Saturday, January 25, 2014

Do We Have to Leave Our Nets Behind?

Matthew 4:12-23
Ordinary 3
January 26, 2014
William G. Carter

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

Jesus gets to work. After his baptism, after a series of tests from the Devil, Jesus begins the work God gave him to do. He settles in the town of Capernaum and makes it his base of operations. John the Baptist had been arrested and taken to prison. In all the commotion, John had dropped his sermon in the dust, so Jesus picks it up, brushes it off, and preaches the same exact nine-word sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He preaches the same sermon that John the Baptist preached.

It has the same effect. People flock to him. They come by the hundreds. While they had to find John in the desert sands, they find Jesus in a small village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. John dunked them wet, Jesus dries them out. John shouted the sins of hell out of them; Jesus straightens their spines, heals their headaches, and casts out any lingering demons.

Hundreds of people come for this. Thousands of people find him. He cures every illness -- Matthew says, “Every one!” Every sick person brought to him was cured. God’s regime of healing had come very close. The power at work in Jesus was spilling out all over. Everybody was healed and restored. And the crowds got bigger. Word was spreading: Jesus is the closest thing Galilee has to a spiritual rock star.

And smack dab in the middle of that account, he collects two sets of two brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. All four of them are working the water. Simon Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea. Jesus calls and they leave it there . . . in the water. James and John are in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending the broken strands of their nets. Jesus calls, and they leave behind their father to keep fixing their nets.

It is a striking contrast. Between the big moments with the crowds, Jesus singles out these four fishermen. “Follow me,” he says. He doesn’t say where. He’s not very clear about what. They drop their nets and follow him wherever it is that he is going.

Years ago, the story was explained to me by Wilma Caswell, our favorite Sunday School teacher. She said, “They left their work as fishermen to go into the ministry.” As a second grader, I thought long and hard about that. I was glad I didn’t like to fish because I was sure that I didn’t want to be a minister. If that’s what the story was about, then it didn’t have anything to do with my mom or my dad or anybody other adult that I knew. Except for the minister of my church – he loved to fish – and he had a motorcycle. My parents hated motorcycles and they said I could never have one, so I was pretty sure I would never ever become a minister. I could breathe easily!

Now I know that is garbled reasoning, especially given my present occupation. But it struck me as a garbled story. It was the call of the first four of the disciples. What did it have to do with the rest of us?  It is a particular story about a particular foursome of men. It’s not about us. In fact, I’ll bet one of the people in the story – old man Zebedee – was a good bit annoyed that Jesus the woodcutter essentially kidnapped his two hardest workers, who may have been unpaid since they worked on their father’s boat. File that under “Zebedee: The Untold Story.” And I wonder why Zebedee himself was not invited to come. Don’t know!

And to be clear: Simon, Andrew, James, and John were not called into the ministry, whatever that is. They were invited to follow Jesus. They didn’t know where he was going. Maybe back to his hut in Capernaum, maybe wandering around the region to preach and heal. He didn’t tell them up front, he just went – and then he invited them to come with him. He didn’t say, “Let me get my clipboard and make assignments. Simon Peter, you take crowd control. Andrew, you go ahead of me as my publicity coordinator. James, you serve as my lead usher when the crowds show up. John, you handle the t-shirt sales in the lobby.” But Jesus never said anything like that, so far as we know.

No, he was inviting them into a relationship, to stay with him, to listen to what he taught, to watch what he did, to come close enough to see for themselves that God is ruling over heaven and earth, that God is coming close enough to heal everybody. That’s what it means to follow Christ – to stay with him, to take on the habits that help us to stick to him. As he invited the first four fishermen to come, they chose to leave their nets behind. That sounds so dramatic . . . but there’s more to the story. .

We know a bit more about Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus goes with them on one boat ride after another. All through the Gospel of Matthew, he insists on going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. Each day on the sea, they needed something to eat; you may recall Jesus was not one for turning stones into bread.

