Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Right Thing To Do

Luke 3:10-14

By Daniel Harrell

Today we have Luke’s take on John the Baptist, who is my focus for this summer’s sermons. Verses 10-14 may have sounded a bit out of context, but you’ve already heard the context in previous weeks. Luke includes the part about John preaching in the desert—significant for the fact that the desert was nothing but a bad memory for Israel. The desert was where their faith failed and for John to call them back to the desert meant that their faith wasn’t in much better shape. Then there was the whole horror of being baptized in water since water was a de facto sign of divine judgment. Their forefathers had been rescued through the waters of the Red Sea and through the waters of the Jordan River, but now they were being told to wade back in. The good news was that all of this bad news “prepared the way for the Lord.” But why did John have to call everybody names? In Matthew’s gospel he reserves his condemnatory “brood of vipers” for the Pharisees, which most of us agree they deserved. But here in Luke John labels everybody viper spawn. Children of Satan. Kind of hurts your feelings.

This is the problem with the gospel. People will say they want to attend churches that “preach the gospel,” but that’s probably because they’ve never really heard it. The gospel begins with the base assumption that you suck as a person, that you are mired in your selfishness and sin so deep that you’ve learned to love it like a pig in mud—or as John would say, a snake in the grass. A sure way to shrink a church is to preach the gospel. Granted, the gospel goes on to have God launch a rescue operation to get you out of the muck, only he does it initially through a nation of people who end up becoming a part of the problem even as they are bearers of the solution. I’m talking about the Israelites, of course, chosen by God as a preview of what heaven on earth could look like. But what do you do when the chosen people turn out to be just like everybody else? The good news of the gospel ends up as the old news of exile and exodus, sin and grace and sin and more grace and more sin—a story that runs on and on like some bad, never-ending soap opera.

Mercifully, God personally steps into this maddening spiral, finally, as all of the prophets promised. John the Baptist described God’s intervention as a hot one: “a winnowing fork in hand with which to separate out chaff from wheat and burn it unquenchable fire.” But then, disappointingly, God shows up in the person of Jesus with hardly a spark. Later in Matthew’s account, John the Baptist, the very one appointed to point out the promised Savior, gets a load of Jesus and asks him what everybody else was surely thinking: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we be expecting somebody else?” Born into a poor and scandalized working class family, from Nazareth no less, it was impossible to imagine this homeless vagabond to be the heroic inheritor of King David’s throne. Just look at him! Just listen to him. “Blessed are the poor and the meek?” “Be glad when people insult you? Turn the other cheek? Don’t hate or take revenge? Forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors? Sell your possessions and store up treasure in heaven? Don’t worry?” Who’s he kidding?

But that wasn’t even the worst of it. It’s one thing for a homeless vagabond to be the Son of God. OK, so the best heroes come from humble places. But what kind of hero fights a losing battle—only to lose it on purpose? God rescues the world from evil through the strange strategy of surrendering to evil. Refusing to join in the double helix of arrogance and violence, Jesus would practice what he preached—loving his persecutors and forgiving his enemies—even though it killed him. He gives himself up to die an unjust death for an undeserving people. He would act out his own read of the ancient prophecies which spoke of a Savior who saves through suffering, mocking evil and thereby exhausting its power. Only then does he rise from the dead in genuine triumph, to establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace, heaven itself, new creation that begins here and now.

That’s basically the gospel; and to believe it rightly begins with rightly believing in your own perversity, a belief with which John the Baptist was only too happy to help. For some of us, to rightly believe in our own capacity for evil is a no-brainer, but for others this is the hardest thing. I can’t rightly believe I could ever be a bad person because that would be wrong.

In her new book, Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margins of Error; author Kathryn Schultz begins by asking, “Why is it so fun to be right? As pleasures go it is a second-order one at best. Unlike many of life’s other delights—chocolate, surfing, kissing—being right does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts. And yet the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal and almost entirely undiscriminating. We can’t enjoy kissing anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything. Our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right. We go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”

I was doing some premarital counseling with this couple when we came to the important topic of conflict resolution. I always like to use an actual conflict to discuss resolution (and if the couple doesn’t have one I can be pretty good about starting one). As we discussed their conflict, I asked the husband about possible steps for resolution. He said that, well, he thought it was important first to explain things more clearly to his wife so she’d understand his point of view. And then he thought it good to listen better to her perspective so he could empathize with her concerns and address those. I waited to see if there was anything else. Then I asked him if there was anything else that might need to happen. “Like what?” he said. Like the possibility that you were wrong and need to apologize? I think his wife enjoyed watching the blood rush to his face.

