Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Playing Nice

Matthew 11:16-19

by Daniel Harrell

I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine, a video game designer, has just produced his own first RPG, or role-playing game. It’s called Kingdoms of Almalur—a single-player open world RPG for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. According to the promo, “Almalur combines intense third person action combat with deep exploration, expansive character development, and immersive storytelling in a unique universe. [Ask your kids and grandkids to explain what this means.] Gamers are mysteriously resurrected from the dead and thrust into a bloody conflict as they battle to stop evil forces that threaten to destroy the world.” This mention of resurrection and combating evil made me wonder what Christianity would look like as a role-playing game. I googled the idea and found that “Matthew the teenage Christian blogger” had already beat me to it.

“Allow me to nerd out completely” he blogged. What if each believer had his or her own character level that would reflect their spiritual maturity. This level could grow or shrink depending on your faith. Your battle stats would show your the fruits of the Spirit or your knowledge of Scripture or your commitment to prayer, or your success at avoiding temptation. Your specific level would be determined by your spiritual gifts and vocation, such as: missionary, preacher, deacon, healer, tongues-speaker. And then, instead of saying something weak like “You should pray everyday because it’s good for spiritual growth.” You could say, “Strive to maintain a prayer level of 12 and a Bible level of 18. This should fend off level 11 temptations very easily. If you have any stats below 10, this may indicate sin in your life leaving you wide open to high damage from a low level spiritual attack.”

“How awesome would that be?!” Matthew the blogger gushed. “Had I known about this system, I could have been a level 35 Preacher Class C Christian by now!” To which his father might have responded, “now son, the Christian life is no game.” Except that according to Jesus it is a game; it’s just that people don’t want to play.

We’re carrying on with our look at the life and times of John the Baptist. Last Sunday had our hero languishing in prison as a result of his berating King Herod. Initially confident that his prison stay would be short, John soon began to doubt whether Jesus had the goods to spring him loose. Expecting a Messiah capable of raining down enough heat to toast the wicked Herod, in John’s estimation, Jesus hadn’t brought enough heat to toast toast. Likewise expecting Jesus to bear a winnowing fork of fire and justice, Jesus had brought little more than a salad fork to dish out love and forgiveness. What kind of Messiah was that? All of which led John to wonder aloud about Jesus: “Are you really the one to come or should we wait for somebody else?”

According to the prophet Isaiah, Jesus did have the Messianic credentials. He replied to John how the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them,” just like Isaiah foretold. But peel back a few layers and the good news Jesus brought wasn’t all that great. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he said, and with good reason. The justice Jesus brought looked remarkably unjust—pardoning sinners who didn’t deserve it and then commanding that they forgive their enemies the same way. He fights a losing battle—only to lose it on purpose? He rescues the world from evil through the strange strategy of surrendering to evil. He gives himself up to die an unjust death for an undeserving people. John prepared the way for the Lord alright, only the way of the Lord turns out to be the way of the cross—the way of failure, futility and death. Who plays a game where you have to lose in order to win, to die in order to live, to fail in order to find victory?

Well, nobody, according to Jesus. In something of an odd follow-up to last week’s passage, he asks, “To what will I compare this generation?” (by which he almost always meant this unbelieving generation). He then cryptically answers (as is typical) with a parable: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The allusion is to games kids apparently played in the streets of ancient Palestine. One was the wedding game where children sang and danced and pretended to get married. The other game, probably for the boys, was a bit more gothic. It was the funeral game where they’d wail and mourn and pretend to be dead. Sounds grim, I know, but it actually wasn’t like that. In ancient practice, proper grief was essential to the funeral ritual. To ensure adequate mourning, especially in the case of a not-so-dearly-departed, professional mourners were hired so that somebody would cry.