One day, in fact, a huge crowd showed up. Five thousand people, as far as the eye could see. Jesus said, “How are we going to feed them?” One of them said, “I have a couple of fish.” (Matt. 14:17) Well, of course he did. Just because he once got out of the boat doesn’t mean he didn’t go back into it. Just because he once dropped the net doesn’t mean he didn’t take it up again.  

I have known people like that.
  • I remember the oral surgeon who shut down his office and went to seminary. When he graduated, you know what he did? He went to West Africa to pull out broken teeth.
  • Or the attorney who closed down her practice to study the Bible. When she re-emerged, she took on death row prisoners who were unjustly condemned.
  • Or there I was, a few years ago, in a remote New Mexico monastery. At dinner, I discovered one of the monks had been the director of development for the Santa Fe opera. It’s a big opera company. Now he raises money for the monastery and its mission work among the poor.

All of them dropped their nets, but not for very long. All of them used the skills they had developed for years to bring the Kingdom of God ever closer. That’s what they did. They did the spiritual work of getting closer to Christ – prayer, study, spiritual formation - and then they picked up their fishing nets again. Their lives were not about making money – they were about making a difference. They were giving themselves to a greater purpose, for the purpose of bringing God closer to a world in pain.

They were following Jesus, who was teaching and feeding and curing and preaching and healing every disease. Every single one. Matthew’s favorite description of Jesus is “authority” (the Greek word “exousia”). He has authority over everything that damages us. When we follow him, he has authority over us. When we continue the work that he does, especially out in the world, we see his authority slowly spreading over those we care for.

When we follow Jesus, do we have to leave our nets behind? Maybe or maybe not.

I think of the guy on the street corner, dressed up like a green Statue of Liberty. He’s out there in front of a tax preparer’s office, and he has to be freezing. That job can’t pay very well. People pass by and they don’t treat him very well. They honk and gesture and laugh. Do you think if that man could leave that job behind, maybe he would do it? I think so. A lot of us remember jobs we once had that we would never want to do again.

Or sometimes you run across somebody who thinks they know what’s best for you. Years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, with a man who had my whole career charted out. He wanted to take me on as a project. He was this very important preacher in a major city, and he told me, “You have a very promising career as a minister, but just one thing: you’re going to have to give up your jazz piano to get there.” I looked at him and thought, “How do you know this, when music is one gift that gives me life?” And I was a single parent at the time, and I had these two little girls to raise. I mentioned that and he said, “You could sent them to a private school. The choice is yours.”

I will stop short of saying he had red horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. There are plenty of people who have sacrificed their children so they could get ahead. Some of them live in this community. In the name of Jesus, that should never be an option. Children are gifts from God, not barriers to advancing anybody’s career.

What I’m saying is this. Write it down. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he invites the whole person to follow him. The whole person, the whole package. If God has given you a family, they are as important as any work you do, and probably more so. Caretaking our loved ones is part of our calling. If you have a brain, use it. If you can sing, sing like a bird. If you can tutor a child to read, get on with it. If you have a heart for people in need, give your heart to them. If you have any special skills or abilities or super powers, there’s a very good chance that God gave those abilities to you for some really good reasons. After all, if Jesus wanted to go back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, it was a good idea to befriend some fishermen.

Beneath it all, there can be a difference between the work that we get paid for and the work that we were put on the planet to do. Sometimes they overlap, and that is a blessed gift; sometimes they do not, but life is always more than that. I have known people who had well-paying jobs that they hated, but their daily work made possible the other work that they are really here to accomplish.

And sometimes, we can work and work, putting in long years to labor at something that does not seem so exciting. In fact, it’s a long routine. But all that may be a rehearsal, preparation for the moment when we are invited to save somebody’s life or cure somebody’s pain. And during all that time, perhaps God has been preparing us for that one defining moment. It’s too early to tell.

As Jesus walks by the fishing boats in the town where he lived, he invited two people to follow him. Then he invites two more. The spiritual life is always an invitation. Christ beckons us to draw closer to him. The church is here to help us do just that. We worship, we pray, we serve, because our souls are at stake. We come to listen to the One who invites us away from the things that are killing us and move toward the things that can give life to us and to the world.