“As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”

On another occasion, a church-shopper scheduled an appointment to talk about our congregation. Actually it was more if an interview. Or better yet, an exam. He brought a long checklist wanting to know how our church, and especially its ministers, measured up to his standards. “Do you believe in the Trinity?” “What is your view on baptism and communion?” “How does your church execute discipline?” And of course, “Do you preach the gospel?” These were all legitimate questions, but I was starting to get a little irritated since I knew that he was quizzing other ministers too and then comparing answers to pick the church that believed what he had determined was right. So I decided to ask him simply, “When it comes to your beliefs, how do you know that you’re right?” He stared at me in a way that I knew meant I wouldn’t be seeing him any Sunday soon. He said, “Don’t you believe the Bible is true?”

I have to admit he had me here, because when it comes right down to it, what you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. This is the problem with believing things that are true. You have to do something about them. It’s true, for instance, that according to United Nations reports, more than 800 million people will go to bed hungry tonight—300 million of them children. If I believe that, then I have to do something about it—changing how I spend my money, and give and eat and vote. It’s also true that according to human genetics, all people are indeed created equal—that we’re all wired the same way. Nobody is essentially better than anybody else. If I believe that, then I have to treat people differently than I do, especially those whom I deem less important than I am. Scripture declares Jesus himself to be the very word of God. If I believe that, then suddenly I’m confronted with having to be glad when people insult me, turning the other cheek, not taking revenge, forgiving my enemies, letting loose of my lifestyle and not worrying about anything. But since I struggle with even wanting to do what Jesus commands, how can I say that I believe the Bible is true?

Better to shop for a church that only tells you what you want to hear. Like the church a friend of mine attended where they amended the line in Amazing Grace to sing, “how sweet the sound that saved someone like me.” They expunged the offensive word wretch on the grounds that it made people feel bad about themselves.

Rightly believing the gospel rightly begins with believing in your own perversity; in the plausibility of your own wrongness even when you think that you’re right. For some of us this is a no-brainer, but for others this is the hardest thing to believe because if it’s true—if I actually am a sinful person who’s fundamentally messed up and who really only cares about myself—then I have to do something about that.

To which John the Baptist replies “repent for the kingdom of God is near.” Come to the water and get a realistic assessment. Given water’s association with divine judgment, to soak yourself was to admit you deserved your doom and needed God’s mercy. Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as right as you pretend. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John says. But this goes beyond saying you’re sorry and getting your grace—as powerful as that is. To bear fruit worthy of repentance also includes a blooming new life. While it is the gospel truth that you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it.

Which finally brings us to our text for today: “What then shall we do?” To which John replies, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Basic generosity. Thanks for your sympathy on the occasion of the death of Dawn’s Uncle Bob who we buried in Boston last week. He was a man, a minister, a surrogate dad for Dawn and so many others who along with his wife Polly was notorious for their outrageous generosity—mostly because they had so little, monetarily speaking, to give—because they were always giving it away. As the family reminisced after the funeral, one cousin, something of a proverbial black sheep, noted how Polly continued to refer to her husband as Uncle Bob, instead of her husband Bob. She was still giving him away.

Maybe you expect this of ministers (maybe not). But what about tax-collectors? Luke seems a little surprised at their appearance. In ancient Jewish society, tax-collectors enjoyed the same sort of esteem as corporate lawyers, investment bankers and politicians do in modern American society—explaining why financial reform passed this week. But why would a tax-collector want to repent? Isn’t being despised in their profession just the cost of doing business? Not when the despiser is God himself. But note that John does not insist they quit their jobs—just that they stop being dishonest. “Don’t collect any more than you are authorized,” he told them. I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve counseled over the years who wanted to abandon business and political science majors in order to “serve the Lord” in ministry. I tell them that the last thing we need is more ministers. What we need is more serious Christians in business and law and even politics.

The same went for soldiers. These were most likely Jewish men enlisted in the service of Herod Antipas, the corrupt king who would eventually have John’s head. Allotted only minimal provisions, these soldiers gave into the temptation to abuse their power and position—a temptation we became reacquainted with reading about the runaway General McChrystal last week. For these soldiers in Luke, they would use their power to intimidate and shakedown fellow Jews they deemed less important. John told them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Generosity in giving, honesty in business and vocational contentment are not idealistic virtues, even if we treat them as such. The same goes for rejoicing when people insult you, turning the other cheek, not taking revenge, forgiving your enemies, and not worrying about your life. We treat these demands of the gospel as idealistic and leave them high out of reach so that when we fail we can get our grace and then feel OK about doing what we really wanted to do anyway. But I don’t think that Jesus was being idealistic when he said “forgive your enemies” anymore than John the Baptist was being idealistic when he said “don’t extort money.” You can actually do these things. You can share a shirt if you happen to have two. You can be honest at work. You can be content with your pay. You can pray for your persecutors. You don’t have to worry about your life. None of this stuff, really, is idealistic. It’s hard, but you can do it.

