Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent. I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this weekend. (I found out that I had posted this particular message twice so, obviously, I deleted the other one. Also, as it happened, I didn’t make it to Dover on this particular Sunday; there was a rather bad snowstorm the night before and we cancelled the services.
With the words of Isaiah for today (1) and what Jesus said about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (2), I could not help but think about the first time I came to preach at Dover.
Like many computer/Internet savvy users, I pulled up one of the map and direction websites and put in the address for the church. The advantage for the modern day circuit rider is that you can get a map with directions from anywhere to everywhere. The disadvantage is that the way that is determined the best way may not always be the best; it may be the most direct but it is likely to be a route that takes you over hills and through the woods. What many computer map systems do not have is a sense of what is actually there. Because I have come back to this church on a number of other occasions, I have come up with a route that gets me here quickly and safely.
The one thing about finding your way to someplace new is that you have to be able to read a map and you have to be able to determine if the information that you have been given is correct. There have been a number of occasions when the information given does not match the actual situation or you have to modify the directions because your knowledge of the roads tells you to find another direction.
There are times, of course, when you just want to follow your own thoughts about where a road might take you. When I lived in Kansas a number of years ago, I noticed something slightly odd or perhaps just quirky about the U. S. highways in the area where I lived. In the southeast corner of Kansas is the small town of Oswego. If you take U. S. Highway 59 south out of Oswego, you eventually run into U. S. Highway 60. Driving eastward on U. S. 60 will get you to U. S. Highway 61. If you are careful, you will eventually drive on U. S. Highways 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. For reasons known only to the highway builders, U. S. Highway 68 runs through Ohio. But from Highway 67, you can get to U. S. Highway 70 which will take you to U. S. Highway 69. And when all is said and done, you are in Columbus, KS and 16 miles from where you started.
Based on this little journey through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, I thought it might be possible to go up to Maine and follow Highway 1 to where it intersected Highway 2 and continue all the way across the country. It turns out that you cannot do that because the number of the highways was not done in such a logical manner. What this little trip through the Ozarks does show is that you can take a journey and end up where you started.
Our lives are sometimes like that. We go through life headed in a particular direction because we think it is the right direction to take and we make the changes when it is appropriate but when the time comes to evaluate what we have done and where we have been, we find that we are where we started and no better off. It is at such times as these that we wonder where we are going to find any meaning to life and how we are ever going to find our way in this world.
It is human nature to seek meaning in life and we desperately want to know that what we do has meaning. Many times, we simply want someone to point out where to go or give us the right direction in which to head. But other times, we simply want someone to get us where we need to be or give us the things that we seem to be lacking.
In one sense, the question that John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus is a question that we often ask ourselves. Is Jesus the One who has come or is there someone else for whom we should wait?
John the Baptist is in prison for having questioned the legitimacy of King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow. The Baptist knows that his life is about to end and his work is over; all he wants to know is whether or not all the work that he had done was in vain. He sends his disciples to Jesus and has them ask if Jesus is the One who is to come. Is Jesus the One whom John the Baptist prepared the people for? Even though Jesus is his cousin, John is not certain if what he has done means anything to the people.
Jesus replies by asking the disciples what they see. Do they not see the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the sick healed, and the oppressed rejoicing with the hearing of the Good News? The signs tell them that Jesus is the Messiah and John’s work has not been in vain.
But what does this mean for us? How can we, in the chaos of today’s world, see the signs that tell us Jesus has come or that what we have done has any meaning? Too many people want the church today to give them the answers; too many people want the church to ease the pain of living in this world. They do not want the church to tell them that their work and their lives have been in vain.
And too many churches today do exactly that; they give the people what the people want to hear. They do not give them the truth. Did not Jesus ask the people who were following him if John the Baptist was wearing colorful robes? Did not Jesus point out that John the Baptist came as he was and what he said was, if you will, the plain and unvarnished truth? The truth is often a very hard topic for the church to say and for the people to hear.
Last week, there were two shootings in Colorado. Some said that the killing of the people was part of God’s plan and nothing anyone did would have stopped the killing. I have a hard time with that view of the world because it means there is no hope in this world. It means that you walk a path through life but it is a path that goes nowhere and when the path ends, it ends. What Jesus offered was hope, not despair and I don’t think that God would allow people to die just to fulfill a plan.
