The Lamb’s Book of Life – That’s got to be one big book. Indeed, we must be talking about a library of books; I mean volumes upon volumes of books by this stage in human history. Has heaven switched over to the Lamb’s terabyte hard drives? One would think so, given the number of people who died in the 20th century alone. It’s a strange metaphor. If there’s only one book, books can only be so large to be practical for reference uses. I write this as an owner of the two-volume edition of the Oxford English dictionary. It is unwieldy and requires a magnifying glass to read the entries. Are we sending the message that eternity (“Heaven”) is limited to those whose names can be written in something the size of a single book? Why would God use books anyway? Doesn’t this strike anyone else as odd and outdated? God is omniscient and omnipotent, or so we say; I wouldn’t think God would need as much as a post-it note. We’re dealing with God, after all. Sometimes I don’t think we realize how strange we sound-especially to the unchurched and people with no religious background.
It’s all in God’s plan – I’ll never believe that random acts of suffering, violence, illness, and death are somehow part of God’s master plan for the universe. So, do not say these words. If we repeat this distorted version of a vengeful God who plays bets with our lives like a poker player, God comes off as a real jerk. It would be easy for people to think God is testing them with each sickness, tragedy, and catastrophe that struck their lives. But listen: God loves you unconditionally. Sometimes life sucks.
That’s my seat – (That’s my pew.) There are no assigned seats in the kingdom of heaven. I hope Rosa Parks is in charge of seating in Heaven. As such, if a visitor or someone new happens to find their way to where you usually sit on Sunday mornings, be gracious and keep your mouth shut. Welcome the visitor, introduce yourself, and sit somewhere else. Be cool. Hospitality is the greatest gift you have to give.
I can’t sing – No one else can either, man. None of us are winning American Idol. That’s not the point. Talent is not the issue. Joy and gusto are what matters. No one cares that you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Sing like your life depends on it. Watch an English football match one weekend. Sing as they sing. We should sing like English soccer fans in church, off-key and loud.
I’m going to withhold my tithe – To do what? Go to the Olive Garden? Do you want the church to be unable to pay the light, water, and power bills? Or are you opposed to the pastor having health insurance? How do you want to hurt “your” church most by hurting its ability to function, your pastor’s health, or the congregation’s ability to serve others in mission? Each time you say, “I want to withhold my tithe,” also say, “I want to hurt people.” You need to be clear as to what you’re doing. They are one and the same.
Quoting Leviticus seems to be all the rage these days, so I thought I’d give it a go. Leviticus 19:1-2 says something like the following, “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” Now at the risk of sounding like a cross between a Methodist Andy Rooney and Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with our continued forced dichotomy between personal and social holiness?” Isn’t it time we stopped beating this dead horse? Is this not one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in, because we’ve lived in this under this bipolar, schizophrenic definition of holiness within the Wesleyan tradition for so long such that the two can no longer co-exist in the same body, the body of Christ, in the psyches of the people called Methodist. The quest to be holy in two different ways has literally (and figuratively) driven us insane and pushed us into some dissociative personality disorder-clinically speaking. As religious groups go, United Methodists are not the best example of a denomination with good mental health. Or, as my grandmother, who never went past the eighth grade, would have said, “we have lost our ever-loving minds.”
All through the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we hear this same injunction repeated: you be holy because I (God) am holy. God doesn’t make the distinctions between social and personal holiness. A human being created these artificial divisions. Some of us feel more comfortable emphasizing one form of holiness over another. I think it’s clear from reading the text that God is a God of the community. We discover our personal and individual identities within the community and the society created by the larger community. Our communities, tribes, and clans tell us who we are. That’s what the Old Testament says. I am a United Methodist by accident of birth and geography and no other reason alone. My community and family determined my religious affiliation. Had I been born in Pakistan in March of 1974, I would be a Muslim. Society forms our beliefs long before we develop a sense of individual identity. Creating a sense of social holiness is the first step toward teaching and achieving personal holiness. We are defined and shaped by our cultures.
Ultimately, I am encouraged that the God of Israel shows no distinctions between personal and social holiness. God sets a goal and enables us to follow along, knowing we will fail at our tasks. We will never be as holy as God. It is impossible. We can never match God’s holiness. Does this mean we should stop trying? No. I think it means we should go about our quest for holiness with greater humility, kindness, and justice, realizing we will never figure it out. Just when we think we’ve got holiness locked down, we’re probably in as unholy a state as we’ve ever been. It’s time to hop off our high holy horses, find someone else, and tell them how sorry we are for getting our unholy cart before the Lord’s holy horse.