And grace can help. The same grace that saves a wretch like you saves you from being wretched any longer. The grace that saves is the same grace that can make us generous, honest and content. And when we fail, there’s more grace alright—but it’s grace to try again. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton put it this way: “It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God. It is when we are disappointed at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for the love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another. If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us. The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stay Away From the Lake

John 1:19-34

by Daniel Harrell

New beginnings are loaded with expectations. I’m not surprised that so many here at Colonial have expressed high hopes on the occasion of my arrival—even if I am a little overwhelmed. Many of your hopes for the future are my hopes too. Of course, the key when it comes to expectations is having realistic expectations. The running joke among Senior Minister Search Committees is how expectations can get so out of hand that Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify as a candidate. And then even if he did, no congregation would ever vote him in. Folks have asked how I deal with high expectations people might have of me. I tell them not to worry, I have this uncanny ability of lowering expectations just by being myself. Nevertheless, we pastors do have high expectations too. We all enter this profession with Messiah Complexes. We think we can save the world. Therefore, for the sake of realistic expectations, I make it a point to begin most days by reciting John 1:20. Similarly whenever I teach a seminary class, I have the seminarians join my recitation too. All together now: “I am not the Messiah.” You can always hear the disappointment in our voices as we say it.

It’s part of human nature to want to be someone you’re not. It’s also part of human nature to want others to be someone they’re not. In first century Judaism, high expectations focused on the return of God’s prophets to Israel. Ever since Malachi’s last word in the Old Testament, the Lord had been giving his people the silent treatment. Nary a peep was heard out of heaven for 400 years until one afternoon in the Jerusalem Temple when an aged and weary rural priest named Zechariah got tapped for incense duty. In the middle of offering ritual prayers for the nation (as well as sneaking in a few for himself), an angel appeared and famously announced that Zechariah was going to be a daddy and that his son, John, would be the next prophet.

However, John would not be raised within the conventional confines of his father’s religious tradition; but out in the irreligious desert—a place full of bad memories for Israel. The desert was where their faith had fallen apart and where they had wandered aimlessly for 40 years. It was in the desert that John intentionally preached his one point sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” This was prophet-talk and for the hyper-expectant Jewish population, such talk on the heels of half a millennium of silence whipped them into a frenzy. Hoards abandoned the presumed religious security of Jerusalem and Judea and piled into the desert and into the baptismal water of the Jordan River. Remarkable for a people whose very identity had been based on their movement out of the desert and through the waters of the Jordan.

John’s baptizing also drew the attention of the priests and Levites and Pharisees. As guardians of orthodoxy and protocol, they were obliged to investigate. John welcomed them to the river by calling them a “brood of vipers.” They responded by demanding to know who John thought he was to be doing the prophet-like things he did. John responded back by telling them who he was not. Verse 20: “I am not the Messiah.”

You can just feel the wave of disappointment that likely spread over the crowd when he said that. Some would have definitely thought John to be the Messiah. The next obvious guess was Elijah. John dressed like Elijah. He preached like Elijah and Malachi promised that Elijah would be back before Judgment Day (which also explains why so many took the plunge of repentance). But John denied he was Elijah; or more specifically, not the kind of Elijah they expected. 400 years of anticipation amped up expectations of Elijah far beyond anything that Malachi had in mind.

So then they asked, “are you the Prophet?” “The Prophet” meant “the prophet like Moses” whom God promised way back in Deuteronomy would come to again deliver Israel from her enemies and permanently establish her as a chosen nation. But John said no, he wasn’t the prophet either. “I’m just a voice crying out in the desert,” he said (though this came straight from Isaiah). The religious leaders weren’t buying it. If John wasn’t a prophet, what was he doing baptizing like a prophet? But again, John demurred, “This is nothing. I only baptize in water.”

It’s hard for us to appreciate the enormity of John’s modesty here. In those days, water carried no tranquil or romantic connotations. Waterfront property was real estate apocalypse. Suggest a day at the beach and folks would think you’d gone nuts. To hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes would have been lunacy. The word swim only shows up three times in the whole Bible, and never as the backstroke. You’d never go near water unless you had a boat—and even then it was a risky venture. Water was the abode of chaos and evil. It was the abode of judgment. If you were accused of a capital offense in ancient cultures, instead of getting hauled before a judge and jury; you’d get hauled out to the lake. Local authorities would row to a deep spot and then fling you overboard. If you floated you were innocent but if you sunk, well, you were sunk.

Water was a means of divine judgment too. In the two major judgment events of the Old Testament: Noah’s flood and the crossing of the Red Sea, water was the means whereby God passed sentence. The innocent were those who never got wet. Baptism, therefore, symbolized this judgment. Getting wet didn’t wash away your sin. Getting wet condemned you because of your sin. To be baptized was to be declared guilty. The Pharisees knew this. Everybody knew this. If John was for real then God was not happy. If his kingdom was near you’d better repent. “It’s only water,” John says. Right. In our day that’d be like BP saying “It’s only oil,” or more to the Judgment Day point, “It’s only plutonium.”

