Making Room For Christ - Advent Week Two: "Straight Paths"
I recently read about a new trend that is starting to gain some traction in our culture--it's not a huge, widespread movement by any means, but it's still out there, still happening.
It's called sologamy or same-self marriage.
Nadine Schweigert, a thirty-six-year-old-woman from Fargo, North Dakota, who was interviewed by Anderson Cooper after marrying herself in front of some forty of her closest friends. “I, Nadine,” she said to herself, “promise to enjoy inhabiting my own life and to relish a lifelong love affair with my beautiful self."
Then, in the words of the immortal James Brown, she jumped back and kissed herself.
I'm not sure why anyone gathered here today would be surprised by this kind of thing, to be honest. It's the logical extension of a culture that is immersed in the self. No one in our culture wants anyone to take credit for whatever success they might enjoy.
Seriously, when have you ever heard a brand new CEO of a huge corporation say something like, "I know we had a pretty big turnaround since I arrived, but I have to say that a lot of that credit goes to my predecessor who laid the groundwork for this turnaround only they got fired before it could really start working."
It would be refreshing to hear this, but don't hold your breath.
Or what about a newly elected politician who constantly gave props and praise to the person who previous held their office. Heck no! Politicians act like nothing ever got done, no problems ever got solved until they arrived.
The same could be said for a lot of different kinds of leaders. Even pastors. It's easy--in this me-centered culture--to begin to think too highly of ourselves, to practice sologamy in our attitude even if we don't practice it in action.
Honestly, I could never be married to me, so there's that...
And all of this stuff creates the perfect storm of Christmas humbuggery this time of year. Humbug is a word that is most often associated with Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' classic tale, A Christmas Carol. But it's actually a real word. It means lies, tricker, something that is false.
So we live in a culture that is often falsely constructed around a distorted sense of self where people love to win, take credit, feel the rush of success and otherwise appear to be awesome. And then we carry this fantastic mix of ickiness into Christmas. Christmas--at least in our culture--truly is a humbug.
And we have become so consumed with the coming of Christmas during this season---that we miss the coming of the Christ. We miss the aspect of this season that is decidedly not a humbug--that God so loved the world he sent his Son... who humbled himself, who became one of us in order to save all of us... Jesus, who embodied the grace, mercy and love but also the humility that is required to truly experience the fullness of God's kingdom.
There is no sologamy in heaven, in other words.
The Gospel reading for today comes from Mark 1:1-8 and it goes a little something like this:
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Imagine that you are a Galilean in 70 AD. Things are bad where you live but not as bad as in Jerusalem which is a two day trip south. Jerusalem, which is now under siege by the Romans, is about to fall. You hear stories of thousands of people being crucified outside the city. You hear how zealots are stirring up people to fight to the death and how others are begging to come to terms with the Romans.
People are divided, the world has gone mad. Nero, the cruel, despotic emperor of Rome, who wanted to be worshipped like a god is dead. Or is he? There are rumors that he really didn't die and is just waiting to return to wreak havoc on his enemies. Four leaders in Rome were acclaimed as emperor and then promptly assasinated. Vespasian, the general who is now about to destroy Jerusalem has just been crowned. The price of oil is skyrocketing--olive oil that is, the economy is crashing, families are fractured.
And yet there is one small sect of Jews who refuses to take sides with anyone. The rabbis call them heretics. The zealots dismiss them as being the disciples of a weak leader who preached peace instead of conflict and was promptly killed for his preaching.
Then one day someone from that small sect of Jews hands you a scroll. You read the first line: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..."
The words are familiar because these are the same words that were essentially used to describe the birth of Caesar Augustus. The good news--euangelion--of Augustus birth also used these words, "divi filius" the son of god.
Only this scroll isn't about Caesar. It's about Jesus. And Jesus didn't come to bring an armed revolution that would get tens of thousands of people killed. He came to embody a better world, and he gave his life to show the great lengths to which God will go in order to give us that better world.