What’s your favorite Bible story? If you’ve been to Sunday school and heard as many as I have, can you pick just one? I like them all. You might even say I love them all. Here are just a few of my favorites right off the top of my head:
Moses and his ongoing frustrations as he leads the Israelites through the wilderness
Jonah and whale
David and Goliath
The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way up the mountain
Noah, “You want me to build what?”
I could go on and on. Those are just a few of the big ones. But my favorite story in the Bible, in all of these 66 books, is found in the first 12 verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Here’s how it goes. Jesus, he’s the main character, like a new Moses. He goes up to a mountain to deliver a sermon, a new oral version of the ten commandments. Now, please pay attention; here is where it gets exciting. At the point in the story where he finds a spot to stand where the acoustics are just right, and most of the people gathered around can hear him, he starts to talk. Jesus talks. It’s not the fact that he speaks that makes this story exciting and vital. It’s what he says that is so meaningful. He reinvents ethics, human society, values, and religion, and he does it in 12 verses. What Johnny Appleseed did for apple trees in one song, Jesus did for civilization in 12 verses. Jesus makes it seem so simple, easy to follow, and implement in your life. Do these things, you’ll hear him say, and the world will change.
You realize what he’s asked you to do only after hearing them. At the same time, they sound deceptively simple on the surface (like a 1st century Hallmark Card) but they may be the most demanding tasks ever asked of any person. These “be” statements, as easy as they appear, ask the listener to sacrifice themselves for others in ways they’re not used to doing. They rearrange the order of the universe. Sure, God stays on top, others go first, and our wants, needs, and desires go to the bottom. At first glance, it does look easy. We ask God for the simple paint-by-numbers version of Christianity. Then what happens?
Jesus goes up the hill and lays it out. Step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. What do we do? We say, hold on! We asked for easy, not a spiritual commitment to the welfare of others, my community, peace, neighbors, and love. I wanted something that fit my needs, more in line with the Old Testament.
Jesus, telling his story from the acoustically precise perch atop the mount, says, “my friends, is the new, new thing.” God is expanding God’s horizons. The law is the law but are neighbors need neighbors. Our neighbors need love. Our wars need to end. Our hungry need food—our broken need healing. Our grief needs comforting. Who is ready to come with me and tell this story? People aren’t going to like it, but this has to and must be done. They’d rather talk about the old stuff. But this, this right here, Jesus tells them, is what God is all about.
Don’t the Beatitudes feel like common sense? I mean, really? These 12 verses have always appeared to me to be the most self-evident truths in the Bible. Perhaps that’s why they bear repeating so often. The things that ought to be common sense and self-evident, easy to do, and no-brainers are those that we so easily screw up day after day, month after month, and year after year. On the surface, we should have no problem accepting each of these statements at face value. No Christian in this or any church should argue with Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes or the implications of putting them into practice in your life. They are the central components of Jesus’ teachings, yet when push comes to shove, most people would easily give them lip service yet find themselves unable to realize the full impact of what they agree to when they sign on to, “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are the merciful.” We can all agree that peace and mercy are fine qualities to exemplify and promote. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker? What does it mean to make peace and lead a peaceful life? What does it mean to show mercy? When you take the Beatitudes to the next logical step, the “I’m going to live them out” phase, they become the most challenging commitment a Christian can make.
First, remember none of the Beatitudes are quid pro quo. Let’s go back to mercy for a moment. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you are merciful to others, you will receive mercy. If you do this, you get something in return. We don’t do good things because we want good things in return. Jesus is trying to teach that you do the right things in life because it’s essential to do the right things regardless of the outcomes. In the end, doing the right thing is a blessing in and of itself. The mercy we show comes back to us as mercy. This peace we make comes back to us as peace. We’re not hoping for a return. We’re doing the right thing, period.
To whom do we show mercy? Jesus wants us to show mercy to everyone, friend and foe alike. Our mercy isn’t something we disburse in drips and drabs. It’s easy to show mercy to those we love and are related to and those who look like us, worship, talk, and believe like us. The Beatitudes (and Jesus) challenge us to comfort, feed, bring peace, and show mercy to those who we don’t love, dislike, aren’t related to, look nothing like us, don’t worship like us (or at all), don’t talk like us, or believe like us. If you “Beatitude” like the first group, it’s easy; it’s a typical Sunday morning. Christianity is no longer a challenge; we never grow in our faith. We are static, and we will die as a congregation and denomination. That’s what will kill us, not who we ordain or marry. Ultimately, it will be that we stopped taking the Beatitudes seriously, living them out, and regarding them as our mission statement as a congregation. If we lose these, we’ve lost everything.
