought patterns shape what we do as a church.
The kind of organizational structure we adopt for ourselves.
The way we make decisions.
The way we distribute our financial resources as a church.
The way we plan our worship.
The way we engage in outreach.
It is wise to ask, dear church,
do these thought patterns that shape our life together
have their origin in God?
Are they of God?
Or do they have their origin in our dominant culture?
Are they of the world?

And if we thinking rightly about our identity as a people of God,
our personal decisions and choices will also be impacted.
Every day we face a multitude of choices
that might be influenced one way or another
if we were thinking Christianly
about our identity with the people of God.
It seems to me that my decision
about whether to watch a certain movie this weekend,
should be influenced less by whether it’s a blockbuster,
and likely to be the most popular movie in decades,
and more by whether watching it is consistent with my identity
as a part of the people of God.
The same with choices about our television viewing habits,
the kind of Christmas presents we give,
the size and cost of the houses we buy or build,
the cars we drive,
the food we eat,
the books and magazines we read,
our use of the internet,
and nearly every other choice we make.
Thinking Christianly, as a member of the people of God,
makes a difference.

Easier said than done, I know.
Thinking Christianly
requires the careful and diligent work of discernment,
and a community of faith willing to engage in this hard work.
The work is hard, but it is not discouraging.
In fact, this call to repentance is good news.
At least, according to the scriptures we heard today.

This wild-eyed, locust-eating, hairy, screaming, name-calling
prophet in the wilderness called John the Baptist,
we are told, was preaching good news to his people.
It had to be good news.
Why else would they come out in droves to hear him preach,
and be baptized?
And it’s good news for us, too.
Which is why I’d be more than happy to chat with him over coffee.

See, according to John, we have help with this work of repentance,
this work of change of mind and change of life.
What we are responsible for is the turn.
It’s the willingness to let our truth be subject to the truth of God.
To make that critical, deliberate turn
away from old ways of thinking patterned on dominant culture,
and toward thinking that is consistent with the reign of God,
thoughts patterned after the mind of Christ.
And once the turn is made,
we have prepared the way of the Lord.
The whole landscape will be changed.

John said, quoting Isaiah,
that the valleys will be filled,
mountains and hills made low,
the crooked made straight,
and the rough ways smooth.

As someone who grew in Florida, where it’s flat everywhere,
and who deeply appreciates the beauty and variety
that mountains and valleys bring to the landscape,
I’ve always had a mental block with this image
of bulldozing the mountains and filling the valleys,
and making everything flat again.
It’s just not an appealing picture.
But I understand the concept here.
It’s like rolling out the red carpet for God.
Clearing the path, making it smooth,
so God can come to us freely and quickly.
But, on further thought, that doesn’t quite capture it.
In a red-carpet kind of entrance,
everyone else does all the hard work in advance.
The honored one simply steps out of the limo,
and walks in style.
That’s not the impression we get from John and Isaiah.
It’s not quite clear who is responsible to change the landscape.
The work of preparing the way is ours.
The prophet speaks in the imperative voice.
“Do this. Make the path straight.”
But then, the voice suddenly changes.
It is descriptive, not imperative.
“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

You know, it might be tempting to think that it’s all up to us
to change the landscape.
That we have to get out there,
and start scraping off the mountains,
and filling up the valleys.
It’s tempting to think we ourselves
need to bring about this salvation.
But the good news is, this is the act of a saving God,
working in and through the very people God is saving.
The valleys will be filled, when the salvation of God appears.
It is the work of God to change the landscape.

If it was human initiative, and human power, and human wisdom,
that was needed to change the social and spiritual landscape,
then this text from Luke 3 sure is an odd one.
Did you notice how it began?
Luke takes great pains to situate this story,
in the context of the political powers that be.
“In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
while Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas...”
It specifically mentions seven different ruling authorities—
imperial, national, regional, and religious rulers.
And then comes the punch line.
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah
in the wilderness.”
What a set up!
While all these emperors and governors and rulers,
are occupied with managing all their important duties,
and exercising their prestigious powers,
God is going to step in and act
though this weird guy out in the desert.
God is going to announce the coming of the Messiah,
the anointed One who will change the entire
political, social, and religious landscape,
and asks to John, son of Zack, to do it for him.
Amazing, isn’t it?

But it sets up the rest of the story.
See, it’s not human power—even the height of human power—
that can bring about a change of landscape.
What it takes is are humble souls willing to turn toward God.
What it takes ia a people willing to repent.
To think again about who we are,
and what God is up to in this world.
And when we think differently,
God will act in us, through us, around us,
to change the landscape.
God will never coerce us into accepting this salvation.
God simply invites us to turn toward his salvation.
And then the landscape changes before our eyes.
Because the salvation of God is moving among us.

So, my dear church, let us hear God’s call to repent,
to change our way of thinking,
and open ourselves to God’s great salvation.
And in this new landscape,
let us walk as children of God,
as children of the light.

—Phil Kniss, December 10, 2006

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