Forerunners In Faith

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Matthew 4:12-17  What John the Baptist began in faith according to the prophets is confirmed and now propelled forward in the ministry of Christ. Each of us is given a gift. We are forerunners of that gift. It is up to us to nurture it for the glory of God, for it is God who plants the seed and through Christ he will make it grow.

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, … ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.  1Corinthians 1:20-31

Advent 3 – What Then Should We Do?

You brood of Vipers! (Luke 3:7-18)” They didn’t even bother to defend themselves. The “power elite” among them, soldiers and tax collectors alike, all asked of John; “What then should we do? You know that you have someone’s attention when people start asking questions. This I believe is always a good thing because without dialogue people never fully understand one another. More than anything, God wants the crowds to understand that while he is to be in the midst of his chosen people, their birthright has lost its dialogue. Who but the spirit of this “wild man” from the wilderness, a marginalized son of a priest with nothing to lose, to get their attention? What I find notable in this scenario that we are presented with in this dialogue between John the Baptist and the “power players” is the hint of consciousness in those who have lived well at the expense of others. Willingly they place themselves among the poor perhaps believing that they would go unnoticed. Or, perhaps believing that to not present themselves among the people might speak volumes about who they claim themselves to be as ancestors of Abraham. Nevertheless, they are mulling the possibility that if John’s message is true, that the Kingdom of Heaven is near – regardless of the controversy that John raises concerning their livelihood, they want access to that Kingdom! That is until they realize the sacrifice they would have to make, which many did.

I’d like to talk more about the word access. A major part of John’s ministry I believe was about making access to God for the people of Israel attainable. Some may say that it was always attainable and while this may have been true at some point, evidenced by their question of “what must they do,” the people of Israel had forgotten how. God’s access to his people had become corrupted. Very much like a virus in our computer that corrupts access to important files, the Internet and ultimately to one another, or a business without access to the web losing access to its clients and customers. Because of corruption and abuse God was losing access to the people of Israel and subsequently everyone else who might come to believe in Him through them. Today, this word access comes up more times than we like to admit but the reality is that nearly every controversial issue in our lives has to do with access. We debate access to jobs, employment, medical care, education, money and most recently and probably most emphatically about access to defend ourselves against our neighbor. Needless to say, in terms of who what when and how, all of these areas have become political issues for us today. All of these accesses represent this country’s liberties so much so that there is no shortage today of people wanting to enter in to this country to participate in these liberties that we from birth take for granted and on occasion abuse. It seems to me that access has become so sacred to the point where before we question its equality, level of restrictiveness, or disparity among the people in this country, when something goes terribly wrong we are quicker to question (in many cases blame) and move to focus our attention on natural human environments like mental illness, human capacities and inexperience. In particular, for tragedies like the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, the lack or perhaps in this case, excessive abuse of access to the liberty of bearing arms is disregarded or held unaccountable. Politically speaking, access is a double-edged sword and in a civil society we are constantly having to ask our selves do we want to control the people or do we want to control the liberty. Too often we choose to control one without consideration of controlling the other. Ironically, we created these liberties for our selves in order that we all have an opportunity to pursue dreams and happiness, yet we fail to understand or ignore the fact that the loss of a life because of a liberty is the loss of a dream fulfilled. In my mind, no liberty will ever be more important than saving a life.

This in part is John’s message for the power elite of his day and the same message for us today. To the lay John responds, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ To the tax collector,  ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you’ and the solders, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ The coming Kingdom that the people of Israel have long awaited, and the kind of world we, and others whom strive to enter, is about saving lives, living into the fullness of the Creator’s dream. The corrupted temple sacrifices, lengthy disheartened prayers, and the multiple cleansing rituals of John’s time have about as much value before God as the senseless “blood sacrifices”, lengthy back and forth conversations and multiple politicking over liberties has before us today. Thus, the straight path into that salvation requires that we make decisions that favor relationship and compassion for one another over self-serving pursuits. One has to wonder if we have become a society of modern day Corinthians. If that be the case today, it is incumbent upon us to read again Paul’s letter outlining the one liberty that God so freely bestows upon us (1 Corinthians 13:1-13) and remember that a Christian society is called to do likewise. Love. From a Christian point of view, our relationship and compassion for one another takes precedent over our absolute control over steadfast protection of such liberties, when they contradict or conflict the New Commandment to love God and love neighbor as self. Which of the lay, soldiers and tax collectors among us today will be willing to make the sacrifice. I believe our access to God today is just as critical as it was 2000 plus years ago when the forerunner for our spiritual salvation came that all who believed could be redeemed and reconciled with our Creator and one another. How many more forerunners do we need? “And we, what should we do?” Our action today is just as critical. More than ever it seems quite clear to me that no political maneuvering is necessary. Assuming what is written within our hearts, we remember that we have the capacity to love. Our lives and the lives of all our posterity depends not only on access to but our willingness to make full and just use of Love, this politically unwritten law and yet the only enduring liberty.