I wish the people who felt so strongly about using the term “God’s Word” as a weapon and carried Deuteronomy and Leviticus locked and loaded in the chamber of their scriptural AR-15’s, ready to fire, would put down their guns. We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country. We also have an epidemic of weaponized Biblical violence, where we use the words of the Bible like high capacity rounds to kill, maim, and wound those with whom we think God disapproves. The spiritual corpses litter congregations from one side of this country to another. We can’t pick up the bodies fast enough before another verbal massacre occurs. As with the shootings in our streets, we’ve got to stop using God’s word’s, modified for lethality, so that more people’s faith are not left to bleed out on the altar of “scriptural authority.”
The Beatitudes also God’s words, words about mercy, peace, and righteousness. They weren’t meant to be fired at anyone. Put the gun down. Declare a truce. Be a peacemaker. Be a child of God.
As my church and others discern their way through the disaffiliation process, one phrase keeps bubbling to the surface, “God’s word.” I hear this question, “Don’t you take God’s word seriously?” or the statement, “God’s word says…”. These definitive proclamations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say are often followed by things that aren’t in the Bible. As a trained pastor, I’m met with open hostility, anger, and disbelief when I say, “Actually, the Bible says…” Why would I lie? Do I look like George Santos? Double-check me; here’s the Bible! To acknowledge the Bible has many levels of meaning and competing genres doesn’t change my understanding of Jesus’ salvific work.
Some respond to this assertion as if I’m trying to twist God’s words to fit a specific theological or political agenda. That’s what I’ve been told. Actually, I’m explaining how words are translated, how the meaning of words has changed over time, and how translators bring cultural biases to translations. You’d be surprised how angry people get when they’re told these fundamental realities. Humans don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I’m writing this letter because I’m tired of trying to make God’s word come alive in ways beyond the fundamentalist-literalist echo chamber. I bid this task farewell. I’m done. I’m tired.
The Bible is one attempt to tell humanity who (a collection of authors, writing in different languages, lands, and over centuries) its authors believe God to be. I wish it were as simple as some in my congregation understand “God’s word” as something delivered from upon high, without explanation, in English, ready to be implemented, without context or nuance in the 21st century. The Bible is not God’s word. The Bible is comprised of our words about someone (or something) we call God. In some places, the words are inspired. In others, they are in error. Nowhere are they inerrant.
The major and minor prophets were often the first to recognize the magnitude of trying to “speak God’s words.” Mistakes, they realized, would lead to deadly consequences. Not only would they place their own lives in peril, but the fate of nations rested upon their clarity and purpose of understanding and communicating “God’s words.” God’s words were not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, as we read God’s words, it is natural to see those who speak and hear them and how they are understood change and evolve. Our response to God’s first words will not be the same as God’s words in Egypt, Babylon, or after the return from captivity. The context will matter. We will hear incorrectly. Something will be lost in transmission and translation. This is not about simple inconsistencies. At times, the words will be just plain wrong. Here is where we must have the courage to acknowledge where the text is not inerrant but in error.
For example, in 1st Samuel 15, God commands Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, noting he should not spare the women and children. This is genocide. Saul (at God’s prompting) is a war criminal on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin. This text of terror is inconsistent with Jesus’ ethic of peace in the New Testament, but this is about far more than the textual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. This is about right and wrong. 1 Samuel 15 is a text in error; God’s command is wrong, and Saul’s actions are evil. God’s words can never be justified because of the inherent brutality it asks the reader to accept at face value if we are to treat God’s word as inerrant.
The idea of “God’s word” as an easily defensible, moral reality when even a single instance of genocide stands at the heart of the Old Testament (out of many) is one reason people like me have a hard time identifying as believers in an inerrant Bible. This is not because we’re twisting God’s word to fit a specific political agenda but because “God’s word” as an inerrant, morally defensible concept is a morally indefensible position to hold in the early 21st century. God’s word still inspires me. I follow Jesus’ word. For me, it’s not about consistency. Christians will never be able to reconcile all the Bible’s inconsistencies. However, I do not have to accept that God condones the death of innocent children or that it is a permissible or good thing. I won’t do it. I can’t live with seeing God’s name attached to mass murder and genocide and being expected to be okay with the brutality running through the heart of Christian tradition. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll repeat it. The Bible, in so many places, is not inerrant. It’s in error. Murder, death, and slavery are wrong whether it is condoned by the God of Israel and recorded in the Bible or done by human beings and reported on the news.
