Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Conflagration" - December 16, 2018

Luke 3:7-18
December 16, 2018

            During my last year of seminary, I took what turned out to be one of my favorite courses.  It was “The History of Christian Preaching”.  There were only two of us in the class, so we met in the professor’s office once a week over lunch – and she provided dessert.  We read sermons from the early Church all the way up to the early twentieth century and discussed them from a variety of angles: Were they faithful proclamations of the gospel?  How were the scriptures interpreted and applied?  Was the speaker’s rhetoric appropriate to the setting?  Do we know how the hearers responded? 

There was a final exam with one question:  Of all the preachers whose works we encountered over the past months, which one would we most like to have heard, and why?  I went with Girolamo Savonarola.  He was a monk who lived in Florence, where he was burned at the stake on May 23, 1498.

            What got him burned was preaching that sounded very much like John the Baptist’s.  Repentance was his message, and he demanded to see signs that it was real.  He saw the need for heartfelt sacrifice on behalf of the poor, and demanded that it be shown.

“O my brothers, to you I say: Renounce your extravagance, your paintings, and your vain ornaments.  Make your robes less full and of thinner material.  Do you not realize that your extravagances are taking alms away from the poor?  O brothers, O children, it is necessary to speak frankly in this way, that no one may say: “I did not know about it,” and so excuse himself.  I am obliged to speak thus, [“Woe be unto me if I preach not the gospel!”]  Woe to me were I not to say it!  I declare to you that if you will not listen to the voice of God, He will punish you. …

     O merchants, renounce your usuries; give back other people’s belongings and the things you have dishonestly taken; otherwise you will lose everything.

     O you who have anything superfluous, give it to the poor, for it is not yours… the poor too ashamed to beg, who so often die of hunger, while you have so much in excess. …

     And now, O priests, I must come back to you; I mean the bad ones, for I am always reverent to the good ones.  Renounce, I say, that unspeakable vice, renounce that accursed vice that has so greatly provoked the wrath of God upon you.  If you do not, woe, woe to you!  O lustful ones, dress yourselves in hair-cloth and do that penance which you need!  And you who have your houses full of vanities and pictures and indecent things and evil books, …poetry contrary to the faith, bring them to me to make a bonfire or a sacrifice to God.  And you, mothers who adorn your daughters with so much vanity and extravagance and fancy hair ornaments, bring all these things here to us to throw into the fire, so that, when the wrath of God comes, He will not find them in your houses.  And thus, I command you as your father.  Now, if you will do this in these matters, as I have told you, you will be sufficient, you alone, to placate the wrath of God; otherwise I should regret to have to bring you bad tidings.”[1]

And so were lit the famous “Bonfires of the Vanities” that destroyed much of the artwork of the early Italian Renaissance, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes by the act of gangs of teenage boys who broke into the houses of the Medici and other nobles who had fled the city.

            Into the fire went the paintings and the musical instruments and the mirrors.  The jewelry was melted down and the gold and silver used to help the hungry and the homeless.  The public squares blazed up, and he took it as a sign of the kingdom of God chasing out the kingdom of this world.  After all, had not John the Baptist spoken of the coming of Christ as that of a refining fire?

“‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”  [Luke 3:16-17]

I don’t remember the details, but I do remember when I was in high school that there was a televangelist who held a big event where he invited people to show up with their heavy metal and disco records and to toss them onto a big fire.  If you’re really, really turning your back on such things, you might as well get rid of them rather than keep them as a temptation.  Savonarola has had his imitators to this day.

            Most repentance, though, is neither that dramatic nor that simple.  As John the Baptist advised people, to truly repent is to do what you are called to do with integrity and honesty, whatever your situation.  It’s not a once-and-done matter, but a way of life.

“Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”  [Luke 3:12-14]

Really, to become caught up in the dramatic and fiery moments is often still to be concentrating on yourself.  “What must I do?”  “What should we do?”  Repentance is to turn your gaze away from yourself and look instead at the needs of others.  What is going on in their lives?  What is it like to be them?