What’s Jesus’ point? Let’s unpack it. But let’s also have a little fun doing it. I was over at the local Temple to Salvation by Treadmill—Lifetime Fitness—where they had on the longtime popular game show “Who Wants to Be Millionaire?” One of the categories was “The Bible” for $100,000 and I was sure that the contestant was going down since nobody reads the Bible. But then game hostess Meredith Viera cited Psalm 90 where it reads “the days of our years are threescore years and ten” and then she asked: “how long is threescore and ten?” I almost fell off my arc trainer: “He’s getting a hundred thousand dollars to answer that lame cheese-ball question?! That’s not a Bible question!”

Here’s a Bible question: In Matthew 11:16, Jesus parabolically describes children complaining to one another about refusing to play. Who are the “you” who didn’t play wedding and funeral? Is it a] other children; b] John and his disciples; c] this unbelieving generation of Gentiles d] this unbelieving generation of Jews. Jesus compares “this unbelieving generation” to an unwillingness to play, so it could be other children, you know, bratty and selfish children, other parents’ children. But since this is a parable, the other children are likely representative of bratty and selfish adults. Are these adults John and his disciples? Probably not. As we saw last Sunday, even though John doubted Jesus, Jesus never doubted John. In fact Jesus praised John for his faithfulness despite his misgivings. How about this generation of Gentiles? Gentile was a synonym for all things godless, but Gentiles were never described as children. Dogs, yes, but never children—at least not until they became adopted children on the other side of Pentecost. In the Bible, the children are always those who inherit the promises of God specifically made to Abraham; promises that God would make them a great nation. This nation of Abraham’s descendents was the nation of Israel and Judah. Which leaves us with d] this unbelieving generation of Jews, who in Luke’s parallel passage are typified by the very religious Pharisees, folks who thought themselves to be paragons of belief.

What didn’t they believe? Specifically that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises. But their unbelief went back further than this generation. Unfaithfulness was an inherited and ironic family trait.

Back in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses sang his swan song, he belted out a few choice lyrics for the chosen people: “…they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness. They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would recognize this.” Like losing in order to win, dying in order to live or failing in order to find victory, according to Moses, being smart is recognizing you have no sense. Which sounds like nonsense.

My young daughter Violet likes to play a game she calls “build a tower.” What this entails is stacking blocks or Legos or Lincoln Logs for her bunnies and ducks and other toys to perch upon. These toy building materials hearken back to my own childhood, so it was a fun game to play initially. The problem was that as soon as any of my towers achieved any height or impressive form, Violet would break out into this sinister grin and scream out “knock over!” at which point she summarily destroyed my nostalgic masterpieces. This was cute the first few hundred times, but eventually I grew tired of it, so being the bad dad I am, I refused to participate in such nonsense anymore—much to her disappointment. Now had I been wise, I would have recognized that the name of the game was never really “Build a Tower.” The name of the game was “Knock Over.” You lost in order to win.

Here in Jesus’ parable, the children want to play wedding and funeral, but the grown-ups refuse—much to the children’s disappointment. Who are these disappointed children? For a hint it helps to look at Luke’s parallel passage. In Matthew 11, Jesus’ punch line goes, “wisdom is vindicated, or proved right, by her deeds.” But in Luke 7, Jesus says, “Wisdom is proved right by her children.” While this may represent two different sayings of Jesus, more likely each gospel writer records a different encapsulated version of the same saying. Something like: “wisdom is proved right by the deeds of her children.” Wisdom, shorthand for the wisdom of God, is often personified in Scripture as a mother. The behavior of her children, the manner of their lives and their actions, prove her to be wise. Children reflect on their parents. So who are wisdom’s children in the parable; who are the ones who vindicate God’s wisdom? For a million dollars! Are they a) the believing generation of Jews and Gentiles in Jesus’ day; b) Jesus and John; c) Matthew and Luke; d) you and me. You’re right! It’s c) Jesus and John. They are the parabolic offspring of the wisdom of God—wisdom that looks like nonsense.