Why did Simon, Andrew, James, and John drop everything? Why did they stop what they were doing and draw closer to Christ? Because they were ready.  Whatever was going on in them - or around them – was sufficient to prepare them. When he came and said, “Follow me,” they went. They left their nets, they came back to their nets, and they were never the same. For as they drew near to follow, they saw with their hearts that God has begun a salvage operation in Jesus to save the world. And now their daily work was part of that.

Maybe Mark Twain said it best. "The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Maybe Moment

Matthew 4:1-11
January 19, 2014
William G. Carter

Here is a scripture passage that we often hear in the season of Lent. But it occurs right after the baptism of Jesus, and that’s why we hear it today:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The bumper sticker comes from a more Christian age than the one that we live in today. It began with a line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation…” Then the next line: “I can find it all by myself.” I can’t imagine those words on a bumper sticker these days, but I certainly understand the sentiment.

There is temptation all around us. There are people who cannot drive past the hot red light at Krispy Kreme without pulling in for a donut. There are home shoppers who look through every catalog when their closets are already full, declaring, “I feel tempted.” Some car enthusiasts can’t wait to find out more about next year’s model. And sometime around February 11, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition will arrive in the mailbox. “Lead us not into temptation, I can find it all by myself.”

But Matthew says Jesus was led right into the wilds in order to be tempted by the devil. And he (the second person of the Trinity) was led by the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity). This was to be his test, probably the first of many. It sounds as if the Father (the first person of the Trinity) said, “Let’s see what you’re made of.”

Ever think of temptation as a test? That’s actually the Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught: “Lead us not into the test.” It is what we pray to God, some of us praying these words every day. Lead us not into the place where our integrity is tested, where our virtue is challenged, where our fidelity is pushed, where our eyes see something that our leaky hearts want to fill.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” precisely because the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He knew what that was like. He also knew that our souls are at risk if we give in.

Temptation is a test. In Matthew’s story, the angels stay off stage and all heaven watches. Jesus, in all his humanity, in all his divinity, is given three sinister examinations. Each one seems like the right thing to do. Each one appears very attractive. He is not tempted to do anything that seems wrong. No, he is tempted to do things that, on the surface, seem exactly right.

  • If you are God’s Son, use your heavenly power to feed the hungry. The world has a lot of hungry people.
  • If you are God’s Son, use your miraculous power to impress the crowds. The world needs a miracle to believe.
  • If you are God’s Son, hand your authority to me and I will give you everything. Skip the cross and resurrection and get it all now.
Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer, saw what was so tempting, both for Jesus and the people who follow him.[1] The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is the temptation to be relevant. It is to put ourselves at the center, to say, “We are the ones who can do everything that is needed.” If there are hungry people, we will feed them. If there are problems in the world, we will fix them. If there is something the world needs, it’s up to us. In other words, nobody needs to wait for God to provide. Here we are to save the day!

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been tempted to turn stones into bread. I don’t have the ability. About all I can do is turn peanut butter into a sandwich. But I have been tempted to fix things that I never can fix. Two friends refuse to talk to one another, let me try to mend that. Somebody has a life-threatening disease, let me tell it’s always going to get better. Someone is missing a loved one, let me offer to fill the gap.

The truth is, we can’t do everything. The real question is whether we can do anything. How convenient for Jesus, in all his hunger, to turn a boulder into a sandwich! And while he’s at it, fix the problems of world hunger with a little magic at the stone quarry! Wouldn’t that be nice? Use the magic of heaven to fix the problems of earth!

Except someone is always going to reach for more bread, and probably take it out of somebody else’s hands. Or if you fix it today, it’s going to need to be fixed again tomorrow. We can’t do it. We need God. And Jesus reaches back into his scriptures to declare what Moses taught: “We do not live by bread alone; we live by the words that God speaks.” And in the face of great need, if we don’t start there, with God, we are tempted to put ourselves in the middle. We are tempted to become over-functioning friends, hovering parents, or obsessive do-gooders who burn ourselves out. To push God out and make ourselves relevant rarely turns out well.