There were others who said that these killings were indicative of how society is. Those who died in the school in Arvada or in the church in Colorado Springs died because of society’s indifference to the problems of the world. But, placing the blame on society still does not give us a reason or a solution. If society is partially to blame for the Colorado killings, it is because it has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the young man.
And if society did not hear the young man’s cries, it is because the church has not done its job. Despite what others may say, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state; it is the conscience of the state. (3) The church is called today to lead those who hear the cries of the lost and the forgotten, not be among those who ignore the cries.
But in too many ways, the church does forget or ignore the cries. There are pastors today who will tell you that it is entirely proper and right for you to seek riches in this world. God has blessed you and you have the right to those blessings here and now. All you have to do is plant the seed and let the seed grow. The more you plant, the greater will be your reward. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It does not matter whether you have the money or not; you can always use your credit cards. But it seems to me that the only ones who are being rewarded are the preachers who ask you to send them your money and they are not too happy when you challenge them about their finances.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked six prosperity gospel ministers to answer some questions about the money they receive and their clearly extravagant lifestyles. Two of the six have answered his questions; two of the six are thinking about answering the questions. The other two are refusing to do so, saying that to do so would be a violation of the separation of church and state.
There should be no questions whatsoever about one’s ministry. New Testament Christianity is humble, selfless, and authentic. Those who carry the truth don’t do so for selfish gain or to meet an emotional need for attention. We can only hope that God will help us root out the false apostles and false teachers who are making the American church sick with their human-centered, money-focused heresies. (4)
Not all churches preach the prosperity gospel. They just don’t preach the gospel at all. All you hear in so many churches today is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Again, we hear Jesus rebuking the people who wanted John the Baptist to give it to them easy all over again. And Jesus’ rebuke to the people is a reminder that what He will ask of them is far harder and more demanding than anything John every asked.
It is one thing to have modern music in church today; it is an entirely different thing to take away the meaning of the music. It is one thing to put the Gospel into the vernacular or patois of today’s society; it is another thing entirely to take the Gospel out of the service. It is one thing to expect that we should live well or not lose what we have. It is another thing to say that what we have is ours and ours alone or that we will not share what we have with others who do not have anything. It is one thing to say that we have what God gave us and we do not have to give what we have to others.
God created the world before He created the church. The church is a part of the world but it has moved away from the world as people have sought easy answers. The church has moved away from being a church that faces conflict and suffers persecution, killings, and bombings to one that avoids conflicts and causes persecution. The church has moved from seeing Jesus as liberator to seeing Jesus as a servant of the church.
It is no wonder why people do not turn to the church in moments of crisis or turmoil; they see the church as the reason for the crisis or turmoil.
If we are to find our way again; if we are to get back on the “right” track, we have to make some radical changes in our lives. And we need to be reminded that John the Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for change. Repentance does not simply mean that we say we are sorry for what we have done; it means that we will seek to change and become a new person.
Instead of wrapping an impenetrable barrier around our hearts while we wrap the presents that we will place under the Christmas tree this year, we need to unwrap our hearts and let the Love of Christ come into our lives. Instead of thinking about December 26th as the day after Christmas and the day we return the unwanted gifts, we should begin to think about how we can take the Love of Christ given to us on Christmas Day and give it to others each day after Christmas.
The change may not come that easily but we are comforted by the words of James today who told us to be patient. (5) It is easy for us to do this because we have seen what Jesus can do; we know what we must do.
Christmas has become that time when we think we have to go to Bethlehem. But because of the demands that society places on us, we don’t think that we can get there. We ask how we can get there when everything around us tells us that we can’t get there. But there is no longer a place in our journey; it is a time. And that time is now. How do we get there? We open our hearts and let Jesus come in.
(1) Isaiah 35: 1 – 10
(2) Matthew 11: 2 – 11
(3) Martin Luther King, Jr. – in “A Real ‘Values’ Agenda” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, January 2008
(4) “The Deadly Virus of Christianity”, http://www.charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/show.php
(5) James 5: 7 – 10