There are who plenty who envision Kingdom Come with a mushroom cloud of smoke. A nuclear Armageddon. On the other hand, I once visited the Bradbury Museum at the National Labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico (where they created the first atomic bomb and continue research into nuclear weaponry). When I was there they ran an exhibit entitled, “how plutonium is good for you.” The exhibit cited the positive side of this potent radioactive material such as power generation and national security. Just don’t let it leak out of reactors or blow up in bombs—or get near it or touch it or eat it—the exhibit warned.

While there I spent time with some church folks, all of whom worked at the lab and had to deal with the dissonance between their allegiance to the Prince of Peace and their development of weapons of mass destruction. Most of them dealt with the dissonance by concluding that the only way to ensure world peace was to make world war unimaginable. As weapons inspector Hans Blix has observed, the Cold War has made for a cold peace. And yet there’s little by way of worldwide peace of mind. Worries persist over nuclear armament in Iran and North Korea, who just last week warned the UN to be impartial about the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship or risk nuclear war on the peninsula. There’s grave anxiety over nuclear terrorism too, especially given the shoddy security of Russian nuclear arsenals.

We remain “under a nuclear sword of Damocles,” as John F. Kennedy put it, “capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness.” In recent Senate committee testimony on the new START treaty, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered his support by asking the committee to imagine waking up one morning to learn that a nuclear weapon had killed 500,000 people somewhere in the world. It’s a nightmare scenario. Some would say an inevitable scenario. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel remarked, “We are heading towards catastrophe. I think the world is going to pieces. I am very pessimistic. Why? Because the world hasn’t been punished yet, and the only punishment that could be adequate is nuclear destruction.”

This same sort of fear is what John generated down by the riverside. Scripture warns of a just and righteous God whose anger at evil inevitably explodes with intense and inflexible force. The Lord cannot remain indifferent toward injustice and oppression and remain righteous. To forgive “as if” sin never happened makes the Almighty an accomplice to it. And thus in the last pages of the New Testament, Kingdom Comes with a fierce totality. Justice rolls down like a river and destroys evil for good. And yet leading the charge is an ironic figure. John the Baptist announces the Messiah as one coming with a winnowing fork of judgment in hand, accompanied by unquenchable fire. The picture is one of a warrior Messiah, a reconstituted King David ready to rumble. The book of Revelation goes so far as to announce this conquering Messiah as “the root of king David,” as well as the “Lion of Judah,” which for CS Lewis fans evokes the ferocious Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia.

High expectations were for a fierce and foreboding Savior, righteous and victorious. Yet when the Messiah actually shows up in Revelation, what we see is not some ferocious King of the Beasts but rather a bleeding baby of beasts; a vulnerable lamb having been slaughtered. Talk about disappointing.

Did John the Baptist know all of this when he saw Jesus approach in verse 29? Perhaps, for in mid-sermon sentence, the river water still dripping from his fingers, John looked up and pointed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Turning to the rest of those gathered he said, “This is why I baptize in water—so that he might be revealed. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” However, John couldn’t have imagined Jesus would do it the way he did it. To baptize with the Holy Spirit was to execute divine justice on others, not suffer it yourself.

As we read in the other gospels, John was shocked when Jesus came to be baptized. How could this chosen one of God, who existed before John was even born, how could he wade into the waters of condemnation? He wasn’t guilty. John was guilty, he knew that, so he begged Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus insisted that righteousness demanded it happen the other way around, and so John obeyed. And as Jesus came up out of the water, John saw the heavens split open, the Spirit descend as a dove and heard the voice of God thunder: “This is my beloved son.” Now I take for granted that this never happened at any of your baptisms. I know it didn’t happen at mine. Jesus alone surfaces from the judgment waters as worthy. But worthy for what?

Turn to the end in the book of Revelation, and as the bloodied lamb enters the scene, the heavens again open and sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” It all fits together. In the Old Testament, there were two significant lambs slain. One was the Passover Lamb. Moses told the Israelites to take the blood of a perfect lamb and spread it over their door posts to divert the angel of death from destroying them as he would destroy the hard-hearted Egyptians. The apostle Paul declares at the communion table that Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us. The second lamb slain was the metaphorical lamb in Isaiah used to describe King David’s heir—the one who has “borne our grief and carried our sorrows, who was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” and “led like a lamb to slaughter.” But didn’t this just apply to Jesus’ treatment on earth? Apparently not. On his way to heaven, the risen Jesus showed up to his disciples and told them to look at his hands and his feet. Despite his triumph over the grave, Jesus still wore his scars.

Jesus takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself. The perfect lamb becomes the black sheep. On the cross he suffers the full weight of divine justice. That Jesus referred to the cross as his baptism indelibly links it to this justice. But just as Jesus rose from the baptismal waters to be declared God’s beloved son, so would he rise from his baptismal cross to be crowned God’s worthy Lamb who was slain. Worthy, Revelation tells us, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. Worthy to make peace between God and his people forever.

