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.

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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.

Words of Hope


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.
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I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Advent comes at the darkest part of the year. For many, this time of year is dark, not only in terms of sunlight but also in personal terms. To hear the words of hope offered by John the Baptist and the prophet Zephaniah is to hear that the darkness that envelopes ones life is only temporary.

Zephaniah is writing at one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed over 100 years before Zephaniah began writing his prophecy. The southern kingdom of Judah had suffered under the wickedness of Manasseh and Amon. To the people, the evils of their reigns made doom appear certain. Though Josiah led a revival that affected all of Judah, it only delayed the invasion of Babylon in the mid 6th century B.C.E.

Zephaniah first proclaimed the day of doom and did so in the darkest of terms. But, in the passage that we read for today (1), he offers a blessing for future glory that is as bright a picture as the doom he foretold was dark. This prophecy offered words of hope for those who truly know God. Zephaniah promises us that even God will sing in these new days of hope.

But for this to happen, the people must turn back to God. Those who listen to his call for repentance and respond, the good news will wipe out every piece of bad news. These are the same words that John the Baptist uses in his call for repentance.
Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; to repent is to change one’s life, to renounce the past and begin anew. In today’s New Testament reading (2), the people ask John what they should do. These are not questions about repentance but rather questions about their new life. Repentance means nothing if your life remains the same. Our preparation for Christ’s coming in this world is seen by the manner in which we treat others. If we choose to ignore others, then our act of repentance was meaningless.

In his letter to the Philippians for today (3), Paul challenges them not to worry about what is happening in this world but, rather, trust in God and give Him thanks. This is because there has been some sort of disagreement between two members of the church and the disagreement is threatening to disrupt the attitude of love that had been a distinctive part of the church. We are not told what the disagreement is about, though we are told who the participants are.

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement, also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (4)

How we treat others will always be the way others know that we have changed our lives and made the decision to follow Christ. When Jesus was with His disciples and followers following His resurrection, He told them that the signs of His presence were around them. When they asked how, Jesus pointed to the sick, the needy, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, and those who society would rather ignore. It is how we treat others that will tell the world that Christ is in our lives. To treat those whom society would rather throw away is to say to all that hope is present in this world.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul points out that it is important that we focus on our relationship with God, especially in times of strife and stress. God will hold to the covenant; it is up to us to do so as well. When Zephaniah spoke of the doom that was to come, it was because the people had forgotten their relationship with God. In calling for the people to repent and begin anew, John is also speaking of the relationship that one has with God.

As these days become shorter and darkness seems to readily enfold everything around us, we hear words of hope. We hear Zephaniah speak of the lost coming home, the lame walking, and the outcast welcomed. We hear John telling us that the Messiah is coming. We hear God singing and we hear the words of hope.

We also hear that we cannot simply wait for hope to become a reality. We must take the words of hope and write them on our heart. We must take the words of hope and use them to change our lives. And in these changes, by our words, our thoughts, and deeds, we offer hope to those around us so they will also know that even though the days are dark, there is a light of hope coming to this world.

We hear the words of hope today. We leave with those words of hope so that others may hear them as well.

(1) Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20
(2) Luke 3: 7 – 18
(3) Philippians 4: 4 – 7
(4) Philippians 4: 1