Season of Blessings: Perspective
November 27, 2016
by Rev. Melanie Homan
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(Season of Blessings Sermon Series)
“Season of Blessings: Perspective”
November 27, 2016
Rev. Melanie Homan
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[a] 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
You don’t need me to stand up here and tell you that things are not right in the world, for you to know that things are not right in the world. We know it. Last weekend, I watched as indigenous people were sprayed down with water for hours on end in below freezing temperatures, on a bridge I stood on just weeks ago – And my heart breaks. Image after image of children suffering in Aleppo, along with headlines saying that 1 out of every 3 children in Aleppo have only known war in their life – And my heart breaks. I received a robo call last week letting me know that my children’s school was on lock down for over 2 hours. The kids were kept locked in their classrooms, not because of an incident at their school, but because a police k-9 unit was searching each home on the block for a suspect in a crime – And my heart freaks out and also breaks.
I know that my heart is not the only one breaking. I’m also acutely aware that the fears and worries that I have are NOTHING compared to the realities facing immigrants, indigenous people, Muslims, and Jews right now. I am a straight, white, educated woman, which means my heart breaks – but in a different way than those whose livelihoods and safety are at risk on a daily basis.
I’m aware that my angst comes from a place of affluence. So, as we begin the season of Advent – this season of waiting, this season of preparing for the coming of Christ – I think what we all need is a little perspective…maybe a perspective different than our own….maybe multiple perspectives.
I’ve forced myself to read things that make me very uncomfortable because I want to learn. I want to hear other voices and look at what’s happening in the world through different lenses. It’s not fun. It’s often uncomfortable. But, just like we aren’t supposed to hide our light or the light of Christ under a bushel, we can’t hide ourselves under a rock with fingers in our ears singing “la la la la la, I’m not listening!” because we don’t like what we see and hear.
Our small groups have been reading the book “Speaking Christian” by Marcus Borg. For some people, it has been a breath of fresh air. It’s been a great opportunity to reclaim Christian language that they’ve always struggled with, and it’s given them a place within the Christian story and tradition that they’ve been missing and seeking. For other people, it’s been incredibly distressing. The ideas Borg shares do not resonate with their core beliefs. The same words that bring one person closer to God are disorienting to another. I’ve had some individual conversations with people about this, but I wanted all of you to know that the adult education team chose this book, in part, as a recommendation from our Healthy Church Intiative team to help us go deeper in our faith.
My hope in it was that it would help people more clearly articulate their beliefs – and on that front, we have succeeded! I think it is helping people get clear about what is important to them, even if it has been unsettling. The life of faith often is unsettling, especially when we are engaging in the hard questions with God. I also want to be clear – some of what Borg writes really resonates for me personally, while other things he writes I don’t agree with at all. We’re not trying to sell anyone on salvation through Borg. Our salvation comes through Christ, the one we spend this season preparing to welcome. Whatever your reaction or response has been to this particular book, my hope is that it has introduced you to a different perspective and helped you to define your own.
Our Gospels give us different perspectives, too. We have Jesus – who embodies love and compassion and mercy. He’s busy healing people, teaching people, and caring for people that no one cares about. We have a lot to learn from him. We can try to look at the world through a “Jesus lens” and ask ourselves how our actions match up with his teachings.
Before Jesus comes along, though, we have John…John “the Baptist”. And John – well, John gives us a different perspective. If you think Borg makes people uncomfortable – well, Borg has nothing on John the Baptist. John was wild. He was of the wilderness. John, who ate honey and locusts – has the look and feel of someone who lives in a harsh climate and speaks harsh words.
Jesus says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” John says, “You brood of vipers!” He didn’t dance around judgment. He proclaimed it. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor!”.”
See, the Pharisees and Sadducees were all coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John because it was the “thing to do”. Their ancestry, their lineage, from their point of view, was all they needed. But, John said that God doesn’t care about where you came from, who you were born of, or what entitlements you think you have coming your way.
“I baptize you with water for repentance.” That’s the message of John – repent. There was a lot for the people to repent from back then, just as there is a lot for us to repent of right now. John’s message – it’s unsettling, it’s uncomfortable. And his message gives us a different perspective on life.
