The Reign of God has Drawn Near to You


Biblical Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Full Sermon Draft

I attempted something in this sermon through a couple of methods that I think most people would say don’t. John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure. He was a huge deal to those in Jesus’ time. The whole “there is not one greater born of woman” phrase that Jesus employs. John had disciples that lasted long in to the first century. The apostles in Acts run into them as “ones who’ve had the baptism of John” but didn’t know about Jesus. Even in secular literature John gets more time. Josephus records the extent of the Baptist’s following which was enough to cause Herod to come after him. But in our day and for most of Christian history John is just an almost forgotten per-cursor. He would have liked that. “He must become greater, I must become less.” But preaching from John to me has renewed vitality. My intention was to create the picture of how we and those people streaming out to John are very close, probably closer than we have been for at least 500 years if not 2000. Want to hear more of that take a listen.

The pay-off is that the proclamation of John can be the direct proclamation to the people of God today. Not that it couldn’t have been 50 or 100 years ago, but I think, if I was successful with the first part, then the second part becomes one of those “ah-ha” type experiences. That is what was so powerful, combined with oh, and it applies to me in some very specific way.

So, my guess is this either “works” or you wonder what the heck I’m talking about. Either I was successful in casting “in those days” over today, or the proclamation falls on deaf ears.

Father’s Day, Baseball, Status and Religion

worker-vineyard_bas_reliefThis is Fay Vincent, former Commissioner of Baseball, reflecting on some of his Father’s advice. Most of it is fine stuff. Advice to live a quiet honorable life. That and one line of his advice is what crosses into another column.

Here my father reflected the Great Depression and his experience of graduating from Yale with every athletic honor—only to discover the sole job available was digging post holes for the local electric utility

Reflect for a second on a generation and culture where digging post holes is where you started, even with a Yale degree. Also reflect for a second on that Yale sheepskin holder gladly doing that work. What does it suggest both about work and the cultural view of it?

This is David Brooks reflecting on a very similar move by another father.

About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, though the family had happily paid for Judd’s two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.

His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.

As Brooks goes on “Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963.”

That advice and actions of both of those Fathers would leave many aghast today is my bet. Brooks captures something true I think.

More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.

These mores, among other things, had biblical roots. In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band…In the New Testament, Jesus blesses the poor, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” But “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

Work in and of itself was ennobling and worthwhile. Even the rich and powerful had a moral check on them, and like the unjust judge (Luke 18:2-8), even if they thought it was bunk, they’d have to give justice to stop the outcry. With the rolling outright rejection of Christianity and more important Christendom (simply the understanding that the state is taught its ethics by the church), that check is gone. Like Paul says in Romans, if you won’t be instructed by the Word, God says fine and hands you over to your desires. And so we have naked lawless state that feels no shame in lying to us or listening in on whatever they want to. In fact they feel justified and get angry when countered because after all they are at the top of the only status hierarchy left. Who are you to complain? On what legitimate basis?

[Insert “repent, return to the Word, and God may yet be merciful” sermon.]

Pastor’s Corner Newletter Article – A Christmas Question

A book published in 2005 called Soul Searching, followed up in 2009 with Souls in Transition, coined a phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). The writers polled and interviewed thousands of Americans between the ages of 13 – 18 and then followed up with the 18 – 25 year olds. The results are a clear diagnoses of too much of the teaching within the church. The teachings of the church received by this cohort were: 1) a squishy system of right and wrong (moralistic), 2) making you feel better about yourself (therapeutic) and 3) don’t worry because the dues ex machina will make everything ok but only when you really need it, no personal messing with your life (deism). MTD is at the same time extremely adaptable and potent, and thin gruel. It also bears little resemblance to the God incarnated and revealed in Jesus Christ.
Kathleen Norris, writing about the annunciation, Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel which we looked at in Bible Class recently, comments – “Modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery, a fact that tends to manifest itself in worship that employs the bland speech of pop psychology and self-help rather than language resonant with poetic meaning…the mystery of worship, which is God’s presence and our response to it, does not work [on demand].”
It is that presence of God that is really missing in MTD. The presence of God is something holy. It is the potential for salvation. It is the Baptist cry of repent. MTD and much of modern Protestantism has taken that word repent to a logical conclusion. If I say the right words, if I am truly sorry for these sins, God will wipe them away. That is true, but it misses parts of the word. There is a cloud of words used for repent in the new testament. They all have mental and emotional parts, but they all stem from words that mean turn: turn around, walk a different way, change yourself inside out. MTD never really asks you to change, to walk a different way. It seeks to comfort you as you are. That is spiritual death. It never asks you to change because it can’t, because you never meet a holy God – just that God from the machine that clears up messy spaces.
The God we find in a manger isn’t clean. He isn’t life’s janitor. Instead He came down to be a part of this ongoing mess. This ongoing mess we call life too often robs us of our ability to turn. It robs us of our eyes to see wonder and our ears to hear the angel’s “holy, holy, holy.” We end up like Zachariah being told about John the Baptist’s birth asking – “How do I know this is true?” instead of Mary’s simple wonder, “How can this be?” Mary’s knowing it was true and marveling at the message. Instead of that MTD god we keep at a distance, Christ came to us. And He comes to us with an offer – turn, see, hear, marvel at the works of God. The question of Christmas is if our hearts are virgin enough to say yes to what we can’t understand. Can we say yes to a God that is not at a distance, but all to close and knows our messy parts? Can we say yes to a God that offers salvation, and not just therapy?