“We wailed and you did not mourn” sang the children. “John came neither eating nor drinking,” said Jesus. Like sorrow, refusing to eat and drink often accompanies grief. Why did John mourn? For the same reasons that Elijah and Moses and the rest of the prophets mourned: because God’s people were a perverse generation—a brood of vipers—adults who would not play funeral. They did not mourn nor repent. Too grown up to stoop to what they thought to be nonsense, too good to see how bad they really were, they refused to play and called John a demon.

“We played the flute for you and you did not dance,” sang the children. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” said Jesus. He came as a bridegroom ready to party and dance and rejoice at God’s goodness. But the adults would not play wedding. Too grown up to stoop to what they thought to be nonsense, too good to see how much better they could be, they refused to play and called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus will later declare that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.” This is another reason the Bible refers to believers as children of God rather than adults of God. Believing in Jesus takes childlike faith. Of course, the tendency is to describe such faith by highlighting childlike qualities like simplicity, innocence and trust. But such notions were probably foreign to most first century people. Instead, children were thought mostly to be insignificant, weak and foolish who if anything needed their inherent weakness beat out of them so that they could become contributing members of society. Childlike faith is the faith of desperation, dependency and powerlessness. It’s all you have when you have nothing left. This is why the gospel always portrays despised tax collectors and sinners as the truly faithful rather than the religious Pharisees. You have to lose in order to win. Such nonsense is how you know it’s the gospel.

As the apostle Paul will later to write to the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in God’s presence.” The word “chosen” is the same as the Old Testament word for God’s people. In Israel as now, God chooses the foolish and weak and low and despised for his children. “Jews demand signs and Gentiles desire wisdom,” Paul writes, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

And all to God’s delight. A few verses later in this chapter, Jesus prays, I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from those who think themselves wise and the religious and have revealed them to little children.” To those who are willing to play.

A few days ago Violet wanted to play “build a tower,” but being the bad dad that I am, I was still toycotting. So mom obliged, and she really got into it. Using the Lincoln logs, Dawn built a tower that stretched almost as high as Violet is tall. I smirked inside. Dawn was being played the fool. She was just asking for it. Violet marveled at the tower’s soaring height and applauded exuberantly. Right. I knew the ruse. She was setting her mom up for destruction. She let Dawn get got so far as to put on a roof and a flag, and then exclaimed, “Dad! Look at the beautiful tower!” “I see the tall tower,” I said. “It’s the tallest tower I’ve ever seen, heh-heh-heh.” But instead of ruining Dawn’s masterpiece, Violet left it alone. Talk about merciless. She let it stand the rest of the afternoon and evening until even Dawn started to wonder if something was wrong. I decided to find out. “Violet,” I said, “look at this big tower! Don’t you want to knock it over?” “No!” she replied. “Why not,” I asked. “Because dad. Mom made a good tower.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Are You Looking At?

Matthew 11:2-25

by Daniel Harrell

The last time I preached from this passage there was snow on the ground in Minnesota. I know this because I was here. I was preaching over at the Eden Prairie Presbyterian Church in front of Colonial’s Senior Minister Search Committee. It must have gone OK since here I am. Of course now you’re thinking, wait a minute, the guy hasn’t been here two months and already he’s repeating sermons? Guilty as charged—some of what I’m going to say you may have heard before. I should have devoted more time to sermon preparation this week. Instead I played golf. In my defense it was kind of a church outing. I played in the annual Chicken Open Golf Tournament with a number of you. And according to my honorable playing partners, playing golf is actually good sermon preparation (who knew?). After I stuck a couple of lucky short iron shots, my partners remarked how I now had a couple of sermon illustrations. Which is true if the point you’re trying to illustrate is that miracles still happen. Given my golf game, that I contributed not once, but twice, to the improvement of my team’s score is proof positive of God’s existence.