John was trying to prepare the people for Jesus. In order for them to fully hear and understand what Jesus would come and do, they needed to get their spiritual lives in order. The first step was repentance.
We don’t talk about repentance much in church. I don’t see the benefit of shaming people or using fear to induce people into righteous living. As Richard Rohr has said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” I prefer to focus on the practice of the better. That’s what we do here!
But, there is still a place for repentance…even if it makes us uncomfortable. I think it most often makes us uncomfortable because of all of the layers of negative experience and tradition that have been piled onto that word.
John’s dad, Zechariah, had this to say about his son… “For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John, the wild one, will guide our feet into the way of peace, the way of shalom. Shalom, or this peace, means far more than the absence of war. In scripture it means wholeness, harmony, delight. It means crookedness being made straight, rough places made smooth, flowers blooming in a desert.[i] (Joseph Pagano, Episcopal digital network).
Another way to think of shalom is “the way things are supposed to be”. We can look at the world around us, globally, but also in the microcosm of our own lives, and sense when things are the way they are supposed to be or when things aren’t as they should be. To guide our feet into the way of peace is to guide us toward the way things are supposed to be.
So, it is within this context, that we hear these words from John as he came in from the wilderness to speak the word of God to the people, proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In the Gospel of Luke he goes on to say, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
He calls us to repentance. Repent? That sounds so harsh….because sometimes it is! It can be hard, it can be harsh. But, it can also be good and life-giving, to take a good look at ourselves and our actions to see if we are walking in paths of peace…to see if we are living “shalom”.
Repentance is actually one of the great gifts our faith tradition has to offer a world where things are not as they are supposed to be. It seems that one of the cultural values of our time is to stand your ground or stay the course….to not change your mind. Changing your mind about something might mean you are weak. Changing your mind or direction means you are waffling….you’re indecisive, not strong and clear about what you believe. We seem to value people who take a stand and then dig in, regardless of what the issue is.
But, taking a strong stance on something and not allowing yourself to critically look at your position, to be open to alternative ways and to consider that the current path you are on may not be the best path to walking in the ways of God’s peace and shalom, hurts us individually and collectively. For that reason, John’s call to us for repentance, is Good News! Repentance as Good News is a different perspective!
Repent comes from the Greek word metanoia, which literally means, to change one’s mind…to turn around, to reorient oneself. John calls us to turn towards God, and to continually look at ourselves and our actions to see if we are turned towards God. If we are turned towards God – towards God’s shalom – GREAT! But, if we have started down another path – a path that leads us or others away from God – once we realize it, we’re invited to turn around and to turn ourselves toward God again. When things aren’t the way we feel in our gut that they are supposed to be, that’s a signal it’s time to turn…to shift…to make a change.
This repentance, this self-reflection and turning towards God, is our work to do. It is our preparation for Christ that John challenges us to do every Advent. This is John’s challenge, and it is good news for us and for the world, if we hear it and act accordingly.
We know the vision God has for the world. We know when things feel right and when they don’t. This act of turning toward God reminds us that we have a role and place in creating the world we want… creating the world we believe God desires. Advent is a time of preparation. It is also a time for imagination. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, we can spend time imagining what kind of world we are trying to prepare. Instead of just getting ready for another Christmas, how can we also get ready for a better world during this season?
We create the world we want, through something as basic as language and how we use it. We get to choose our perspective and how we frame the world.
We get to choose how we go about preparing it. At least for John, he saw the world we prepare as being one where valleys are filled and mountains are made smooth. And, here’s the clincher – “that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The way of the Lord does not include divisions of Muslim versus Christian, or women versus men, or poor versus rich, or young versus old, or homosexual versus heterosexual. No matter what divisions we create, John says that “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The key word here is ALL. How do we choose to live in this world when the salvation of God we’re preparing for is connected to the word ALL…when all flesh includes your grumpy boss, curmudgeonly Uncle Bob, and the classroom bully? Spend some time thinking about this and what it means for us that John spoke in such a radically inclusive way about the One for whom we prepare. May we be blessed this week with a different perspective – on repentance, on John, on Jesus, on the state of world.
This Advent, let us prepare the way of the Lord, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. May God guide our feet and pave straight the path for us into the way of peace. Amen.
[i] Joseph Pagano, Episcopal Digital Network, 2012.