            The Messiah came, as John said he would, and his coming burns away the useless and undesirable parts of human life.  His coming, however, was not as someone who was concerned at all about his own comfort or his own dignity.  How comfortable is it to be born in a stable?  How dignified is it to be wrapped in strips of cloth and left in a feeding trough?  Had he been born in our own day, he would have been one of those children born without any prenatal care, lucky if there is a midwife to help out, and defined as “at-risk” in government reports or news articles.  It wasn’t for himself that Jesus came among us, but for the sake of all humankind.  He didn’t come to destroy, but to build.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 
[John 3:17]

            Those who would follow him have to expect a change of perspective that reflects his.  They have to expect a turning around of their minds (which is the precise meaning of the word that the Bible uses, “metanoia”).  They have to expect to start seeing what they did not see before and experiencing the love of neighbor and even the love for enemies that Jesus showed.  Jesus’ followers have to take to heart – which is not an empty expression – the words of Paul, who experienced the deepest kind of repentance and renewal himself, and said:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.” 
[Philippians 2:3-11]

           So, folks, friends, sisters and brothers:

                       "Penitenza!  Penitenza!"  Repent!  Repent!
                       Rethink, reorder, reorganize.
                       Start over, begin again, clean house.
                       Rejoice, renew, restore, restart, refresh, reboot.
                       The kingdom of God is at hand!

[1] From “Penitenza!  Penitenza!” found at

Saturday, December 8, 2018

“Confrontation” - December 9, 2018

Luke 3:1-6

This passage from Luke occurs long after Jesus’ birth.  It has to do with John the Baptist setting things up for Jesus’ public ministry.  But it does explain, in its own way, why Jesus was so sorely needed in that time and place and why we need him just as much.

Let’s start with these names that people have such fun with.  On the one hand, Luke as a historian is simply providing us with the date.  Tiberius became emperor in 14 A.D., so the fifteenth year of his reign means we’re talking about our year 29.  Luke wants us to know that this is not a “once upon a time” sort of story.  It’s news, with a byline and a date.  What’s taking place is happening in the real world, the world where there are identifiable times and identifiable places, like Judea and Galilee and Trachonitis.  The setting is the area around the Jordan.

On the other hand, Luke mentions some very specific people.  Just mentioning Tiberius would have been enough, but he throws in a few other administrators for good measure.  And what a crew it is! 

            The first one is Pontius Pilate.  For us, and I expect for Luke and every other Christian from the earliest days, he is best known for being the Roman administrator who sentenced Jesus to death.  In Luke’s account, he did it with full awareness that Jesus was innocent and at the same time releasing a man named Barabbas

“who had been put in prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.” [Luke 23:19] 
Maybe his conscience bothered him a little, because afterward he allowed Jesus’ body to be taken down from the cross, when normally the corpse would have been left on display as a warning [23:52], but that was probably a political decision on his part, helping to exploit differences among the local leadership.

            Speaking of the local leaders, Luke also mentions Annas and Caiaphas.  In John’s gospel, when Jesus is arrested, he’s taken to the house of Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, and that is where the decision is made to hand Jesus over to the Romans.  It’s there that Peter stands in the courtyard and denies three times that he knows Jesus at all.  Luke doesn’t use their names in his retelling, but he does describe all of that.  Even for those who might not have known the details of Jesus’ trial, though, their names would not have been heard with warm fuzzies.  They were among the high priests who were appointed directly by the Roman governor.  That meant that they could only hold office as long as they collaborated with the Romans against their own people.  Caiaphas stayed in office for around fifteen years, so he must have done pretty well at that.

            Then there’s Herod.  He was part of a dynasty of Herods, none of whom were especially kind, compassionate, or moral.  Later on, Luke [9:9] mentions that Herod had John beheaded, and if you want the full story you can read it in Mark [6:14-29], where it comes about in part because John dares to confront Herod about having divorced his wife to marry his brother Philip’s wife instead, a woman named Herodias who had a daughter named Salome by her first husband, who was also her uncle. 

           These are the people whom Luke chooses to name when he says,

“the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” [Luke 3:2]
A lot of scholars think that John was in the wilderness because he was hanging out with the Essenes, who were a religious group that had looked at what was going on in both the political and religious circles of Jerusalem and Judea and had said, “Enough of this.  Let’s get away from these people.”  They went out into the desert and built their own communities and tried to observe the Law as well as they could.  They built a lot of ritual baths to use in purification ceremonies and some believe that John’s practice of baptizing people in the Jordan grew out of that.

            That is always an option, of course.  When you find yourself surrounded by a corrupt society, get out.  That was what the pilgrims did.  That is what the monastic movements of the Middle Ages often advised.  That’s how the Amish live.  Even now, people sometimes enclose themselves in a religious bubble or wrap themselves inside communities that put up very strict fences around themselves.  Sometimes those are visible fences, actual walls.  Other times it involves a firm view of who is inside and who is outside. 