Here in Matthew 11, John the Baptist is seeking positive proof of Jesus’ existence—or at least of his identity as the Messiah. This is the real reason I’m returning to this passage today. John the Baptist is the topic of our summer sermons. Danielle took us back to John’s birth last Sunday. This week we’re getting closer to his death. Languishing in prison, John’s Elijah-like career had come to a screeching halt. It was one thing for John to call common sinners a brood of vipers. Pagans and Gentiles had that coming. You could even do the same to chosen sinners—prophets had been doing that for centuries. But stick it to the king and you end up in the clink. John berated the current Roman authority in the region, King Herod Antipas for his illicit marriage and a host of other evils. People didn’t do that and live long to tell about it.

Not that John was worried. By preaching from the desert and baptizing with water, John signaled that a deluge of divine judgment was coming. Water was scary stuff—and it still is. Last night’s storms and tornado sirens were enough to put the fear of God into anybody. “I baptize you with water,” John warned, “But one more powerful than I is coming who will baptize you in the Holy Spirit… His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the righteous wheat into his barn, but the wicked chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John had done his job. The way was straight. The highway paved. The table set. All that remained was the coming of the Lord. John had seen the heavens open and the sky tear apart. He saw the Spirit descend. He heard the thundering approval of God. John might be in jail, but he wouldn’t be there long. The Messiah was near with his fork and fire. Justice was just around the corner.

But then came the reports. Reports about how Jesus showed up in his home church to read Scripture—a prophetic passage from Isaiah about the Spirit of the Lord anointing one “to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind….” Reports about how after reading Isaiah, Jesus told the hometown crowd that Isaiah was describing him, and how his friends and neighbors, shocked by such impertinence (since he was Mary’s boy—and everybody knew Joseph wasn’t his daddy), turned on him and ran him out of town. John the Baptist would have never stood for that. He’d have lit into those folks like he lit into the Pharisees. But Jesus didn’t light into anybody. There was no fire, no flaming indignation in response to their rejection. Not even a fiery temper tantrum. John also heard about Jesus’ preaching. Not much fire there either. Mostly some milk-toast about the blessedness of the poor and the meek, and how glad you should be when people insult you. About how you should forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors and ridiculous stuff like that. No unquenchable fire. Not even quenchable fire.

John started to worry now. He called a couple of his followers and told them to go ask Jesus: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we wait for somebody else?”

John’s followers found Jesus and asked him. Citing that same passage from Isaiah, Jesus told them to relay to the Baptist what they had seen for themselves: the blind receive sight, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor. John could draw his own conclusions. And then Jesus added, presumably with John in mind: “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The phrase derives from the Greek word “scandalize” from which we get the English word “scandalize.” In the passive voice, it means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” What an weird thing to say. How could Jesus Christ—the Son of the Living God who knew no sin himself—insult anyone’s moral sensitivities? How could Jesus offend anybody?

Some time ago I hopped a cab in Boston and the cabbie started chatting up the Red Sox and life in Southie where I lived, and eventually got to that moment I regularly dreaded. He asked what I did for a living. In Boston, there was nothing like admitting you were a Christian minister to bring conversations to a drop dead halt. Typically there was first a chuckle of surprise until folks realized you weren’t joking. Then came the cleaning up of the language. Next came the look of curiosity, followed by the pity. And after that, usually, silence. Anticipating all of this tempted me to fudge, you know, to refer to myself as “working for a non-profit organization,” just for the sake of maintaining rapport. But I knew that would probably fall under the category of “being ashamed of the gospel.” So instead I died my little social death, told him what I did, then suffered the predictable silence that filled the cab for the rest of the ride home. Not exactly what I’d call scoring one for the Kingdom.

Not long afterwards a good friend of mine informed me how he’d just returned from a weekend golf trip with some of his work buddies where they celebrated his 40th birthday. They had a blast. Remembering how I’d invited this best friend on a similar outing for one of my birthdays, I was hurt to hear how I’d been left out. “C’mon,” my friend explained, “you know that bunch of heathen knuckleheads where I work! I’d have never heard the end of it if I’d brought a minister along.”