The second temptation is to be spectacular, to be impressive, to be so amazing that you can sway other people. “Take a swan dive from the top of the Temple,” says the Devil to Jesus. To make the invitation, the Devil quotes Psalm 91, where it says, “And God shall raise you up on eagle’s wings, lest you dash your foot against the stone.” God will catch you. Call in the favors. Remind God what he promises to do for you. And then show off, in the most public places, at the most available time, and everybody will be impressed.

A lot of people buy into this. What the world needs now is a lot of razzle dazzle. Lights, camera, action. A series of ongoing fireworks displays, each one bigger than the last. We swim in a sea of hype. The marketing people used to tell us that we needed to hear a message seven times before it sinks in. With all the advertising, the screens, the internet pop-ups, the commercials, our desires have been rewired. Now we need to see a message, as well as hear it, at least seventy times before it can sink in. Have to make it bigger, flashier, more impressive!

The Devil says to Jesus, “Let’s put this on TV, all 1850 channels at the same time. Hire a great graphics team. Zoom in on your face with a hi-definition camera to catch your smile when you jump from the top of the tower. That will get them. That will win them over.” Make it spectacular!

Well, wouldn’t that be nice. But if you subscribe to cable TV, you know one of the problems. You can have 1850 channels and have nothing to watch. Or you become weary of so much spectacle that you dismiss it all, like eating too much chocolate cake. The first piece is fantastic, the next three pieces are tasty, the tenth and eleventh pieces are wearing you down.

And God has no interest in winning people’s hearts through miracle and spectacle. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Jewish faith almost died out, sustained only by a small remnant. Jesus is sent to be the child of peasants, raised in a town off the beaten path, keeps a hidden profile until he was thirty, has only a few years to do his work, then is crucified between two thieves. And when God raises him from the dead, nobody sees the actual event, and he appears to a handful of loved ones, none of them important. The rest of us have to lean forward to see if it’s true.

Nouwen writes, “To be spectacular is so much our concern that we, who have been spectators most of our lives, can hardly conceive that what is unknown, unspectacular, and hidden can have any value.” The God we know in Christ is all of those things: largely unknown, unimpressive, and hidden - - until we discover that he is our treasure. The Christ comes quietly, rarely with a lot of pizzazz.

The third temptation is the temptation to exert power. Power! “See all those kingdoms out there?” says the Devil. “Say the word and they can be yours. You can be the king of kings if you let me put you there. You can rule over it all and never have to put on a crown of thorns.”

Wow, what a wonderful offer! To win over the world. To use your authority to bring everybody around you. To accomplish in one executive order all that you want to have done! There are Christian people who think this is the way it ought to go: tell the rest of the world we are calling the shots. Get the right people elected to do what we tell them to do. Declare in all our authority that everybody else is wrong and it’s time for them to get in line behind us. You can read about this sort of thing in Time magazine, you can watch it on your favorite cable news network, and it can even get you elected as the governor of New Jersey. Tell everybody else what to do. Exert your power!

I remember I had a dog years ago. I loved to bark out orders at that dog: sit down, roll over, be quiet. That dog would do whatever I said. And then two cats came to live in my house. When I barked, they just looked me and yawned. And then they started influencing the dog. Pretty soon, none of them would listen to me. It was the best preparation in the world for becoming a parent. I should have known better; I’m a preacher.

The first problem is that, in the process of exerting your power, you run the risk of selling out your soul. You ascend by putting others under your feet; never a wise long-term move. I think of the line that Thomas Beckett speaks in the T.S. Eliot drama “Murder in the Cathedral” -- “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

The second problem is that exerting power is not the calling for those who are baptized. God is the authority, and Satan is not his office administrator. God rules, not us. Like Jesus, we are always baptized to be servants, never authorities. That is the shape of our Christian conversion: to become servants. We stand beside people, not above them. We win the right to be heard by coming alongside those whom we first serve. We listen with a quiet heart before we speak. And Jesus keeps all things rightly aligned with the words, “Worship the Lord your God; it is God alone you shall serve.”

These are three temptations after the water of baptism, and they remain: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to exert power. Each one begins with the word “If… If… If…” Each is a moment that decides between the hard way to heaven and the highway to hell. Maybe it could go this way, maybe it could go like that. Temptation is the Maybe Moment. It will reveal what we are made of.

