Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sermon from January 21, 2007

Based on Luke 3:7-12 and 4:14-21 (read it here: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=36579865 )

John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. You may remember that when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, was pregnant with John the Baptist. The story is told in Scripture that Mary went to visit Elizabeth; and when Mary came into the room, John the Baptist sensed the presence of Jesus and he leaped in Elizabeth’s womb.

The lives of the two men were intertwined from the start and stayed intertwined through their whole lives. John the Baptist understood his life in terms of preparing the way for Jesus.
Scripture describes him as an eccentric man, a wild hermit who lived alone and ate locusts and wild honey. John came onto the scene slightly before Jesus and announced that God was going to do something–very soon–that would be new and startling and would bring salvation to some and judgment to others. He understood his calling in terms of the passage from Isaiah that is quoted here: "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 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 places made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God." John understood that he was to prepare the way of the Lord.

The way that John chose to do this was through stern warnings. "You brood of vipers!" He said. "Bear fruits worthy of repentance," he said, meaning don’t just talk about repenting, live a life that shows you’ve repented. In fact, he carried the fruit metaphor a bit further, onto territory that’s a bit scary for some of us. "Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit," John says, "is cut down and thrown into the fire." Here, he means to say that those who claim to be in God but are not living lives that demonstrate a change of heart are not really in God.

John’s message is so intense and so passionate that naturally people were concerned when they heard it. In fact, it sounds like John got the crowds quite worked up when they heard it. "What should we do?" they asked. And John’s remarks are very interesting. He says, "Whoever has two coats should share with anyone who has no coat; the same with food." Even some tax collectors heard John and were scared–and tax collectors were usually ruthless types, not easily scared at all. But the tax collectors ask him what they should do and he says, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." (In those days, the tax collectors often added a little bit onto the tax bill and kept it for themselves.) Even soldiers, we read, were scared and asked what they should do before God did this new thing. What do we have to do to bear fruit, to stay out of the fire? And John tells them that they shouldn’t do what soldiers sometimes did–they threatened people with false accusation, saying they would turn them in for a crime they didn’t commit if they didn’t give them a certain sum of money."

In essence, John tells all of these people that they need to clean up their lives if they are going to be ready for this new thing that God is doing. They need to start sharing their goods; they need to stop extorting other people. They need to give up the bad things they are doing and start doing good things.

While John’s words are certainly fiery and intense, when you look at what he’s really saying, it’s really not different from a lot of sermons I’ve heard, and many of them that I’ve preached.
Maybe I don’t talk a lot about fire and brimstone, maybe I don’t threaten people with being burned up in unquenchable fire, but a lot of times I’ve said things like John said. Share your things. Don’t be addicted to money. Don’t abuse people. Etc. Etc. Etc.

All of these are, of course, good lessons for us to hear and things we should take to heart. But at the same time, I’m struck by the way John talks about them–now hear me out about this. These things are not something one does as a result of being religious or meeting God; these things are things you do if you want to get ready to meet God. It may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I want you to see what I mean.

Look at how very different Jesus’ first sermon is than John’s sermon. Whereas John talked about rules to be followed, whereas John talked about getting right with God, Jesus talked about release from captivity and deliverance from oppression. Jesus said, "This is the text that defines my ministry: God’s Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind." John seems to have a very narrow scope of vision; he wants people to clean up their personal lives, wants them to live holy lives. But Jesus’ scope of vision was much larger. Ultimately, at the end of it all, Jesus was not focused on getting people to follow rules. Jesus was focused much more broadly–to proclaiming God’s reconciliation with all the world, including the poorest, the captives, and the blind.

Jesus and John the Baptist had a very interesting relationship all through their lives, from childhood up. But I guess the question we need to ask ourselves now is, "Who’s right?" Jesus or John? Who are we going to follow? Is John right–do we need to follow the rules and get our lives on the straight and narrow? Or is Jesus right–is God really about this broad vision of reconciling the whole world to himself and using Jesus to do it? Who’s right–John or Jesus?

You’re probably expecting me to say something like this, but if the question is "Is John’s sermon right or is Jesus’ sermon right?" the answer is "Yes." Both of these sermons have extremely important things to say to us as Christians. And if we ignore either one, we will be incomplete spiritually. Both of these thoughts, even though they seem very different from each other, are essential to living a Christlike life. In fact, if you have one without the other, you’ll be downright dangerous.

I know some people who focus on the words of John and ignore the words of Jesus. These people, in many ways, are wonderful people. But they tend to think of the Christian life as a series of rules to be followed. They hear the words of John and they’re scared, and so they spend their lives trying harder and harder to clean up their lives like John said. They try really hard to not do anything wrong with their lives–they don’t smoke and they don’t chew and they don’t go with girls who do. As I say, they’re good people, very earnest and sincere, but they’re missing a lot of what life in Christ really is.

And I also know people who listen to the words of Jesus and ignore the words of John. They hear Jesus’ words about bringing liberty to the captives, about releasing the oppressed, and so they run around trying to save the world, but deep inside they are so angry that the world refuses to be saved. They don’t know anything of Jesus’ calm serenity; they do plenty of good things, at least for a little while, until their anger overtakes them and they burn out and can’t do those good things anymore.

If we really want to know what the Christian life is about, we have to have Jesus’ sermon in one ear and John’s sermon in the other. We have to realize that the Christian life is both striving to live a life of personal holiness and at the same time recognizing and playing a part in what God is doing to set the whole world free. We cannot have one without the other. I grew up valuing holiness and not freedom and that will make you crazy. I know some people who value freedom and not holiness and that also lacks anything definably Christian. To be Christian, you must seek after both with all your heart.