This passage of Scripture is permeated with the contrast between the humility of Jesus and his herald, as opposed to Caesar and his...
Mark's gospel begins immediately with the entrance of John the Baptist. The Baptist could have been a star. He had all the makings of a mega church pastor. He had a huge Q rating, that rating that is used to measure just how popular someone is with everyone in society. In John's context he was like Brad Pitt, or Joel Osteen---not sure how I came to juxtapose those two. In other words lots of people knew who he was. They heard about his strange clothing, about his ultra, ultra orthodox diet of locusts and wild honey. I mean the dude was out in the desert and still maintained the strict Jewish dietary laws.
He was a freak, though. He didn't want fame. He didn't want fortune. His only purpose was to point to the coming Messiah. Thank God he was a freak. If he had not been a freak we would be celebrating Advent as a season of expectation for the next big thing--which would make it a fairly short season.
There are lots of prepares, but only one Savior. John knew that all too well. I forget this sometimes. We all do.
John's message was simple. Confess. Repent. Be Baptized. Confession and Repentance were acts of humility. The baptism that John offered was a sign and a symbol of that humility. If you were ready to let go of all of your pride, your desire to hang on to the things of this world, to loosen your grip on your sins and frailty, then John would be standing in the Jordan river, beckoning you to come get dunked.
John's message was simple, but it's not that simple to do what John demands. John's message was as fresh and relevant in his day as it was to the Galilean reading this scroll in 70 AD, as it is to us gathered here on this Second Sunday of Advent. Confess. Repent.
But the theory is much easier to embrace at times than the practice.
Repentance and Confession entail facing the truth about ourselves and what it will take to change the direction of our lives. And facing the truth about ourselves is one of the most difficult things we can do. It's one of the most powerful things we can do, mind you, but difficult to the point of painful.
Have you ever watched those vocal talent shows that are so popular on TV? The Voice? American Idol? These shows are watched by millions of people from around the world. And every time the show ends, a new star is crowned. And on each of these shows, the winner gets a chance to sing their signature song to the crowd. And all the while underneath the surface of this tearful, inspirational moment is the reality that this so-called winner is merely a placeholder for the next winner---in the next season.
Don't believe me? Name the last twelve winners of American Idol. Name the last five winners of the voice.
If the winner of these shows was being honest with themselves, they would stop the show and say something like, "Listen, I might have the stage this moment, but next year there will be someone else. If I am lucky I might make a few dollars out of this. I might appear on a TV show or two. Heck, I might even one day make it on to an episode of celebrity Survivor. But make no mistake. Tomorrow the search for the next American Idol begins. Good night!!"
I don't like to admit the truth about myself any more than the next person.
None of us do. It's painful to admit the truth about who we really are.
It's painful, but it's powerful.
Because moving forward requires a retrospective look back. If you want to experience change, transformation and wholeness, you have to be honest about the fact that you are often comfortable, complacent and absolutely content just... the way... you are.
Listen to me. God loves you just as you are. But he loves you far too much to let you stay that way.
In this world of sologamy and the endless pursuit of adulation... In this culture where success and power define self-worth... In this society where Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of humbuggery...
Are you ready for the coming of the Christ-child?
What do you need to admit and let go? What is the truth about who you are that you are afraid to own and be set free from? The new world that John the Baptist predicted is constantly breaking through all around us. Jesus is everywhere. When he shows up in your life, in your space---will you be ready to let go of the things that have been keeping you from truly embracing the life that he offers you?
Is it your anger? Have you let it take over your heart and turned you into the kind of person that you can't stand to be around, much less anyone else?
Is it your grief? Have you become so focused on what you've lost in life that you can't see what you have?
Is it your greed? Have you lived for so long giving God your leftovers that you think the leftovers are good enough?
What will you let go so you can confess, repent and remember your baptism during this season of expectation.
Don't be so consumed with the coming of Christmas, beloved, that you miss the coming of the Christ.