When that moment comes to you, the best way ahead is keep your eyes on Jesus, who went through this before we ever came along. See what he sees, do what he does. Declare what he declares: that we are here to serve God, not ourselves, and we serve God alone. The Devil will depart you for a while, and suddenly the angels will come to help.

God bless you.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] I am grateful for Father Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985). His insights in pages 47-66 have influenced this sermon.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Right Thing to Do

Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 2014
William G. Carter

Christmas is now a memory. Here is how the grown-up Jesus begins his work:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

When I was a brand-new pastor, I was taken to lunch with the venerable H. Wilson Scott of Lehighton. Scotty, as we called him, was a wise and seasoned pastor of a small town church. He was ordained as a minister at 42, after half of a career in business. And he had the demeanor of having seen it all and heard it all.

“How are the people of your congregation treating one another?” he asked. I was surprised at the bluntness of the question, but that was Scotty. I said, “Mostly they are fine, but I have a couple of people who are really cranky. They like to beat up some of the others.”

“In fact,” I said, “I’m surprised that people like that are in church.”

Scotty smiled instantly. He said, “Why are you surprised? The church is full of sinners. In fact, they are the only ones there.”

Scotty is gone on to his reward, but I have never forgotten what he said: sinners are the only ones here. No matter how well they clean up, no matter how well behaved they appear to be, no matter how well-spoken or mean-spirited they might be, sinners are the only ones here. And he said that with a smile. Do you think that’s true?

I heard about a man who didn’t think it was true. When the rest of the congregation spoke the prayer of confession, he put down the worship bulletin and crossed his arms. His daughter said, “Daddy, why do you do that?” He said, “The words in that prayer don’t apply to me. I’m a lot better than the rest of these people.”

She said, “That’s what you think”

Generally speaking, people don’t like to be reminded of how bad they are. I have known plenty of people who shrug off the weekly prayer of confession, or mumble through it, or look sideways down the aisle at somebody who is morally worse off than themselves. And generally speaking, it has become a marketing strategy for some preachers to take a different tactic for enlarging their churches.

I heard an interview with Joel Osteen, a short little preacher with a big smile and an expensive haircut. He packs in the crowds at a renovated basketball arena in Houston. “I don’t rub anybody’s noses in their sins. I speak to them of their possibilities.” He reminded me of something my mother once told me: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

I always wanted to ask: can you ever catch anything more than flies? Flies are gross, dirty, and disgusting.

Now it seems like a shameless marketing ploy anyway. If you speak to people only of their possibilities, then why isn’t the world in better shape? Why are so many people stuck in such messes, many of their own making?

All of this bears, I think, on the story of John the Baptist. John appeared out in the desert of Israel. He did not work in Jerusalem, in the center of religious ritual and tradition. He didn’t stand on the Temple steps and denounce the people who weren’t pure enough to get in. No, he went outside of it all, out into the wilds. His central message was direct and simple. God is close at hand. God’s governance is coming near.

That’s all he had to say. It was the only message people wanted to hear. God is coming. God’s Messiah is on the way. That was a message sufficient for people to change their lives, to cut their ties with evil, to decide once and for all that they were sorry for their sins, weary of their brokenness, worn out by their own repeated mistakes. So they went to the Jordan River to get close to John, who told them that God was moving close to them all. It was simply that announcement that moved them to have their sins washed away. God is coming; you don’t have to live like that anymore.

There’s a favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Three escaped criminals are making their way across Mississippi, in search of a hidden treasure. They are interrupted by people in white robes who are going down to the river to pray.

One of them, Delmar, rushes toward the river, where a preacher is dunking people under that water in baptism. He speaks quietly to Delmar, who starts talking to his accomplices as he moves back toward shore.

“Well, that’s it, boys, I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting is my reward.”

Everett says, “Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry.”

He replies, “The preacher said all my sins is washed away, including that Piggily-Wiggily that I knocked over in Yazoo.”

Everett says, “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.”

Delmar says, “Well, I was lying. And the preacher said that sin’s been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.  Come in, boys, the water is fine.”