In fact, we understand it most clearly when we understand who John and Jesus were and the roles they played in each other’s life. John came, remember, to prepare the way for Jesus. John ‘s mission was not to stand alone, but to lay a foundation in people’s lives, so that when Jesus came, people would be ready to hear and receive his message. So the stuff that John is telling people–straighten up and fly right–is not the whole message of Jesus, it’s not the whole gospel. But it’s something that a person has to do if they’re really going to hear what Jesus says. What John’s saying to do is not the main point. But if we don’t do it, we’re never going to hear or understand the main point.

In fact, maybe the key to understanding this is that John came before Jesus. When John tells the people of that time–and us–to clean up our lives, he is telling us not so that we’ll have squeaky clean and perfect lives. He’s telling us to live holy lives because it is only when we are pursuing holiness that we understand what Jesus is actually talking about. Pursuing holiness is not the whole gospel, but it is essential background to understanding the gospel.

Let me give you an example. When I was a little boy, one of the clearest memories I have was riding in the car with my dad. And I remember he let me sit in the front seat of the car, which meant that my mother must not have been with us; we must have been on some outing together. And my dad stopped at a little store in our town and picked up something to drink–I even remember it was a can of Fresca. And he came back to the car, opened the soda, backed out of the drive and on we went again. Well, I stayed quiet for a while, but eventually I became very upset. Why? Because I thought my father was "drinking and driving." And so I told him about it, that he shouldn’t be drinking and driving.

Now, of course, my father wasn’t actually "drinking and driving." He was having a Fresca. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father drink, much less drink and drive. But the point is that I didn’t know that. I didn’t have the life experience to know that when grown-ups talk about "drinking and driving," they’re really talking about drinking alcohol and driving. Without that experience, without that context in my life, I completely misunderstood my father’s actions. You need to understand some of the background; if you don’t you’ll misinterpret what’s going on.

It’s very much like that when it comes to John and Jesus. John’s message about holiness prepares us to understand Jesus’ message of freedom. If we try to understand Jesus without hearing John, we’ll completely misunderstand Jesus’ words and actions.

I think that in our lives today we still misunderstand Jesus sometimes. Jesus stands up and says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor;" and we think, "Oh, good news to the poor...must be something economic. Must be something economic Jesus is talking about." Yet Jesus was talking about something that had an economic component–a world where everyone has enough–but it wasn’t just about economics, it was about a change in the whole world. When we hear this in context of what John said about holiness, we realize that part of the good news for the poor–indeed, part of the good news for all of us–is that it is when we are poor that we have the best chance of listening to Jesus because our possessions get in the way.

Or we hear him say how he is here to proclaim freedom for the oppressed, and we hear the word "freedom" just like a modern American does, liberty to do what we want or what we feel is right. But Jesus was talking about a different kind of freedom; Jesus was talking about true freedom. Jesus was talking about a freedom to not be enslaved to ourselves, a freedom to give ourselves away while the rest of the world is desperately trying to protect their possessions and their sense of self. Jesus was talking about the freedom to lose ourselves, not the freedom to assert ourselves. This makes perfect sense when we hear Jesus in the context of John. We must hear the call to freedom in the context of the call to holiness. Only then can we understand what being free really means. Just like I didn’t understand "drinking and driving" without essential background information, the Christian cannot understand "freedom" without the essential call to holiness. If we do not pursue holiness, then we hear Jesus’ words about freedom and we say, "Woo-hoo! We’re free! We get to choose the course of our lives, we get to choose what’s right and what’s wrong;" and this is a dangerous warping of what freedom really is.
On the other side of the coin, we can’t understand John without understanding Jesus. We can’t think that the Christian life is all about pursuing holiness, without understanding Jesus’ message. Sometimes, this is what the world thinks about Christians.

When I worked at a day camp, when I was one of just a few Christians on staff, people knew that I was in school to become a minister. And so they expected certain things of me. They expected me not to curse. They expected me not to drink (especially when I was underage, but even when I reached 21, they expected me not to drink). They expected me not to smoke; they expected me to set a good example for the kids even when I wasn’t sure they were watching. In short, they expected me to follow the rules. They expected me to be a good young man. They expected that because I said I was following God, the natural result is that I would be a good rule-follower.

And of course, learning to follow the rules, learning to do right and avoid wrong is an important part of my Christian walk, and it should be an important part of yours too. But it is not an end in itself. We pursue holiness not simply for the sake of pursuing holiness. We pursue holiness for a reason! We pursue holiness because when we have made pursuing holiness a part of our lives, then we are equipped to enter into the amazing part of the Christian life. It is then we can understand the blessings of the Christian life.

I know lots of Christians–maybe even some of you–who are content to simply hear John’s sermon: follow the rules, and try to do right and not do wrong. If so, you also need to hear Jesus’ sermon! You need to know that the reason we pursue holiness is not just for the sake of being holy. We pursue holiness because God desires to give us freedom, and liberty, and good news, and healing. We pursue holiness because when we are doing that, we understand what freedom really is, and we understand what liberty really is, and we understand what good news really is, and we understand what it means to be healed.

There is an exciting adventure out there called life in Christ; and it will demand all of your being, your body, mind and spirit. It will consume you, and it will change you, and it will be the best thing you’ve ever done if you sign up for the journey. It is not simply a matter of memorizing the lists of right and wrong and following them; it’s a matter of being changed into a new being, from glory to glory. And you will never know that adventure if you settle for making Christianity about following rules. But neither will you know that adventure if you never learn to follow them.