As we divide ourselves into denominational oblivion, maybe it’s time to make one more division. Biblical Christianity, where we worship a book written by human beings, one full of flaws, too much death, and four books about a Jesus that most Christians are happy to ignore. Then there’s Christ Christianity, where we worship Christ, go toward Christ, and stop pretending God’s words are God.
It seems that many people have ideas for the post-disaffiliated United Methodist Church. What do we do next? Individuals who make more money than me, with more degrees and fancier robes, are huddled around conference tables as I write, thinking about this problem.
A phrase I hear floated in meetings, messages, and memorandums is “remnant congregations.” Have you ever heard a more apocalyptic expression? The remnants, those “left behind” after disaffiliation, need new church homes. Our conference seems bent on shuffling them into online congregations and planting new churches. I’d hoped they’d identify communities like mine where those left without a place to worship could find “sanctuary congregations.” So far, no one is talking about “sanctuary congregations”? We are stuck on “remnants.” That’s part of our problem. We had too many little churches in the first place. I’m not sure the answer is to restart and replant more little churches that cannot financially sustain themselves. It might make more sense to make the churches that didn’t disaffiliate stronger by flinging our doors open to anyone and everyone who needs a home. But what do I know?
As we consider our future, I think the most critical point for our decision-makers, connectional tables, bishops, superintendents, and remaining denominational powerbrokers to consider is: God is not a Christian. Let me take that one step further. Not only is God not a Christian, but God also is not a United Methodist. God has never read the Book of Discipline. God is God. Our attempt to domesticate God into our old, white, upper-middle-class image has failed. We should stop trying to make God fit into the idolatrous notion of an aggrieved American, English-speaking culture warrior. God does not care about the success or failure of our inability as Christians (or Methodist Christians) to get along or agree on 6th BCE Canaanite understandings of human sexuality, 1st-century Roman ideas of marriage, or 18th-century Anglican standards regarding the ordination of men and women, or 21st beliefs concerning LGBTQ equality. This is because God is not a Christian. For this matter, God is neither a Sikh, Muslim, Jew, nor a Hindu.
We are only what we are by accident of birth and geography. We are Methodists because we were born to Methodists (as statistics reveal) living in the southeastern jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Gravity and family put us here. God had nothing to do with it. Say it with me: God is not a Methodist or Christian. If we think God is one or both, we’ve forgotten this point: God is concerned for all God’s children, regardless of denomination. The more we cling to our team and tribal identity to solve this current dilemma, the more confused, angrier, and further from God we travel.
While God is neither a Christian nor Methodist and is not as invested in our petty squabbles and legal battles as we are, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about us. We’ve forgotten that God doesn’t care about the teams (Methodist, Shiites, Sunni, Baptists, Global Methodists, United Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Judaism) or the supporter’s clubs (Duke University’s Iron Dukes, the University of North Carolina’s Rams Club, or pick your school’s fundraising organization). It is the individual who matters most to God. God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. God is a people person. The teams don’t matter; God is not keeping score. What is this disaffiliation if nothing other than an exercise in keeping score? Who is the holiest, has the most virtue, respects scripture, and who loves tradition the most? We’ll add up the points at the end of the game, and whoever has the most that’s the person big daddy God up in the sky will love, and we’ll be guaranteed a place in heaven. That’s not how it works. Why? God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. It’s not about winning the game.
This experience is about the pleasure of being in the field and community with others. Maybe we should be thinking more about strengthening our existing faith communities instead of acting on that same, tired old mantra: God is a Christian, a Methodist, everyone else is wrong, and we’re the ones who’ve got it all figured out. Less tribalism never hurt anyone.