It is the unseen presence of God’s grace, announced at the river, that makes his repentance possible. Pete, one of the other crooks, is moved by this and dashes toward the preacher too. Like Delmar, he wants to get his sins washed away too. He’s been carrying them long enough. He doesn’t need to carry them any longer. It’s a beautiful moment, surrounded by people in white who have gone down to the river to pray.

Next thing you know, the two of them are back in a stolen car with Everett. Pretty soon, they are off to knock over a bank. When I saw that scene, I smiled. I smiled Scotty’s smile. And I remembered what he said: “Sinners are the only ones here.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

Well, maybe it does. Jesus showed up at the river, too. Why not? Everybody else in Israel was going out there, even the religious leaders. Jesus went too. John the Baptist looked at him, discerned the One whom he had predicted, knew Him as the Holy One from God, and said, “What are you doing here?” What are You doing here among these people? They are sinners!

According to Matthew, Jesus makes a cryptic comment. He says something obscure. “Let it happen. This will fulfill all righteousness.” Or to translate it in street language, “This is the right thing to do.”

John argues with him about this. We can be sure that Matthew tidies up their conversation and condenses it. John didn’t think Jesus had a place among the sinners. They were coming to repent, coming because they had messed up their lives. They were coming to prepare to stand before the Messiah. And here comes the Messiah to stand among them. That just seems all wrong. Let them get scrubbed up – and then they will be ready to stand in God’s presence.

Jesus says, “No, this is the right thing to do.” Here is the shape of God’s righteousness: not to wait until people who are perpetually sinful can tidy up themselves sufficiently to receive the Lord someday, but to interrupt all of that, to stand among them, the sinless Christ in the middle of sinful people.

This is the direction of his entire ministry. The first thing he does is what he will continue to do. As Dale Bruner notes about this story, “It is well-known that Jesus ended his career on a cross between penitent sinners; it deserves to be as well known that he began his ministry in a river among penitent sinners. From his baptism to his execution Jesus stays low, at our level, identifying with us at every point, becoming as completely one with us in our humanity in history as, in the church’s teaching, he was completely one with God in eternity.”[1]

He is God-with-us. Not God apart from us, nor God separate from us, but God completely with us. With us, with the likes of us. His presence among us is what pleases the Father. He is called Beloved, and he comes to declare that we, even stuck in our sin, are also the Beloved of God. And that holy love is what can free us from the otherwise endless cycle of human cruelty, pain, abuse, and other destructive tendencies. Jesus the Messiah steps in and among all of this. It is the right thing for him to do.

I have been looking through the new hymnal that will go into our pews in a month. The green songbook departs today, the blue one will be retired at the end of the month. I think a lot of you will be pleased with the new collection; not all of you, because, well, my old friend Scotty was right. But it is a good collection of songs old and new, with some capable editorial work done quietly.

I noticed, for instance, that an Advent hymn we sing most every year has had an absent verse restored. The hymn begins, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh; awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings of the King of Kings.” The last verse has been fully restored and it is a prayer: “Stretch forth your hand, our health restore, and make us rise to fall no more; O let your face upon us shine and fill the world with love divine.”[2]

That seems such an appropriate prayer following John the Baptist’s work and the baptism of Jesus: continue to heal us, O God, until your love overwhelms all its enemies. That is the ongoing work of Jesus, who is God-with-us. He takes his stand among us and will not push us away. If we resist him, he waits us out. If we are soul-sick from the disturbances and difficulties of this life, many of which we have created for ourselves, he steps into the middle of our mess and says, “Follow me.” And life, once damaged, can begin anew.

I’m still reeling from Friday night’s episode of Hawaii Five-O. Years ago, a man fled to Hawaii because he had accidentally killed a woman who had just been married. His mistake scarred him, haunted him, and he needed to start over. He married, they lived quietly with two young children, and they went to church.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the husband of the woman who died was devastated. He was bitter, and couldn’t get over his loss. Anger possessed him, revenge consumed him. When one of his friends returned from a Hawaiian vacation with a church newsletter, he points to a picture said, “Doesn’t this look like the guy who killed your wife?” It was, so in retaliation, the widower hired hit men to kill the accidental murderer. The first man ran away from his sins, the second was so bitter that sin consumed him too. Damage creates more damage.