Some of you may be familiar with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an anti-nukes organization out of Great Britain that has been advocating disarmament since the 1950s. Even if you’ve never heard of the organization, I know you’re familiar with their symbol. It was very popular throughout the 60s and 70s, but like everything, has made a huge comeback as a t-shirt design today. The symbol is supposedly a stylized N D for Nuclear Disarmament, but most people just see a dove’s foot. The dove is an ancient symbol of peace, originating from the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. You’ll remember how at the end of forty days and nights of torrential rain, Noah eventually let loose a dove to go and check whether the flood waters of judgment had receded enough for Noah and his family to disembark. The dove returned with an olive branch in beak. It was the peace sign. All clear. All safe.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove from heaven and landed on Jesus. It was the peace sign. The Lamb of God is our ark of salvation. All clear. All safe. Therefore the apostle Paul further declares, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death … so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might have newness of life.” The waters of judgment are now the waters of mercy, showers of blessing, and a river of life loaded with great expectations that never disappoint.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

To discuss evolution and Christian faith is to wrestle with Adam and Eve (both literally and figuratively!). See my latest post at Biologos on this topic...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bringing the Lumber

Matthew 3:1-12

by Daniel Harrell

For those you thinking to yourself, “Didn’t we just read this passage last Sunday?”, no, you’re not crazy. We read the first eight verses which I admit was a bit risky for a new minister’s official first sermon. Conventional pastoral wisdom would caution against labeling any congregation a “brood of vipers” right off for fear of offending them. But none of you seemed unduly offended by last week’s sermon—so I thought I’d try again!

Granted, the offending language is not mine but that of John the Baptist, with whom I want to spend the summer reacquainting ourselves. Even in Minnesota, summer’s sultry heat can make a nice accompaniment to John’s hellfire and brimstone. John’s fiery disposition suits his role as the last of the Old Testament prophets, even though John shows up in the New Testament. Prophets are not known for mincing their words. And yet as harsh as their words can be, they are words that clear the way for the Lord and make his paths straight—the Lord, of course, being Jesus himself.

Interestingly, John the Baptist is one of the only characters in the Bible for whom we get a visual description. Matthew describes John as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.” The purpose of this description was so that we might identify John as the returning prophet Elijah. Malachi, who closed the Old Testament, promised that one like Elijah would return in order to turn the hearts of people back to God. However Malachi also promised this would happen on what he called “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Knowing what John looked like makes many pine for a similar description of Jesus. Unfortunately the Bible gives us little if nothing. There may be a hint, however, in that famous story of Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax-collector who climbed a tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells us Zacchaeus climbed a tree “because he was short.” But it’s unclear whether the personal pronoun refers to Zacchaeus or Jesus, leaving some to wonder whether our Lord was the one who was vertically challenged.

Mostly we’ve left it up to centuries of artists and painters to sort all of this out—which goes for John the Baptist too. We know what John wore and what he ate, but the rest resides in artists’ imagination. Among my favorite painters of John is the Italian baroque master, Caravaggio. He painted at least eight renditions of the Baptist, the above hanging in Kansas City, of all places, just inside the main door of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

I’ve stood and stared at this work for what seems like hours—though at the moment it hangs in Rome alongside almost 30 other works by Caravaggio in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death. Painted around 1604, it’s a stunning piece of work featuring what is considered the most perfectly painted left knee in the history of art. More significantly, the painting displays Caravaggio’s famous reputation for realism. Whereas the customary practice was to depict John with traditional idealistic attributes such as a halo around his head, Caravaggio strips away the idealism to emphasize what critics call a “brooding intensity” (perhaps to go with his brooding viperousness if he was thinking about the pretentious Pharisees here). This intensity is further reinforced by Caravaggio’s trademark contrast of deep, opaque shadows, playing across the body and shrouding the sockets of the eyes, with a bright light illuminating from above.

However, unlike his inspirational masterpieces, Caravaggio himself was no saint. He had a volatile temper that was always getting him into trouble. He was insanely envious, greedy, spiteful, violent and faithless. He was imprisoned on numerous occasions—sentenced to death for murdering a friend over a disputed tennis match. He escaped prison and became a fugitive, and finally destitute and wracked with pneumonia as he awaited a papal pardon for all his offenses—a pardon that arrived three days after he died. Though he painted a wealth of spectacularly beautiful masterpieces, he could never paint over the mess he made of his life. Aside from his incredible talent, there was nothing about his brief 38 years that would induce anyone to emulate him—even though at times most of us probably do with our own episodes of envy, greed and spite. And yet that such a coarse man as Caravaggio could produce such moving art emphasizing God’s redemptive power only testifies to God’s insistance on receiving glory not from those who can manage their own spiritual successes; but from those who must desperately rely upon His grace. The very sort of sinful people who made their way to the desert to be baptized by John.