When our concept of the church becomes more about memories of “place,” that is, memories tied to a building, events that occurred in a building, our family’s relationship with a building, and our sense of identity is intertwined with that place; we are in a relationship with a building not Jesus of Nazareth. I understand this when I have conversations with persons on both sides of the current debate within United Methodism who feel they are losing their church and believe they have already lost their church. Somewhere along the way, we stopped regularly emphasizing (to both adults and children) that the church wasn’t a building. Instead, the church was the people. The building, our property, our cemeteries, and our classrooms held no spiritual value other than the value given to them by the people who used them to share the Gospel. The instant we forget this reality, our churches become no different than the Lion’s Club, the Grange Hall, the VFW, or any other socially conscious community organization. Methodists have a short memory. We like our buildings and the control they’ve given us over who can and cannot come into God’s kingdom. But now that our facilities are up for grabs, many people aren’t sure of their place in God’s kingdom. That happens when you tie your idea of salvation to a plot of land, bricks, mortar, and faded photographs, even one with stained glass windows and a baptismal font your great-granddaddy carved.
Granted, some good times and moral moments may occur in these buildings. So do tedious and contentious committee meetings. Weddings, funerals, confirmations, and the like all happen under the roofs of our facilities. Yet even these holiest of services are about us and the Kodak moments of our lives. So, we squeeze a few scripture readings into weddings and funerals. Eulogies are about the deceased, and we offer a few words about resurrection, while the hymns point to us toward eternity. If either service lasts close to an hour, people will look at their watches. They want to get to the food. Wedding congregations don’t want to hear me explain what Paul meant about love or reflect seriously on the meaning of eternal life. In what should be our most sacred moments, some seek only a veneer of faith. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told to keep the wedding to under twenty minutes, cut the scripture, and leave out the Bible verses because all ten cousins will give a eulogy for Uncle Earl. We wouldn’t want a wedding or funeral to be confused with a church service.
Now, as that veneer feels threatened, those who’ve wanted to use the church only in good and bad times and occasionally asked for prayer requests for distant relatives they have never seen are often the most threatened, angry, and ready to divide the United Methodist Church. Have they no shame?
The church is made up of flawed, sinful, and redeemed people. Therefore, we need everyone we can get, especially sinners. Sinners united, that’s what I say! We also need places to live, love, work, and welcome other sinners into our fellowships. However, the buildings are not a means to an end. They were never intended to be. You and I are on a journey. When we slow down, the moment we get comfortable, the church becomes more about our wants and less about Jesus. So, stop thinking about the building. We’ll find somewhere to gather. What’s best for you, your memories, and your sense of place? What’s best for the legacy of the carpenter from Nazareth? There will be two fundamentally different answers. You’re going to want to go with the last one. If I’m sure of anything, I’m certain of that.
Traditionalists think United Methodists like me are the problem. But unfortunately, I think the people who self-identify as traditionalists don’t understand what it means to be a “traditionalist.” For many in our denomination, being a “traditionalist” is holding to one position on human sexuality and marriage. For me, being a traditionalist means many different things. It’s never been about the conflict between my vision of God and the rest of the world. Here’s what I envision when I hear the words “traditionalist” and “traditional”:
I eat the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
I watch the Andy Griffith show every day. Mayberry wasn’t perfect. Andy dealt with bigots, addiction, sexism, the place of technology in society, people set in their old-fashioned ways, greed, and hate. And he did it without a gun. I embrace that vision of traditional America.
I miss my grandmother every day. She died in August 2005. She made great biscuits.
I read the Bible every day.
I want “Softly and Tenderly” sung at my funeral. The words “come home” are powerful.
I believe love is the best tradition of all.
I believe people are afraid of God’s new plans because they prefer the traditions of slavery in Egypt.
I believe there are hurtful traditions.
I believe in the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount.
I believe Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is largely absent from our debate on tradition.
I’m so traditional that I still believe that the Gospel is a Love Story, not a Sin Story.
I come from a tradition where people didn’t weaponize the phrase “The Word of God.”
It took guts for the Apostle Paul to walk away from his tradition. I love him for that.
I’m so traditional and rooted in the past; I remember when going to church was fun and not perpetually teetering on the edge of destruction. I miss that tradition.
I believe traditions, in their best sense, should give meaning to our lives.
Traditions should not be used to demean people from being whom God created them to be.
I say no to the idolatry and false God of manufactured human traditions.
Our task is not to protect tradition. We are to proclaim the Good News.
Tradition can quickly become a form of institutionalized violence.
The divine is bigger than any of us or our ideas for creating new Methodist traditions.