In the end, both of them are caught by the authorities. And while the accidental murderer is being taken away by the cops, he says, “There is a stop we need to make on the way.” The officers take him to the interrogation room of the man whose young wife he had killed. He apologizes and says, “This can’t go on any more.” The pain needs to end. We have to cancel it and start anew. I would like to think he picked up that message in church.

That’s what Christian people continue to say, with all the clarity and conviction they can muster. In Jesus of Nazareth, God in all holiness has come to stand among us, just as we are. He remains with us, even to the close of the age. He speaks, he heals, and he invites us ever more deeply into his loving, cleansing presence where we can become his new creation.

From the perspective of God, this is the right thing to do.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Waco: Word Books, 1987) 83.
[2] Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) 96.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

After, Ahead, and Before

John 1:1-18
Christmas 2
January 5, 2014
William G. Carter

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

One of our church members went to Times Square a few weeks ago. She was looking forward to all the sights and sounds of the season: sparkling lights, colorful decorations, joyful music, and great shopping. Indeed it was all of those things. But there was a disturbing moment as well.

As she passed through the square with her family, a forty-foot wide billboard flashed a message: “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody.” At the bottom was a website address:

It came as a bit of a shock, especially with her kids in tow. It was a few days before Christmas. The holiday pitch was high. And here was an animated message crossing out “Christ” with a big black X. No doubt about what it was saying: you can have a Christmas with Christ.

If we can put that in perspective, it’s not the first time somebody has said such a thing. About fifty years ago, C.S. Lewis observed what was happening in Great Britain. He wrote, “Christmas means three things. The first is a religious festival, important to Christians and of no interest to anybody else. The second is the popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality; nothing wrong with that. The third is the commercial racket which is a nuisance for everybody.”[1]

Fifty years ago, Lewis knew it’s possible to have a Christmas without Christ. In many corners, the holy day has been demoted to a holiday. It has become an annual event where the other dimensions can have more significance than the original purpose.

Of course, it doesn’t help that, as holidays go, Christmas has a checkered past. Nobody knows the actual day Jesus was born; peasant families didn’t usually mark such dates. Pope Julius the First set the date on December 25, but that was three hundred fifty years after the actual event. Up until that point, there were all kinds of parties in late December, much like the annual bash that still happens on Times Square every December 31.

When the Puritans came along, they were so disgusted that they outlawed the celebration of Christmas. For them, it was a secular bash with only traces of Christian piety. The Puritans saw no way to redeem the holiday, so they ignored the birth of Jesus in December to focus on his death and resurrection, and left Christmas to the pagans. It wasn’t until the 1800’s when the Protestant church began to celebrate Christmas in any widespread way. That’s when a lot of our favorite songs were written, under the influence of Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.

Lest we think Christmas has always been a big deal in America, that isn’t true. Christmas was not made a federal holiday until 1870. In fact, on December 25, 1789, the first year under our new constitution, Congress was in session.

What has changed for us, I think, is that the atheists are better organized, better funded, and louder than they have ever been. That’s a new situation for those of us who are regular church goers. Sure, our holy days have slowly lost their grip on our society. According to the latest statistics I have seen, seventy-eight percent of the people in this zip code are not going to a church on a Sunday morning. It’s probably not because they are out doing the Lord’s work.

And truth be told, if the atheists’ number are growing, as they say they are, some of those people used to go to a church – and for whatever reason, dropped out. I’ll bet one of the reasons why is that Christ was not obvious to them when they went to church and encountered other Christians.

I had a glimpse of that as I watched an interview about the Times Square sign on a particular news network that was scandalized that such a sign was up. They brought on the executive director of the Atheists group who put up the billboard, along with a man who was supposed to be an expert on proving the Christian faith. It was a jousting match. It began sarcastic and snarky. Pretty soon the two of them were yelling at one another. By the end, neither one was convinced of the other’s point of view.

