Advent 2: It Was Never Easy Being Johnny – Matthew 3:1-12

The road to Graceland goes through Tupelo, Mississippi.

The road to Bethlehem goes through John the Baptizer.

It must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose to be an ascetic. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?

Mark’s gospel tells readers that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Imagine the unique qualities of those relationships. What did you know or not know of your brother’s humanity or his divinity? These questions fascinated the early church. The infancy gospels, noncanonical works telling stories of Jesus’ childhood and family, tried to fill in the gaps surrounding Jesus’ missing childhood years. They are weird and read more like science fiction than the accepted miracle stories of Jesus walking on water or feeding multitudes.

What’s notable about Mark’s account (3:31-35) is that his mother, brothers, sisters, and broader family are worried about Jesus. They know he’s coming off as crazy. Some of those in Nazareth didn’t take kindly to the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter making grand theological arguments. To claim to be able to heal and even hint at a messianic identity put his life (and their family’s) in danger. Besides, wasn’t his cousin John the real religious one in the family? Didn’t he leave home, live alone in the wilderness, and pursue God with a small group of devoted followers? John was the guy, the prophet in the family, right? Jesus worked in the shop and made speeches in the synagogue. John, the man they hadn’t seen in years, the distant cousin, the black sheep, he’s the one with real religious potential.   

Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable. The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.

John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric yet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer (think Jimmie Rogers or the Carter Family) from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash (whom only a few die-hard fans remember), he lived hard, died harder, and wrote songs that people would sing forever. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.

–Richard Bryant

Putting On Your Loudest Christmas Sweater – A Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:

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God’s Love for Humanity

1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:

GOD IN THE DISTANCE.

GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.

GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.

GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.

We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.

The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.

2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.

If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.

3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)

Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct.  If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).

Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.

–Richard Bryant

Advent, Proust, and the Search for Lost Time

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Advent is a season of preparation, but it is also about time. We live in what Samuel Beckett called “the Proustian equation…that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation-Time.”** Time is at the heart of the Advent argument. There is not enough of it to go around. What time exists is perpetually eroded by commercialism, secularism, and commitments that pull people away from the church. Instead of preparing for the unexpected and jarring arrival of an infant who redefines the meaning of time itself, we, like Proust, go searching for lost time. We find none.

Where has the time gone? We’ve given it away and done so freely. The world isn’t taking it away. It’s always easier to blame others but we are our greatest foe. We set our schedules and make priorities. The competition between the sacred and the secular is something we create and impose on ourselves. There is only one time, one moment, and it is this season of preparation. Advent remains, in perpetual time, waiting for us to return and to prepare our hearts for this all-important moment in human history.  If we step outside this moment, Advent isn’t diminished, the church isn’t devalued, and Christmas hasn’t lost its meaning. No, we’re allowing sacred time to be determined solely in a chronological, linear fashion. We cannot talk about eternity, the cosmos, and the incarnation in this way. God is beyond time. Advent is about going off the clock and saying no to a world that measures reality in winners, losers, minutes, seconds, hours, and days. Do you want a more meaningful Advent and Christmas? Change how you think about your time.

–Richard Bryant

**Samuel Becket, Proust, Grove Press, 1957.

Start With Forgiveness

Have you ever wondered why we say the prayers of confession and proclaim forgiveness before celebrating our congregational prayer celebrations and concerns? Is that just the way United Methodists worship? Yes, that is true. You’ll probably find that pattern in most congregations. However, there are theological, Biblical, and spiritual reasons we speak this way.  These reasons could impact your Thanksgiving dinner.

Forgiveness precedes gratitude. It isn’t easy to be genuinely grateful if we need to forgive someone or something. In church, we begin our prayers of confession by addressing God, acknowledging our brokenness, and our need to be forgiven and forgive others. Forgiving others is a central component of what Christians call the “Lord’s Prayer.”  How can we honestly acknowledge gratitude for our lives, blessings, families, and friends if there are some we cannot forgive? Can we share a common table and proclaim our genuine thankfulness to God and others if there are those sitting around our table that we need to forgive? If our hearts are burdened with hatred, remorse, and vengeance, is any of our gratitude nothing more than empty words? Without forgiveness, some internal or external acknowledgment of the need to move beyond past wrongs and hurts, gratitude grows in shallow soil. Life is too short to waste on superficialities. Jesus calls us to forgive from a place deep within ourselves where our emotions are raw and fragile. It’s in that same place, where we’d prefer not to go, where we begin to understand the depth and gravity of the forgiveness embodied in his life, death, and resurrection.

While I write out of the Christian tradition, I see this as an idea rooted in our shared humanity; not solely unique to a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

Before you sit down tomorrow, who do you need to forgive? Is it yourself? Is it a sibling, parent, or friend? Thanksgiving should begin with three words, “I forgive you.” Say it in any manner you feel led. Free yourself, your soul, and the lives of those around you for genuine gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

–Richard Bryant

Crypto Mourning – A Reflection on the Present

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To grieve with any level of authenticity, we must not be selective in who (or how) we mourn. To name a loss worthy of memory, sorrow, and joy (in a life well lived) is an act of supreme defiance in a world where we store our wealth in a currency named for the Greek word “hidden” or “secret.” We live hidden and transient lives. Everything we value about life, even its inevitable ending, is obscured with each new mass shooting, virus, disease, and missile attack. Those who die remain unseen, off-camera, and hidden beyond well-worn catchphrases and slick camera angles. Even before the pandemic, the affluent west invested heavily in crypto-mourning. This is the process of continually moving our thoughts, prayers, and concerns from one tragedy to another (as one would move money to offshore accounts) but never asking, “Do these prayers have any real value unless we transfer them as hard spiritual currency into our lives and act upon them?”

While all death is death, we grieve some longer and more viscerally than others. We invest in acts of community and corporate sorrow. Candlelight vigils and community gatherings have done what I once thought impossible: made grief cliché, predictable, and ephemeral. Our grief becomes public, or so we claim, and then we move on. We wait for the next tragedy, and the cycle repeats. The problem isn’t too many people sending meaningless thoughts and prayers. Instead, we’ve made grieving a public media-driven production. Persons whose trauma and grief are too immense to step into this spotlight are largely forgotten. For so many, the vast majority of those in hospitals and homes worldwide, there are no witnesses to the realities of grief preparing to be confronted at this time we force each other to call “joyful.” Their grief isn’t sensational, but it is real. Seek out those who are hurting, be present, and help mend the broken threads of our torn humanity.

–Richard Bryant

A Creed for Advent

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The living God dwells among us!

The word of God made incarnate through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what we now proclaim:

We believe in God who has never stopped creating.

We believe that we are forever being made new by God

We believe in the promise of the covenant; to be a blessing to our neighbors, families, and friends.

We believe in Jesus Christ, who though he was God, became human, and in his humility died the death of all humankind.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. The spirit is the presence of God is in our midst; creating community and centering our lives.

We believe in the Holy Trinity, the living, loving relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe the Trinity is an example of how we should relate to one another in love.

We believe God will one day redeem humanity in ways beyond our understanding and until this time, we are with God and God is with us in the places we are called to serve.

We believe that God is not through with us yet!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

–Richard Bryant