Sometimes this works to my advantage. Dawn and I were in Malawi a few years back purchasing some souvenirs from local street vendors. As many of you who’ve traveled abroad know, these vendors can get pretty persistent. One guy decided he would accompany us all the way back to where we were staying, badgering us the whole way to buy one of his trinkets. After about a mile or so, and several failed attempts to send him on his way, I finally told him how I was a minister and what say we talk about church? And just like that, he did an about-face and headed back toward town. What is it about Christianity that makes people so repulsed by it?

Maybe it is Jesus. (Or maybe it’s me.) But maybe it’s Jesus. After all, following his last supper Jesus on earth, he told his disciples—not guys who were repulsed by him but guys who truly believed and loved him most—he told his disciples: “You will all be offended because of me.” Scandalized. Every idealization they held about the Kingdom of God would get crucified. This was not the way things were supposed to work. The righteous were supposed to be rewarded and their enemies destroyed, not the other way around. Justice demanded Jesus swoop down, his winnowing fork in hand. Justice demanded unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t swoop down, he got strung up. Instead of a winnowing fork to eliminate evil, an evil cross eliminated Jesus. There was no fire, only mockery and torture and death. What kind of salvation plan was that? And then to have Jesus utter those outrageous words as he hung to die: “Father forgive them”? Forgive them? That can’t be right. That’s not justice! That’s offensive!

And it is offensive—even to those who believe it. Not the part about Jesus dying on a cross to save us from our sins; I’ve yet to meet a Christian who isn’t thankful that their own sins are forgiven. No, what’s offensive is Jesus’ command to go and do likewise.

I know a woman named Kathryn whose mother coldly abandoned her and her father when Kathryn was in grade school, explaining how she needed to move on to a new phase of her development. She left for another state and missed out on all of the milestones of Kathryn's life, despite Kathryn's invitations for her mother to be there. Her mom missed Kathryn's wedding too; something about having already booked a weekend away with friends months in advance. After years of hurt and rejection, and anger and bitterness and serious self-loathing, Kathryn became pregnant and her mother found out and now wanted to be in touch. She was excited to be a grandmother. Kathryn was furious. The last thing she wanted was her mother to be anywhere near her baby. Wasn’t totally screwing up one person’s life enough? Kathryn came to me as her pastor and asked what she was supposed to do. I felt a little like John the Baptist in prison. At that moment I wished that there was another Messiah out there. But there wasn’t. So I swallowed and said, “you’re supposed to forgive your mother.” To Kathryn's fury I added offense. She refused. Forgiving her mother was one thing she could not do. She said, “That would kill me.”

Which is kind of the point. Jesus did say that to follow him means taking up a cross to do it. Strung up by his own enemies and abusers, Jesus prayed for their pardon. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Jesus commands you love them. Forgiveness does not wait for the hurt to diminish or the scars to heal. Forgiveness does not wait for repentance or an apology. Repentance, while a precondition for receiving forgiveness, is never the precondition for offering forgiveness. Reconciliation may be a two-way street, but forgiveness runs in one direction. It rises up out of the bitterness and out of the pain, while the hurt throbs and the wounds are raw. Christian forgiveness is scandalous and offensive. It is unfair and unjust and undeserved—which is why the Bible calls it grace.

No wonder the fiery John wondered if Jesus was really the one. For Jesus’ handlers standing nervously among the bewildered throng, this could not look good. Was the popular Baptist withdrawing his endorsement? What would this do to Jesus’ reputation? C’mon Lord, at least seize the opportunity and set John straight. Discipline him for his departure from the script. Publicly reprimand him for his misgivings. Nip it in the bud. Use John as an object lesson and condemn weak faith and doubt outright. Make an example of John the Baptist now and you can avoid that embarrassing, messy little episode with Thomas later.