So I wondered: what was the point of that? Television ratings, I imagine. There was a lot of huffing and puffing, and no obvious presence of Christ especially by the fierce defendant of Christianity. If the Gospel is ever going to get a hearing, it will happen when the Christians act like Christ. Just because you talk about Jesus doesn’t mean that he is ruling over your heart, directing your speech, or enlarging your heart.

And none of us should be the least bit surprised if we listen carefully to the Gospel text for today. What does the first chapter of John say? The world was created through him, but the world did not accept him. He came to his own people, and they did not receive him. Within the work of creation, God is both revealed and hidden. God comes to those who should recognize him, and his own people are the first to shrug him off. His own people.

For all the fussing about those anonymous people out there who don’t keep our holiday, the truth is the very Lord whose birth we honor is not always obvious – even to people who ought to know better.

I’ll never forget the first time it happened after I became a pastor. December 25 fell on a Sunday. People in my first congregation were all a-flutter. “What are we going to do?” Someone even called the church office and left a message. “Are you going to cancel worship on the Sunday, the 25th?” What amazed me is that his voice was completely sincere. He didn’t think Christmas should be celebrated in church. That struck me as so ironic. And it was the first time I really heard the text: “He came to his own people, and they didn’t receive him.

What is Christmas, really? Christmas is about welcoming Jesus, and sharing his light and life with everybody we know. The world doesn’t have to snatch away Christmas from us. But neither do we have to give it away.

A Christmas without Christ? If we listen to John’s Gospel, we hear about the deep human resistance to the very things that make us healthy. The hard truth is that a lot of people go about their lives pretending that they are making it under their own steam, never calling on God to come and make any constructive difference in what they do or how they treat others. Christ still comes to his own people, and some of his own people aren’t paying attention.

Maybe it’s because God does not come to us in smoke and fire and noise. God comes in the smallness of a child, in the vulnerability of an infant, in the humility of a dependent little baby. God comes as a child, dependent on others for his safety and nourishment. He comes as a child in poverty, a child of lowly status. It is no wonder that so many people simply miss him.

But he comes and he is still here. That is not something we have to enforce. This is not something to push on others. We bear witness to what we believe, live it to the best of our ability, and pray we ourselves will have eyes to see him.

Consider what we’re doing this morning. For many people, today might be the last hurrah of a winter vacation. A lot of people are sleeping in, but here we are, coming to the Lord’s Table to take the bread and the cup, to answer the question, “Is Christ present?” with the simple affirmation, “Yes, he is.” He is present as we sing and pray, as we take in his body and blood by faith. He is among us as we consider how we will guide us into a new year with love and generosity.

Nobody can take him away. He is with us whether we see him or not. And if we see him, we realize how God has become like us, in order that we might live under the influence of his deep grace and expansive truth.

In the birth of Jesus, God’s love has come. Hatred cannot snuff it out. In his work on the parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon talks about the catholicity of the Gospel. “Catholicity” comes from the word “catholic.” It has less to do with Christians from Rome as it has to do with the universal presence of the good news. Capon says Christ is so central, so important and great, yet so mysteriously present, that he remains at the center of it all. He’s much bigger than the church. He is the yeast in the whole loaf of bread, the mysterious substance that causes the dough to rise. Like it or not, Capon wrote, Jesus is going to make all of us rise.[2]

And I, for one, believe there’s a lot more joy and pleasure and peace in life if we go searching for the presence of Jesus among us, rather than moan about those people for whom Christ is not a part of their Christmas. We are not the center of all things; God is. God sends Jesus into an antagonistic world with unrestrained generosity. God has no fear over whether or not people will receive him. No, God sends Jesus among us lovingly, never forcefully, never to compel, always to awaken.

Christmas is not the only day that belongs to Jesus. Every day is his. He rules over all. He is the ultimate judge over all. And he calls on us, not to live defensively or angrily or as if we are superior to everybody else, but to give away his mercy to everybody who needs it. If we give enough of that mercy away, some people will actually believe it.

Taste and see.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “What Christmas Means to Me,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, pp. 304-5.
[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) 135ff.