Cast Aside the Old

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.

I was delayed in getting them posted this week.


And John the Baptizer called those who had come to watch the baptisms that he was performing a “brood of vipers.” He asked them who had warned them to flee the coming wrath. There haven’t been too many days when I did not feel the same about many of today’s sectarian leaders, those who proclaim themselves to be bearers of God’s truth but whose only interest is in the preservation of their own comfort and power.

And while I may not have thought so in the past, I have come to look at many in the secular world with the same contempt that the Baptizer had held for the religious leaders of his day.

Among the various sites that I follow is a decidedly liberal web site. And how it treats the idea of religion is very interesting. For whatever reason, it treats religion with a certain degree of contempt and ridicule, just as a similar conservative web site would probably treat atheism. And quite frankly, many of my comments on the liberal web site are not well received because I make it quite clear that I am a Christian. And, while I have not posted much to conservative sites, many conservatives have posted their comments on my blog which bring the same degree of ridicule to my statement about being a chemist. It is as if in today’s society that you can be a Christian but you cannot be a scientist or you can be a scientist but not a Christian.

But those who make either of those claims have what I call an appalling lack of knowledge about the other side. And as long as your view is limited, it will be very difficult for progress to be made. Progress can be very limited if one is not open to other ideas or one remains closed to the possibility of new ideas.

I listened to a conversation this past week on National Public Radio that, while centering on Islam, had implications for all religion. One caller to the show identified themselves as a Mormon and commented on the fact that people see Mormonism in light of polygamy, especially the version espoused by the more fundamentalist believers. This person said that the public’s view of religion was based on the extreme edges of the religion.

During the discussion that followed, one of the individuals on the show spoke of a noted Islamic theologian who said that an interpretation of the Qur’an tells you more about the person giving the interpretation than it does about the verse being interpreted.

I am not arguing for a middle of the road approach, for I believe as Jim Hightower has said, the only thing in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. We cannot say the world is full of evil and then turn around and fight it with evil.

When there are people who are hungry, when there are people who are sick, when there are people who are naked or without housing, you do not shut the door on them because of their race, their culture, their belief, or their lifestyle. Yet that is what we are doing today. When you tell people that belief in God is hopeless or futile but you give them nothing to believe in, they will turn away.

The words Paul to the Philippians are very difficult to hear when it seems that those that have will keep what they have and take more from those who have nothing; it is very difficult to hear words of optimism when greed is valued more than thrift.

The words of Zephaniah echo loud and strong today. He spoke of a new age, of a time when the lame and the outcast will be saved and the shame that they felt in a society that ignored them would be turned into praise. Israel at that time was faced with an uncertain future, a future that the people have brought upon themselves by their indifference and self-centeredness. Zephaniah announces that they must change their ways or the uncertainty of the future becomes assured doom.

I cannot help but think that so many of those who proclaim themselves to be the representatives of God on hear, be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim, are similar in nature to those whom John the Baptizer criticized two thousand years ago. And to some extent, the secular authorities of today are no different from the Roman authorities of that time either. Both power groups were only interested in preserving and expanding their power; they worked with each other for mutual growth. But such growth could only come at the expense of the people.

Are we not in the same situation today? Are we not a society so self-centered that we are unable to see the other view; to think beyond and outside the box in which we live? The religious authorities of John the Baptizer’s day are accused by John of being vipers because of how they have treated the people.

I will not let the people off by blaming secular and sectarian authorities. They hold the positions that they hold because the people have let them. We have failed to be the people we should be. Each of the prophets of the Old Testament did not lay the blame at the feet of the authorities but at the feet of the people. And that is so very true today.

The people would rather spend their time listening to reports of the failing of sport super stars or budding Hollywood starlets then spend time thinking about what it will take to save this planet from its destruction by the inhabitants. I heard an interesting little tidbit of information last week; Seattle, WA, is a leading center for recycling. As such, you would think it has a very “green” attitude. And perhaps it does. But at the same time that the people of Seattle are recycling their newsprint, glass, and aluminum, the level of auto emissions has risen. You cannot expect to save the planet by recycling aluminum while having your SUV sitting in the driveway idling for ten minutes. (But don’t stop recycling; just cut down the idling).

John the Baptizer was very clear about the changes that were to come to Israel two thousand years ago. He called for those who came to be baptized to repent of their past and begin a new life. He called for the tax collectors to collect only what was required; he called up other soldiers to treat the citizens fairly. He chastised those whose words were opposite their actions. He spoke of the coming of Christ, clearing away the trash and garbage that was cluttering up and destroying society.

But change can be a fearful thing and those who hold on to power use fear as their primary means of keeping that power. Fear echoes throughout our religious and scientific discussion. A religious fundamentalist will not allow you to question their beliefs because they are afraid of the consequences. A sectarian fundamentalist may be willing to let you question their beliefs but that is because they do not have any beliefs; on the other hand, they have no vision for tomorrow because their vision is totally locked up in the present. It is their own insecurity that prevents them from seeing the hope that is now and has been offered throughout the ages by God.

I also discovered that others hold the idea that I have stated before, that those who are insecure in their own beliefs fight strongest to prevent a questioning of their belief. Dan Dick wrote the following in one of his posts,

The weaker the faith, the stronger the negative passion.  People who feel assurance in their beliefs are rarely threatened by someone who disagrees with them.  I find this to be especially true about ecumenical and interfaith engagement.  When Christians are strong and secure in their beliefs, they joyfully and gladly engage with people of other beliefs and faiths.  The weaker the personal conviction, the more hostility, distrust, disrespect, fear, and judgement define the relationship.  Same goes with secular phenomena as well.  Evangelicals got all up in arms about Harry Potter swaying the weak and spiritually immature.  However, it seems that this was little more than projection — raising the alarm from their own weak faith.  Those who were strong in their faith and intellectually rigorous saw the stories for what they are — stories.  Only those who believe that the devil is as strong as, or stronger than, God had anything to fear.  Doubt is not the antithesis of faith; fear is.  Where people scream loudest against opponents, it is fear that motivates them, not faith. (From “Pushing Buttons”)

I would add to those comments that it is not just faith, but faith and reason that will stand up to fear. It is the confidence that Paul writes of his letter to the Philippians for today; it is the confidence that comes from the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

Jesus never said that following Him would be easier; in fact, He said it would be difficult. And perhaps the most difficult thing is that each individual must change. The call from John the Baptizer echoes throughout the ages, to repent and begin anew, to wash away the present and prepare for a new life. It is a new life that begins when you cast aside the ways of the past, secular and sectarian, and begin anew in Christ.

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