But Jesus didn’t do any of this. That’s because weak faith has never been a problem for him. As far as Jesus is concerned, his power is made perfect in human weakness. So instead of slapping John on the wrist, Jesus slapped him on the back. Addressing the crowd Jesus asked, “What did you go out into that desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man dressed in soft robes? No, you went out to see a prophet—but John was more than a prophet. He’s the one about whom it was written, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you.’” Jesus fused together two passages of Scripture, one from Malachi and another from Exodus. By melding them together, Jesus made plain that the whole of Scripture—the Prophets and the Law—both pointed to John as the one who pointed to the Christ. Jesus announced, “John is the Elijah who was to come.” All of Judaism anxiously awaited the coming of a second Elijah who would usher in the reign of God. Now Jesus announced that Elijah had come and with him, the Kingdom and its King.

But you had to be willing to accept it, Jesus said. And this was scandalous too. Especially for those whose moral sensitivities couldn’t accept an Elijah who looked like John or a King who looked like Jesus. In Matthew 21, Jesus will say to his religious detractors, “John the Baptist came and showed you the way to life, but you weren’t willing to accept it. The tax collectors and the prostitutes did, but even when you saw this happening, you did not change your minds.” Well duh, why would they change their minds? “Tax collectors,” “prostitutes” that’s Biblical code for degenerates and outcasts. Talk about morally offensive. To see such people going for Jesus’ Kingdom only verified for the religious folk that Jesus’ so-called kingdom was not the Kingdom of God. Back here in Matthew 11, Jesus reiterated the greatness of John the Baptist, but then he asserted how the least in the Kingdom—like tax collectors and prostitutes—were even greater than John. It made no sense.

Jesus then adds to the confusion by saying, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” Other translations have Jesus saying, “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people lay hold of it.” Each is half right, I think. Better to read Jesus saying: “the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.” And why wouldn’t people attack it? It ran counter to everything they believed a proper kingdom of God should be. They would attack it and kill it and try to bury it out of sight. But we all know how well that worked out. The Kingdom forcefully advanced, rising from the dead; but because it’s also made perfect through weakness, the Kingdom, while forceful, never forces. Its power is the power of grace. And if you’ve ever experienced grace, I mean truly experienced it, then you know that there’s no more powerful force than that. Still, you have to be willing to accept it. And, no offense, but you have to be willing to give it too.

On one of my last days in Boston, Kathryn stopped in to say good by. She didn’t know whether I’d remembered our conversation, but she wanted to tell me that she did it. Kelly forgave her mother. And it killed her to do it. But now her own daughter has a grandmother. And that, as far as she was concerned, was nothing short of a miracle.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Need To Decrease

John 3:22-36

by Daniel Harrell

There was a bit of back in forth over the Fourth of July decorations in the Meetinghouse this morning. My understanding is that Colonial Church tradition used to encourage a more star-spangled decor in line with colonial American tradition. I hear that flags and bunting used to be everywhere. But then as the relationship between conservative Christianity and conservative American politics got too cozy during the 1990s, to quote the Declaration of Independence: it became “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” And thus the bunting and banners came down. With the Fourth of July falling on a Sunday this year and with a liberal Democrat in the White House, we thought that maybe draping a little red, white and blue need not be so offensive—as long as we kept it off the pulpit and communion table. We do live in a country where religion remains an enormous part of our identity—all the more reason for the faithful to be wary of the seduction of political power. Be it prayer in schools, the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” oddly printed on American mammon, whenever Christian faith assimilates into civil religion, it significantly loses its salt. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The Kingdoms of this world are not the Kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist certainly understood this. His call to repent was aimed at a people whose faith had become too entwined with their own national identity.