John baptized with water for repentance. Given water’s association with divine judgment (think Noah’s flood or the Red Sea), to plunge yourself into water was to admit you deserved your doom. These days we would describe it as throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. It was a way to say you were sorry and show that you meant it. Coming to the water required a realistic look at yourself. You couldn’t confess your sins while wearing a halo on your head. You couldn’t think that just because you had the right genes or behaved the right way or said the right words that somehow you God owed you favor. This was the Pharisees’ mistake. Somehow they forgot that righteousness was an outcome of grace instead of its cause. It’s an easy mistake to make. We do it whenever we cry “why me Lord” as if somehow God owes us for being good people.

Instead of asking “why me,” John tells us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” or better, “bear fruit that looks like repentance.” Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as righteous as you pretend. And do it now. “The ax is lying at the root of the trees;” John howls, “and every tree that does not bear good fruit [that is, fruit that looks like repentance] is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

I can imagine John the Baptist lifting a fist as he howls, his eyes ablaze and his brooding face a fiery beet red. I can imagine this because I grew up in the South where this is what those Baptist preachers who ranted about “repentance” were like. For me, growing up within the confines of respectable Southern congregationalism, we didn’t hear any fire and brimstone in our church. We dismissed fiery preachers as crazy and uncouth, sort of like the Pharisees dismissed John. This was easy to do since John was a desert preacher. The desert lay beyond the fringes of respectable society. It was the place where the outcasts and lowlifes and demon-possessed hung out. Being a desert preacher in John’s day was sort of like being a street preacher in ours. I don’t know if you have a lot of street preachers in Edina, but in Boston, we had one that stood outside our respectable New England congregational church every week. Not only would he rail at pagan passers-by about their sin and the wrath to come, he’d turn and aim his indignation at us inside the church.

One Sunday I was preaching much like I am now when the back doors opened and this street preacher stormed in and charged down the aisle toward the front. He waved his arms and yelled all about our faithlessness and hypocrisy and how God was going to be bringing the lumber against us soon. The ushers politely escorted him out, so I was told. I didn’t see it, I’m ashamed to say, because I had ducked down behind the pulpit. I was scared. And yet looking back, if that street preacher was right, then fear was a valid emotion.

John the Baptist talks about Jesus bringing the lumber too, or at least about chopping some lumber. “The ax is at the root of the trees;” he said, which was just another way of saying that Judgment Day was close. Or as Malachi put it, “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Instead of singing angels and lowing cattle, John paints a picture of Jesus coming with a winnowing-fork in hand with which to separate wheat from chaff—another classic image for Judgment Day. “The wheat he will gather into the granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now it’s one thing to catch heat from John the Baptist, quite another from Jesus the Respectable Congregationalist. Jesus is supposed to be all about peace and love and turning the other cheek, not burning your cheeks with unquenchable fire. The temptation is to turn down this heat by noting how John says Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Rather than the fire that burns up, Jesus brings the Spirit who fires up, energizing us and enabling us to be better people. I don’t deny that. But in the context of Old Testament prophetic tradition (in which both John and Jesus reside), the fire of the Spirit is fire that destroys first. It burns whatever needs burning. As Malachi described it, the Spirit’s fire is a “refiner’s fire… that purifies and refines God’s people like gold that they may present offerings of righteousness to God.” We see this happen at Pentecost as a band of fearful disciples were refined into impassioned apostles by the Spirit’s fire. The fire that destroys does not burn for the sake of destruction. It refines for the sake of redemption.

Chances are that you’ve been burned in your life. Chances are you’ve deserved it. But what about when you didn’t deserve it? What about the fire that came by no fault of your own? People severely mistreated you and betrayed you. They lied to you and they lied about you. They abused you and left you wounded, indifferent to the intractable pain they caused. Astonishingly, Jesus commands that we love these people, that we pray for our persecutors and turn the other cheek; to do unto them as Jesus has done unto us. Is this unfair? Sure—it’s why the Bible calls it grace. But grace is not the abdication of justice. It is only an abdication of retaliatory justice. Because our hearts and our hurt so easily deceive us, the Bible condemns throwing stones and repaying evil with evil. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” Jesus warned, “Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” That God will execute his just vengeance against all who persist in evil is what enables you to have pity on your enemies now. Assured of evil’s ultimate defeat, you can genuinely pray for your persecutors.

And you can genuinely pray for yourself too. You love your enemies because Jesus loved us when we were his enemies. None of us wear halos on our heads. Just as we have been hurt by others, so we have hurt others too. There are those times that you were the one who betrayed. You told the lie. You caused the pain and didn’t care. Maybe you feel guilty for that. Maybe even ashamed. And in your shame you hide behind the facades of religion and rationalization. In your fear you duck behind pulpits. You feel the heat. But the holy fire that burns does not burn for the sake of destruction. It refines for the sake of redemption. The unquenchable fire of God’s justice makes way for the thirst-quenching relief of God’s mercy. And for those quenched by that mercy, “fruit that looks like repentance” ends up looking like righteousness too. Jesus mercifully entered the life of the sinful Zacchaeus who responded by giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back fourfold all whom he had cheated. God’s redemptive power testifies to His insistance on receiving glory not from those who can manage their own spiritual successes; but from those who must desperately rely on His grace.