I have decided to give up on robes, vestments, and the like. This isn’t because I’ve been thrust into an ultra-contemporary setting that doesn’t do liturgical-style worship where these are out of place. This is entirely my decision. I don’t feel comfortable wearing them any longer. I have a closet full of cassocks, robes, albs, beautiful stoles, and even a chasuble or two. As a Methodist, I have a well-stocked religious wardrobe that I wore during the four years I served in the British Isles. I lived among Anglicans and dressed similarly. Back home, I wore a cassock, stole, and collar tabs on most Sundays. I’ve always considered myself a High-Church kind of guy. However, my attitude toward vestments (and worship in general) began to change during the pandemic.
I wondered, is this what Jesus intended? If Jesus were to walk into my congregation (wherever I happen to be serving at the time) and see me standing up front in a fancy black cassock or white alb, a stole over my shoulders, and maybe a pectoral cross around my neck, what would he say? Given what I know of Jesus, I started to think he might say, “Dude, what are you wearing? This is not at all what I intended.” Of course, I worked hard to earn the right to wear a robe and stole on Sunday morning, wear a clerical collar, and dress like a Roman Catholic priest, but that doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.
I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hanging out with my friends in my simple robes, sandals, and such, teaching, eating, and learning about the kingdom of God. Where did you get the idea that I wanted you to dress like a late 18th Puritan cleric once a week? Be honest, did you make this up or did a friend tell you this was cool?”
I know where the idea came from; I took church history, theology, and liturgy. After serving for two years in Russia, I know the vestments unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and my own tradition. I also understand that my beliefs have evolved. The “uniform” no longer makes sense to me. If Jesus walked into our churches, so much of what we say and do would look foreign, out of whack, and contrary to his vision of the kingdom of God. I’m reasonably sure Jesus never intended me to dress like a wannabe Dumbledore once a week. If you think about it, it’s a little weird.
I’m not sure the people we need to reach in 2023 will come back to churches led by women and men who dress like they stepped out of the Middle Ages. We just survived the medieval style plague; why dress the part too? Instead of wasting valuable catechetical time on why we dress the way we do or expecting people to simply accept our historical eccentricities, we could be talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I’m all for removing any surplus weirdness from our church services. Don’t get me wrong; I will not dress like a slob or preach with my shirt untucked. My shoes will be shined, my shirt pressed, my pants ironed, and my blazer will be dry cleaned. But, we can still be relatable and present the gospel without looking like a disheveled character on a 90’s sitcom.
Whatever clothes we’re issued in the afterlife, I sure hope it’s not the white robes described in the Book of Revelation. If I’m going to be there for eternity, I want to be comfortable. So count me out on the forever robe. I’m asking God for a hoodie, sweatpants, and crocs.
Besides, Sheriff Andy Taylor never wore a gun (or a necktie), yet everyone knew who he was. He was just Andy. From here on out, I’m just Richard, and I’m going to let my reputation speak for me.
John leads to Jesus in much the same way Yoda leads to Darth Vader. (Go with me on this analogy. Jesus is not Darth Vader.)
Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi like his father but he can’t get there unless he goes through both Yoda and Darth Vader. Yoda is a rite of passage that points him to the one person he must confront to be truly considered a Jedi in his own right, Darth Vader (who also happens to be his father). But you get my point, all roads to your own light saber lead through Yoda.
It’s a little like that at Advent/Christmas. We can’t get to Jesus, at Bethlehem, without going to meet and spend time with the wild man Yoda of the Jordan River, John the Baptizer. When you encounter John, you’ll also encounter your Father (e.g. “this is my son, I’m pleased with him, listen to him…)
There are several roads to Jesus at Advent/Christmas.
They all begin in Galilee (the North/Nazareth) and lead to Bethlehem (in the South).
You can’t get to Jesus without going through this encounter first and then seeing Jesus:
Gabriel delivered the message
Jesus’ mother, Mary (an unwed, teenage mother)
Joseph (Jesus’ stepdad, a man doing the right thing)
Mary’s family, specifically Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother)
Shepherds outside Bethlehem
John the Baptist
You must go through all these people, at some point, in one way or another, to get to Jesus.
Not like obstacles on a quest, but people whose purpose is to help you stay on course.
They play a crucial role in the essential story.
Unless we meet them, hear them, and understand them, when we finally meet Jesus, it’s not the most complete, total, joyous experience it is intended to be.
We may not even make it to Jesus on our own. When we meet these people, they keep us on the right path toward Jesus; they say, “No, you need to go that way; he’s just down there.” Will we listen?