Advent 2 – Forerunners

advent2-repent rejoice-logo2…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke makes it very clear; of the Emperor Tiberias, the Governor Pontius, three regional rulers – Herod, and his brothers Philip, and Lysanius, there’s no shortage of people in charge! Yet we know that for the citizens of their regions, it’s simply the same stuff, different day! That is of course until some locust eating, camel’s hair clothed “crazy man” begins raising Cain on the outskirts of town. (And) As long as he remains on the outskirts, the rulers of the day don’t quite know what to make of him. They know that he is John, the son of old man Zechariah the priest and his elderly wife Elizabeth. They know that he hails from the wilderness area in the region of Judea stretching eastward from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, some 20 barren miles of rugged hills and valleys, down towards the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.  They also know that in spite of the journey their own constituents seem to be making every effort to go meet this son of Zechariah in order that they might hear what he has to say. Who is this son of Zechariah? What makes others flock to be in his presence? How might his popularity affect not only perceived authority and influence of the current rulers but of the constituents as well? On an ordinary day these questions aren’t all that unusual? However, upon further inquiry the rulers find instead an itinerant “preacher” speaking of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He even goes so far as to provide some Mikvah type ritual as an outward representation for those who desire to be “renewed” before the eyes of God. Again, this is not so unusual and seemingly harmless. Except that, he also tags his message of baptism with a message of preparation for the way of the Lord who is coming for the salvation of his people. For the benefit of the hearers they are urged to make that way of preparation a straight one.  Although his words sound familiar to the prophetic voices in the Hebrew Scriptures, hearing them from the mouth of this “modern day” eccentric left some with more questions than answers about the one chosen to be the savior of God’s people. Now it’s been a while since the word of God had come to anyone. If, as the scripture reveals all flesh shall see (look upon, gaze at, come face to face with) the salvation of God, is it possible that the son of Zechariah himself could be the one prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures? When asked by the community leaders of the region, he himself denies it as his voice continues to cry out in the wilderness. However being the peripatetic preacher that he is, it is impossible for his cries to remain on the outskirts, but eventually reaches the larger masses of biblical Palestinian life.

Today, it’s not unusual to see people on the street screaming at passersby; “Jesus Christ is the way! Repent! Are you ready for Christ return?  Usually we just keep walking and perhaps mumbling over our thoughts about how this person is crazy, mentally ill or both. Isolated encounters at best, by the time we get where we are going we’ve pretty much forgotten about the brief event. But you certainly can’t argue that there might be something in the message. Although we cannot compare our wilderness preacher of the first century with those we see today proselytizing or “prophesizing” on the street, you have to wonder if God intersects our busy lives through the year with these occasional voices to give us an opportunity to re-evaluate our own life circumstances and ask ourselves are we ready?  Are we prepared for Christ’s return?  Unfortunately, those aren’t the only voices of which we pay little attention. That is of course until some event ultimately occurs in our society that forces us to consider the things of which we are really prepared.

Natural DisastersParticularly, in the past two months we have had some devastating events. Two of which provide contrasting levels of our state of preparation, for such occurrences. The first of which is the recent natural disaster of hurricane Sandy, which hit the New Jersey coastline. While it is always difficult to predict the severity of damage that may or may not occur, as a society we have developed the tools that not only prepare us for the possible timing of storms of such magnitude, but also it’s probable direction. These advances in our society are a gift for us. They act as the forerunners, which give us some time to make preparations that in many instances saves our lives. However, what was the forerunner for a more recent devastating event, which happened at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut? This is not the first time for such a tragedy and yet when it happens on such a large or small scale we always seem to find ourselves unprepared for such tragic human acts as the killing of six adults and 20 innocent children? Far too often we only fully understand it long after it’s happened and left with the often stated “This kind of thing never happens in our town.” However, if we consider the South African concept of Ubuntu, which says if it happens to one it happens to all, that statement no longer makes sense and we need to begin to understand and prepare for the reality that what we once thought of as a marginalized event will eventually reach every part of our society. Could we have stopped hurricane Sandy? No. But the tools we have at least gives us an opportunity to be better prepared for what we believe is about to happen. Could we have stopped a troubled misguided person from taking innocent lives? We may never know. But we must always consider how well the tools we have in place are at the very least serving to minimize the outcome regardless of where it happens. If a tool or system in our home stops working or becomes inadequate, who among us hesitates to find another tool or system?

My message today isn’t about what we can and cannot control in this life. Rather, in keeping with the proclamation of John the Baptist, it’s about understanding that our individual realities affect our societal realities. It’s about understanding that the straight path meets with those realities, (physical, emotional, natural, and spiritual) face to face. So too in the same way, Christ desires to meet with us face to face. Luke’s story of John’s message of the coming Messiah helps us to understand that the journey to Christ is a path of mountain highs and valley lows made straight by our conscious preparation for what is promised by the voices of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. As we all know life itself is not without its wilderness moments especially during this time of the year. Perhaps our wilderness doesn’t look like John’s, but his ministry is an empowering image for each of us who struggles to hear, even as the wilderness of our individual lives continue to expand with more and more people trying to control the various connecting circles in which we live. Ultimately, in an over stimulated society inundated with a plethora of social electronic access, sometimes we have to be that voice in the wilderness that questions and challenges those areas of preparedness which collectively affect our lives. However, we can be encouraged that it was in the wilderness that the word of God came to John. We have tools and systems in place to help us be more prepared for the tragedies of the physical world. God is asking no less of us in our relationship with him today and the reconciliation he promises to have with us upon the coming of Christ return. Are we prepared? How many forerunners do we need to have today before we hear what the scripture is really saying? Let the proclamation stand:

“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 ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Luke 3:1-6