And it is that grace in us despite us that results in an artistry and a beauty identifiable only as the Spirit’s work: the Spirit of Jesus whose fire refines us like gold that we may present offerings of righteousness to God. And all this to our joy. “Bless our God,” sings the Psalmist, “For you, O Lord, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us … through water and fire that you might bring us out to a place of abundance.”

That Brood of Vipers

Matthew 3:1-9

by Daniel Harrell
We’ve not been in Minnesota quite two weeks yet. We arrived a week ago last Thursday—one by land and two by plane (plus our cat). Dawn and Violet flew from Boston with Briscoe the cat and I arrived by car. After realizing that we’d never pack for the plane all that we’ll need until our house sells, we decided to load up our humble little urban-mobile and have me drive it out.

As a missionary kid, Dawn is more accustomed to moving than I am. This only marks the third time that I have done it over any significant distance, the last time being from North Carolina to Boston. The first time was from my parents’ home to college. The funny thing is that each of my moves has looked about the same—all of my stuff crammed into a dumpy little car with no air conditioning. I even blasted the same tunes driving to Minnesota that I did driving to college, only now those tunes play on the Oldies station. Still, I can empathize a little with our graduates this morning. And I can pray for you to, which I will do, that God will grant you wisdom beyond your years to choose and do the right thing; and then that God will give you the grace you’ll need to make things right in those times when you choose to do wrongly. You’ll need both. Wisdom and grace. Congratulations.

While my trek to Minnesota was generally uneventful, I did have a couple of noteworthy things occur. On an overnight stop in Buffalo, I stepped onto the hotel elevator only to bump into a group of Chinese students from Park Street Church on their way to visit Niagara Falls. That was weird. My second night on the road was spent in Mokena, Illinois where I got to catch up with a best friend. The next morning I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee. The server at the drive thru window saw my loaded down car and remarked that I must be on a trip. I confirmed that yes I was driving from Boston, to which she replied: “What are doing here?” That was weird too.

Being something of an existentialist, I pondered her question for the remainder of my drive—or at least in those moments when I wasn’t listening to NPR (being more of a public radio junkie than I am an existentialist). I knew I was in Minnesota when public radio turned to the topic of fishing for muskie. Up to that point, most of the newscasts from Boston to the Twin Cities were devoted to the ruinous oil spill in the gulf. Last week was the failed effort to top kill the crude-spewing well. Thousands and thousands of gallons continue to contaminate the ocean and seep toward the beaches and fragile marshes of Louisiana and Alabama, bringing untold devastation to a fragile ecosystem that was among the most fertile on earth. On Friday the AP reported that waves of gooey tar balls crashed into the white sands of the Florida Panhandle as BP engineers adjusted a sophisticated cap over the Gulf oil gusher, trying to collect all the crude. A Facebook friend remarked “Maybe it’s because I’m ignorant, or maybe it’s because I’m not a BP investor, but it seems to me that the emphasis should be on capping the leak, not collecting the oil.”

Sadly, the spill promises to kill countless sea creatures and devastate the incomes of fishermen along with so many others whose livelihoods depend on the gulf waters. And all of this in addition to the deaths of eleven oil rig workers killed in the initial explosion. The whole thing infuriates me, frankly, especially when I hear of BP’s shoddy oversight and greedy overreaching that led to underestimating the challenges of drilling in deep water. I have a Ghanaian friend who used to work for BP headquarters in London, and his description of that corporate culture made it easy for me to imagine some suit demanding the drilling continue despite dangers and warnings. Earnings mattered more than the safety of workers and the environment. And then there was the news of lax US governmental oversight and departmental cozying up to oil companies in exchange for favors. By the end I wanted to pray for God to rain down some righteous wrath on the whole sinful mess—as Scripture promises he one day will.

But then I realized my prayer would be prayed as I burned gallons of gas driving down an oil-soaked asphalt highway, a petroleum-based plastic bottle of water trucked from some far corner of the country in my hand; my wife and daughter (and our cat) flying overhead in a plane that spewed its own carbon exhaust to the tune of 3000 gallons of fuel an hour. I wanted to aim my self-righteous fury (and the fury of God for that matter) at BP and the government and their insatiable lust for power and profit—but the truth is that by my own lifestyle and choices I am complicit in their sin. I have no right to righteousness. Such is the way of all sin. Any attempt to justify ourselves at the expense of blaming others always blows up in our faces. The indictment of Scripture hits home: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This image of vipers is a gruesome one: a viper is a poisonous snake that according to ancient sources would hide in your house and suck your blood. Worse, the offspring of vipers chewed their way out of their mothers’ wombs killing their mothers in the process. Then there’s the ongoing connection of snakes to Satan and all of those connotations. And finally the horrifying realization that John the Baptist’s harsh words are aimed at us. And yet as harsh as they are, these are the words that “prepare the way for the Lord and make his paths straight.” These hard words ironically are the paving stones for God’s grace. For this reason I want to spend my first sermon and the summer reacquainting ourselves with John the Baptist, who even though he shows up in the New Testament, was actually, according to Jesus, the last in that line of Old Testament prophet, all of whom prepared the way for Christ.

