Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
Recently, on some of the Methodist Blogs that I read there has been a discussion prompted by the question, “What is an evangelical?” (1) I commented,
“. . . that where does spreading the Gospel come into play in the discussion? To me, an evangelical is one who spreads the Gospel. The root word for evangelical comes from the Gospel and I think that is where the discussion must focus.” (2)
“. . .you bring up what may be another discussion, which focuses on what evangelicals do (which would be much harder to pin down in my opinion!). My purpose was to lay out doctrinally what I think evangelicals believe.” (3)
In following up the idea about doctrine and what evangelicals believe, Andy Bryan wrote,
There are some people for whom theology is a set of propositions to which one may subscribe. If you subscribe to one set of propositions, you are a Christian. If you subscribe to another, you are Jewish. If you subscribe to another, you are a Muslim. And so forth. Even agnosticism and atheism fit in nicely here, as the subscription to their own respective sets of propositions about God.
For a Christian who has this mindset, evangelism seems to be a rather rudimentary process of comparing sets of propositions and ascertaining which set is “right” and which set is “wrong,” and convincing people to subscribe to the “right” one. The “right” set of propositions is almost always the set held by the one doing the evangelizing, which makes the set of propositions held by the object of evangelism, by definition, “wrong.”
So, the evangelist starts off telling their target, “You are wrong; I am right. The only way for you to get right with God is to stop subscribing to your set of propositions, which are wrong, and adopt mine, which are right.” (4)
Now, as suggested by my original thought, I think that being evangelical is more about what one does than what one thinks. I also do not think that one can have a conservative mindset when it comes to being evangelical. If we say that being evangelical is being committed to the spreading of the Gospel, that is, the spreading of the Good News, then we are in agreement with what Jesus said the day He began His ministry,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (5)
Of course, you have to believe in this statement in order to make it true but this is a statement of action, rather than just a statement of belief.
The Gospel message is a message of bringing hope to the poor; it is a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also a message telling others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.
The thing is that when you say that you are an evangelical, or for that matter, a Christian in today’s society, it is automatically assumed that you are also a conservative. To say that you are a liberal is to say that you have no religion or that you are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And try as I might, I cannot figure out how that is possible.
There is, I believe, no contradiction between the nature of the Gospel message first put forth by our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the nature of being a liberal. To be a liberal is to bring hope to the individual, to the person lost in the shuffle of big business and big government. It is about insuring fairness and equality for all, insuring that all get an equal opportunity to succeed. It is about being able to provide the basic necessities of life without struggle. If we are not mistaken, these are the same basic aspects as the mission statement first put forth by Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago.
Unfortunately, most liberals have forgotten that it is the individual that they should be supporting and they have paid the price for this forgetfulness. But while conservatives say they are for the individual, they do little for most individuals, favoring the rich and powerful.
Conservative religious leaders are correct when they say they are following the Bible. But instead of following what Jesus would do, they are following what the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the scribes were doing. Then, the majority of the political and religious leadership condemned Jesus for eating with sinners; they judged people without willing to be judged themselves.
Read what these major conservative Christians have done over the past few years. They have condemned Tony Campolo, a noted Baptist minister and evangelical, for ministering to President Clinton. They condemned Rick Warren for inviting Senator Barack Obama to a conference on AIDS because Senator Obama supports abortion. They presume to say that they speak for God and tell us that God has chosen President Bush. Time and time again, leading conservatives have shown that their place in the Bible is among those who condemned and persecuted Christ, not along side Jesus in his ministry.
Let me take this moment and state that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and I have accepted Him as my one and personal Savior. I also believe that there are a set of beliefs that you must have in order to build a foundation for your faith.
But this is where I probably separate myself from many people. My beliefs are what I build upon, that which makes my faith stronger. I think today that too many people try to use their beliefs in order to build walls around them. And while such walls are meant to protect one from the outside, they also lock you inside a structure and you cannot interact with the outside world.
Do I believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Yes. But do I believe that the words in the Bible are inerrant and fixed? No. When you start critically reading Genesis and you finish Genesis 1 and begin Genesis 2, you find that there are two creation stories. So you begin your study with contradictory stories and you have to realize that these are words that mankind has written to explain to others who God is and what God does.
This, of course, means that I do not accept the viewpoint of many concerning creation. The earth was not created in seven days and the world is not less than 8,000 years old. I am reminded by the Gospel for today (6) that God’s power and his work are readily seen.
Have you ever seen a valley filled, a mountain made low, and crooked made straight? (7) I have.
The Appalachian Mountains are both a thing of beauty and a barrier to advancement. Stretching from northern Georgia into Maine, these mountains blocked easy passage from the thirteen colonies into the undiscovered heartland of this newly discovered continent.
This is not to say that there weren’t ways to get around or through the mountains. On the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky is a ten-mile wide gap in the mountains best known as the Cumberland Gap. This natural opening in the mountains was known to the Indians of the area and then used by Daniel Boone as he moved into Kentucky, developing the Wilderness Road from the gap to Boonesboro, KY.