            The problem with that project, though, is that running away from one wilderness simply leads you into another because we carry so much of the sin we want to escape within ourselves.  John baptized Jesus at the Jordan, and the Spirit of God descended upon him.  Mark’s account says,

“the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” [Mark 1:12]
Luke gives a slightly milder wording to it, saying that he

“was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” [Luke 4:2]
Unlike us, Jesus never gave in, but he was not spared the confrontation.  The Spirit always seems to send someone, like it or not, however, into those places where they come face to face with injustice and wrong.  When that happens, when someone discovers that there is no escape from either from the dangers of the world or from the answering voice of God, the challenge becomes how to do what John did, and what Jesus ultimately did: confront the world in hope rather than condemn the world in fear.

            John the Baptist shows up in all the gospels because God’s call found him in his own wilderness and led John in turn to point to Jesus, as the one savior who helps us in our own wilderness, whatever shape that may take, rather than to hide out inside someplace of false security.  Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, says,

“Two thousand years later, John’s call remains a wilderness call, a cry from the margins. Because we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” [1]

“They” were Pontius Pilate and Herod, Annas and Caiaphas, and (by the way) you and me, too.

            So if you cannot get away from the wilderness, take heart in the truth that Jesus is right there with you.  Take a good look at the wilderness and then set about making it more like it could and should be.  Make it a place where God is not only a distant voice echoed in human voices, but a place where God is a living presence.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
            make his paths straight.
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.” [Luke 3:4-6]

Saturday, December 1, 2018

“Expectation” - December 2, 2018

Luke 21:25-36

            I’d like to think that Advent begins with the voices of the prophet Isaiah and of John the Baptist declaring,

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
            make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”
 [Isaiah 40:3]

For good or for ill, however, many people hear a totally different voice.  Oh, the message is the same as Isaiah’s:

“What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
            their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
            when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.” [Isaiah 40:6-7]

The voice that speaks and the words it uses are different, though.  You may find them familiar yourself:

That is, of course, from the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

            Charlie Brown isn’t the only one to have a generalized sense of fear and dread.  Long before Charles Schulz, Jesus had said,

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  [Luke 21:25-26]

As much as I would like to tell you a simple, “Fear not!”, I have to note that these are Jesus’ words.  He’s the one who said to watch out for times and seasons when things may seem to be going drastically awry because they really are going wrong.  W.H. Auden wrote a poem about how a sense of dread overcame him one day, sitting in a bar in New York.  It starts:

“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.”

The title is “September 1, 1939”.  That was the day that Hitler invaded Poland. 

               You might want to ask yourself what keeps you awake at night when you think of the state of the world.  Is it AIDS or ebola?  Climate change?  Terrorists getting hold of powerful weapons?  Perhaps it’s something more personal, like a health issue or job security or a troubled relationship.  Maybe you’re not worried so much for yourself, but someone you love is in trouble and you cannot figure out what’s going on or how to help them.  If you linger too long all the things that can and do go wrong in the world, it can become paralyzing and you can become like a deer in the headlights.  (By the way, the chance of hitting a deer is one of the things that gets me.)  This past week I heard Terry Gross comment that “Rumination is introspection’s evil twin.”

               Jesus said that it’s wise to be aware of these things, not to erase uncomfortable realities from your mind by getting drunk or killing your brain cells any other way.  If the world is a dangerous place, you want to keep your wits about you.  At the same time, he says not to worry about things in the way that would tie you up with fear. 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” [Luke 21:34-35]

               Instead, what you want to keep in mind is that beyond each time of trouble, whether it is personal trials and hardships or whether it is trouble on a world or even cosmic scale, God has something better in mind that lies on the other side of it.  If you keep your eyes open, there are always going to be signs of that as well – small, perhaps, but real signs that the God who made all things makes all things new.  Jesus said,

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  [Luke 21:29-31]
Somebody walking into my house one Saturday in the middle of December might find the entry hall with the doormat pushed up against the wall or knocked to the middle of the floor.  They might find a toolbox sitting there, open, with a few items scattered all over the place.  This is not normal.  They might take a couple more steps and see that the dining room chairs have been shoved aside and look into the living room and see another chair and an end table out of place, sitting right in the middle of the room where they do not belong.  They might say, “Something is wrong here.  What is broken?  What’s the matter?”  And then, taking a step or two more, cautiously and carefully, they will see the far corner of the living room and realize that it’s all so chaotic because I’m putting up my Christmas tree.

            A small piece of advice: it’s probably best to stay out of my way and quiet until the lights are all on the tree.  But after that, feel free to help out with the ornaments.