John is the main guy pointing the way to Christ. He is a sign and a symbol. He points to something else and gives directions.
He unmistakably grabs your attention. (e.g., Beethoven’s 5th four opening notes. You know him anywhere.)
When you hear John and John’s message, it can be only John.
He takes the themes and ideas of the ancient prophets, particularly someone like Isaiah, and weaves and into something new and unforgettable. It holds you. Pay attention to what John is saying. Don’t read along with the old scriptures, this is something new. He’s not your grandfather’s prophet. If you want someone to do it “the way we’ve always done it before” John is not your guy.
However, he does have this in common with his prophetic ancestors: he’s not afraid of poking the bear and being controversial.
He purposely offends the religious professionals who trek to the Jordan River to hear him preach.
Self-righteous holy rollers who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
John attracted people from all parts of society; rich, poor, dirty, clean, women, and men.
What connected them was that the traditional religious establishment rejected them.
You can’t look away from John. You are familiar with his message, but it sounds completely new. You wonder, is it this guy? No, he says, someone else is coming.
(He wants you to pay complete attention to him.)
So, to review: To get to Jesus, we go through John (and others). John’s message is unique and definable.
Specifically, what’s his message? Repentance. John is all about repentance.
Repentance isn’t just saying sorry or a fancy word for a New Year’s resolution (e.g., a new habit.)
Repentance is a systemic life change. John is talking about altering the entire direction of your life, fully turning from one way or path, and going down a new approach.
Stop what you’re doing, change your behavior, and then start something else in the opposite direction: this is the essence of repentance. Sure, many small factors might lead to such a significant change, but that’s not what John meant.
John asked people to change the totality of their lives and then announce that change before the whole community through an act of ritual purification, what we call Baptism.
Repentance is not supposed to be easy. It is a living, ongoing, organic process. If we step back and look at the world and think about repentance, it’s overwhelming to consider our collective and corporate sins. So much so that it’s easy to stop and utter a few flowery religious cliches about addressing “global poverty,” “climate justice,” “and racism” and think we’ve done our part to repent for our collective sins. We’ve done nothing at all. That’s the “Brood of Vipers” style religion John is railing against.
If we’re doing it right, repentance should begin with serious self-reflection. “If I’m going this new way, I can no longer be this way or carry these things with me that tie me to this old direction. I need to get certain things off my chest and undo anything that keeps me from turning.”
What do I want to repent of this week (and beyond)?
Some things we need to repent of are personal. Who have we hurt, offended, or wronged? Is there something we need to make right in our personal lives to set us on a course to intersect with Jesus at Bethlehem today, tomorrow, and Christmas eve? Suppose we don’t repent of these minor (or even significant) personal issues. Are we going to be off course, like Magi (didn’t they miss him by nine miles or so?), with gifts intended to be given to the Christ child but constantly wandering around in circles and off course? Kind of like Smoky Bear, only you know what you need to repent from. I can’t tell you what to repent for.
Sometimes, we need to repent of collective sins. Churches and church communities need to repent. We needed to be pointed back toward Jesus. Can you imagine a swimming pool or a river wide enough to fit all of us? Yes, that’s a funny image, but institutions also need to repent. What do we need to repent from? You tell me. I’ve got a few ideas. Nobody’s perfect. We can always be better neighbors and more loving to each other as Christians and our community.
Once we repent, we want to stay repented. That’s the real challenge. You’ve changed course now. What do you have to do to immediately not go back off course? Repentance is not the uttering of “magic words” and expecting our lives to change without work or effort.
Adjust your declination (Magnetic north and true north). If you’re backpacking, that could put you off anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile off course. Adjust for being on the right spiritual path so you don’t start going further and further off course.
Orient your map.
Find a bearing, take a bearing, and move toward your new destination.
Regularly check your bearings along the way. Make sure you’re still on the right path toward repentance.
Repentance is about checking your bearings and being aware of your surroundings.
That’s how you’ll end up in the place where Jesus is waiting for you to arrive.
If we listen to cousin John and follow his path and instructions, this is how we’ll get to Jesus.
John is our unmistakable compass. He grabs your attention. You know you are listening to John. No one else sounds like John He’ll give us our bearings. He tells us how to repent. What we repent of, the thing we change, that’s up to us. You make that call. The hard work is up to us and will lead us to Jesus. Will we listen? Will we change?