Now of course the last Old Testament prophet in the Old Testament was Malachi, of course; but it was he, along with Isaiah, who had predicted that John the Baptist would show up one day. Malachi foresaw a prophet like Elijah who would return and turn the hearts of people back to God. Matthew hints at John’s identity as this returning Elijah by describing John’s wardrobe and diet. Camel’s hair clothing with locusts for lunch had Elijah written all over it.

More significantly, however, was where John showed up. As Isaiah predicted, John was a voice calling out, “prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness” (translated in some Bibles as the desert). But the desert was the last place that anyone would have expected to find a way made for the Lord. The desert was code for Israel’s failure and faithlessness. Moses led God’s people out of the desert, not into it. How could the desert be the way of salvation when the desert needed salvation? And what’s up with all the water? OK, John was a Baptist, but as with the desert, Israel’s salvation had also involved their being led through water and not into it, be that through the Red Sea by Moses or through the Jordan River by Joshua. For a people defined by this movement out of the desert and through the water, to be called back into the desert and into the water was a strange reversal. Yet John was clear that God’s people needed a do-over. They needed to try again. Or as Jesus will later put it, they needed to be born again.

For John, however, his baptizing was not about being born again. John’s water was not the water that saves. The Bible describes John’s as a baptism of repentance. More than just saying you were sorry, diving into water was a way of showing it. I don’t know how many of you watch the TV series Modern Family (it’s pretty funny), but in one episode, Claire (the adult daughter) and Gloria (the young Columbian wife of Claire’s older father) are trying to resolve a conflict over the rude ways that Claire has been treating Gloria. However, her rude behavior has reoccurred so frequently, that Claire’s simply saying she’s sorry is no longer sufficient. Gloria insists that if Claire is truly repentant, she needs to jump into the family’s swimming pool to prove it. Which she did. John’s call to baptism was something like that.

But there’s more. In ancient Judaism the closest parallel to what John was doing was something known as “proselyte baptism” whereby a Gentile, idol-loving pagan converting to Judaism first had to have the idol-loving paganism ceremonially washed off. Bad enough that being labeled sinners in need of repentance, John went on to question their very identity as chosen people by effectively labeling them pagan Gentiles. Any presumed privilege or status due to birthright was bogus. These children of Abraham were no better than anybody else.

Such an outrageous assertion was what brought the Jewish religious professionals down to the riverside. No way would the Pharisees—devoted as they were to a strict interpretation and observance of Torah—ever put up with some wilderness wild man saying they had it all wrong. Likewise for their rivals the Sadducees who tied their piety to performing proper liturgies in the Jewish Temple. Who was this ill-clad Baptist to question their station; their pedigree?

Pharisees. We vilify them as pompous, power hungry, self-righteous legalists who loved themselves much more than God, but in doing so we forget that most Pharisees started out as sincere, devout, God-fearing men who simply sought to do their jobs. The problem was not that they failed, but that they succeeded and that their success generated enormous pride, eventually warping them from being people humbled by God’s grace into people who didn’t need grace anymore.

In good prophetic fashion, John let them have it: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Maybe he was being sarcastic. For these self-sufficient folks to flee the coming wrath would have meant that they were coming to John for baptism, which they weren’t. How can you say you’re sorry when you don’t think that you’ve done anything wrong? Still, John gives them a chance. “Bear fruit that looks like repentance,” he said. Jump in the water and show that you mean it. Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as righteous as you pretend.

More than washing you clean, John’s water exposes the messes we’ve all made of our lives—the personal oil spills that have washed up over our relationships, contaminated our ethics and soiled our souls. John’s water is not water that saves, it’s the water that shows how much you need salvation. Where does the salvation come from? In time, John the Baptist will show us that too. He will point us to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Or to stick to the metaphor; the one who top kills our oil spills. The one who does for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

However what we can do is bear fruit worthy of repentance. We can confess our sins and show that we mean it and then trust Jesus for the rest. Thus my prayer for the graduates is a prayer for us all—and especially for myself as I humbly take on this calling at Colonial Church: that God will grant me/us wisdom to choose and do the right thing; but when we don’t, that by his grace we will make the wrong things right, for Christ’s sake, in his church, to his glory. Amen.