The next such gap in the hills is about 100 miles north of the Cumberland Gap and is known by the town which is close by. This is Pound Gap and marks another passage through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky. I first became aware of Pound Gap when I moved into the area to teach chemistry at the local community college in that part of Kentucky. At that time, in 1998, the Kentucky and Virginia Departments of Transportation were in the process of rebuilding the roads coming down from the northeastern corner of Kentucky and splitting into highways going into Virginia and Kentucky.
If you happen to visit Pound Gap, and it is a place that I recommend, you will be impressed by the wonderful beauty of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Virginia. It is even possible on a clear day, to see the presence of New York on the far northeastern horizon. And on the northern edge of Pine Mountain, you will see where the covering has been stripped from the granite underpinning, showing the natural history and numerous rock layers that have shaped this part of the country. Geologists from the world over come to Pound Gap to see the layers of rock laid down over the countless billions of years that it took to form the Appalachian Mountains. (8)
It did not occur to me until one day as I was coming down from a meeting north of Whitesburg that I realized that my first visit was not in 1998 but rather back in 1987 when I drove from central Ohio down to Jacksonville, Florida. As I compared the road that I was driving back then to the one I drove almost weekly during 1998, I received a very clear impression of what it meant in the scripture for the valleys to be filled, the mountains and hills made low, and the roads to be straightened. As noted in some of the publicity about the project, this was one of the most massive earth removal projects in the history of road construction.
In 1987, as I was driving up the side of Pine Mountains, the road was a series of switchbacks and since it was after dark, I could see the front lights of the cars in front of me above me. Yes, above me! But, in 1998, all of those curves and rises in the highway had been stripped away and the valleys filled to bring a more gradual straight drive up to the split in the roads, which then went down the respective sides of the mountain.
It has often been noted that straightening roads or filling valleys requires a great deal of effort. And that was certainly the case for the redesigning of Highway 19 through Pound Gap. But as you see the cuts on the side of the mountain detailing the history of this world, you can begin to gain an appreciation of the complexity of God’s work and why it is so hard to understand what He has done.
Now, some might say that the multiple layers of rock that you see on the northern face of Pine Mountain are a result of the great flood. But the problem is that the other evidence, such as the dating of the rocks, shows that it took several steps and several million years to accomplish. If, as some might say, this evidence is wrong, then how is it wrong? Have scientists continued making the same mistake over the course of their work? Or has God “played” with the data so as to cover up the actual age of the rocks, so that we cannot find the truth? Neither of these two scenarios is quite likely. What is likely is that we are seeing a process that is overwhelmingly complex and when we try to explain it, we do in simpler terms. The story of the creation (either story) is not about the physical formation of the universe and the earth but rather an explanation of God’s presence in our lives and it should be understood that way. And it should also be understood that no matter how the earth was created and life on this planet has evolved, science will never answer the question about why it was done?
The battle over evolution and creation are, it seems to me, an attempt by conservative Christians to seek an environment where open scientific inquiry is stifled. They would rather tell someone who God is rather than have individuals discover God for themselves. Free inquiry in science does not prevent people from finding or believing in God; rather it promotes the notion of faith and knowledge.
Being evangelical is being committed to the notion of promoting faith and knowledge. It is not done by forcing others to believe what one believes or by proclaiming that the only path to truth is the one that you have followed; it is by showing that there is truth in the Gospel message and that such truth is available to all.
Look at what Paul writes to the Philippians for today. (9) Is he not commending the Philippians for their sharing of the Gospel? Is he not commending them for showing how the love of Christ moves beyond the boundaries of the community? If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve more as a wall to protect us, it is impossible for us to share what we believe. If we hold to a set of beliefs that serve as walls, then others cannot easily be a part of our community. And I think that is what Paul is telling us today. Unless we are willing to share what we believe, unless we are willing to show that we live by the way that we believe, our efforts to bring the Gospel message to the world will be futile.
The prophet Malachi spoke of a messenger preparing the way, of someone who would speak of the coming Messiah. For us, that passage tells us of the coming of John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out for each of us to repent of our sins and prepare for the coming of Christ.
But who is that messenger today? Who brings forth the Good News that Christ is a part of our lives. There is still a need for a call to repent but it should be made with an understanding that there is also a call to begin a new life in Christ as well.
Who is it that will make this call? Who shall be the messenger today? Who shall offer words of hope and bring forth the light that is Christ? We know of those who have encountered Christ in the past and through him received the hope and the assurance that there was a life beyond the boundary of death. We know that those who believe in Christ find a life that has opened up for them a way to ultimate fulfillment. These witnesses have found that the valleys have become filled, the mountains laid low, and the crooked paths set straight. We know that these witnesses have encountered Christ and we know that their lives have changed. We know this because we are those witnesses.
And because we are those witnesses, it is our task to do the same today and project our faith through what we say and do into our time. Who are the messengers today? We are the messengers.
(2) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(3) See note 1 – comments for 4 December 2006
(4) From http://entertherainbow.blogspot.com/2006/12/heads-youre-right-tails-im-wrong.html
(5) Luke 4: 18 – 21
(6) Luke 3: 1 – 6
(7) Luke 3: 5
(8) You can go to http://strata.geol.sc.edu/Appalachian/AppalachianTrip.html to see pictures of the side of Pine Mountain at Pound Gap.
(9) Philippians 1: 3 – 11
Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday of Advent