Emmanuel: God With Us - Week Two: Level Ground
Today is the Second Sunday of the season of Advent and it's also the second installment of the sermon series Emmanuel: God With Us.
The idea behind this series is pretty simple. We remember well what we value well. And right about now what we need to remember well is something that is so life-giving, so full hope... and this is that something:
Because of Jesus we know that God is with us.
Today we are going to be exploring this one very important idea--God is with us to make a way for everyone.
But first---let me go off on a bit of a tangent for a moment.
I once read about a 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 exaltation and elevation of 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, trickery, 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 if we're not mindful, we will 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.
Jesus wanted to make a way for everyone. To level the playing field, so to speak.
The Gospel reading for today comes from Luke 3:1-6:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
The lengthy list of Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds everyone who is in charge of the power structures and systems. The leaders named are largely defined by their commitment to violence and death. They play a role in the death of John and of Jesus.
But God's word didn't come to them.
What does this tell us? Well, just because someone has a microphone and a bully pulpit doesn't mean that they are worth listening to.
It's in the wilderness that we lose all of our differences--and are all the same. The wilderness is where the troubled, the hurting, the alienated, the angry and the forlorn may hear a word of hope and renewal and discover the possibility for rebirth and change.
But we too often prefer the familiar streets outside the temple than the discomfort of the wilderness even when God isn't speaking in the streets outside the temple.
Let's fast forward a few decades after the death of Jesus.
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 assassinated. 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 refuse 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...
John's message was simple. Confess. Repent. Be Baptized. Confession and Repentance were acts of humility.
And when this happened---there would be level ground at last. The message John was preaching was not an unfamiliar one to these people. It was a message that had been proclaimed by the prophets, including the prophet Baruch.
LET'S HEAR NOW FROM THE WORDS OF THE PROPHET...
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 ideas of success, power and victory, then John would be standing in the Jordan river, beckoning you to come to 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.
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 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 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 star of The Voice begins. Good night!!"
I don't like to admit the truth about myself and my false sense of self and pride 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.
When we confess, repent and remember our baptism we also acknowledge that it is Jesus who must ultimately be Lord of our life. We desire to be like him and make ourselves lower if need be so others can be lifted up.
And it is through this that we can know that God is with us when a way is being made for everyone--not just the people who seem like they have it all together.
In this world of sologamy and the endless pursuit of adulation... In this culture where success and power define self-worth... The Church has fallen right in line with wanting the same things but just couching them in Christiany-y ways.
So many within the Church equate blessings with riches, success with bigger and better. Far too many churches choose the comfort of always hanging with people who are just alike as opposed to the challenge of entering into relationships with those on the outside of the Christian bubble.
There is a call to faithfulness for the Church here, but there's also a call to faithfulness for us as individuals. So let me ask you: Are you ready for the coming of the Christ-child? Are you ready to create some level ground?
Is it your pride? 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 greed? Have you lived for so long giving God the leftovers that you think the leftovers are good enough?
Is it your ideas of success? Have you allowed yourself to believe the lie that you can never have enough money, power, influence and fame? Have you let yourself get sucked into the notion that looking good is so much better than doing good?
It's time to step further into Advent, this season of expectation and remembering. It's time for us to remember well the story of the One who became less in order to give us so much more. It's time for us to be willing to be lowered in order to create level ground.
Because of Emmanuel, because of God with us, because of Jesus we can know that God is with us to make a way for everyone.