Politics and religion do not a marriage make, although John does make use of marriage metaphors in this morning’s sermon installment on the life of the Baptist. John the Baptist played best man to Jesus. Though in Biblical times, the best man was more of the main man as far as bride and groom were concerned. In addition to holding onto the rings, the best man arranged the wedding, sent out the invitations, presided at the reception, and most importantly, guarded the door to the bridal bedchamber until the groom showed up so that no false lovers could gain entrance. (Apparently this was a problem back then.) For a best man to abuse this sacred trust would have amounted to a scandal of genuine Biblical proportion. In the Old Testament, Israel is described as the bride to God himself as bridegroom. In the New Testament, this relationship is consummated with us, the church, as the bride of Christ.

John was the best man and Jesus was the bridegroom. With Jesus’ arrival, John’s “joy was fulfilled.” And now, John said, “He must increase but I must decrease.” This was not a statement of resignation but one of sheer delight. Nothing makes a best man happier than the successful completion of his duty. His is the most vigorous wave as the happy couple drive off, cans clanging from the back of the bumper. But for some reason John’s disciples didn’t share his joy. Even though John has identified Jesus as John pointed out Jesus as the very Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, they seem upset that Jesus has drawn a bigger crowd to his side of the river.

Apparently a “certain Jew” had riled them up. Perhaps he was a Pharisee or a Sadducee. Perhaps he walked up to the Baptists and tried to pick a fight over ceremonial washing, like a Congregationalist might pick a fight with a Baptist over sprinkling versus dunking. If John was performing Jewish purification rites, then he was doing so without the proper credentials. Within Judaism, one became impure through a variety of ways—from contact with mildew to contact with corpses, from eating pork to eating with pagans. Being impure restricted your access to worship and community life. Only through ceremonial purification with water could one’s purity be restored. And only a priest could do that.

John wasn’t a priest. But he wasn’t giving ceremonial baths either. He was a prophet whose use of water was not a sign of cleansing but a prophetic sign of drowning. John used water as a vivid reminder of God’s wrath against evil as wrought in Noah’s deluge and the Red Sea surge. The masses waded into the Jordan water signaling that they too—but for God’s grace—deserved a similar fate.

The Jewish man probably thought that appropriate for pagan Gentiles, but John was baptizing chosen people! This was intentional. John’s call to the water also signaled their need to start again. And just so nobody got it into their head that starting again was something they could do by themselves, Jesus couched it in terms of being born again. “I baptize with water,” John said, “but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” “Fine,” the Jewish man replied, “if that’s the case; if John’s baptism is a preparation for the Christ, and Jesus is the Christ, then what was Jesus doing across the river baptizing with water too?” What? Jesus was baptizing with water? They knew it. For Jesus to baptize with water made him a Baptist like John. And if he was a Baptist like John, then Jesus couldn’t be the Christ any more than John was the Christ. That’s why John baptized Jesus! Jesus wasn’t better than John if John baptized him. Jesus was just the same as any other run-of-the-mill sinner.

Admittedly, John had been shocked when Jesus showed up down by the riverside. The place was crawling with sinners: liars, cheaters, thieves, gossips, adulterers—all wading into the waters of repentance so as not to drown under the waters of wrath. So what was Jesus doing down there? What was he doing getting into line as if he belonged there? John knew better. John insisted Jesus baptize him instead. But Jesus insisted that righteousness meant doing things the other way around. So John complied, his hands shaking the whole time. And then when the skies blew open and the Spirit descended and God’s voice thundered—Jesus Christ! John knew it. Was that not enough for John’s followers too? Apparently not. If Jesus was really the Christ, what was he doing down here with sinners doing what only sinners needed to do? Maybe John wondered that as well. Didn’t Jesus know that somebody might mistake him for one of them?

I remember once being seated on a full airplane where someone had left a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine in the pocket. As is typical, the cover displayed some provocatively clad cosmetically enhanced woman alongside all sorts of bold-faced, suggestive promises of instant beauty and gratification. So I started flipping through it when a neatly dressed young man settled in the seat beside mine. He reached into his book bag and hauled out this really big Bible. I smiled. Felt a little guilty. Went back to reading Cosmopolitan. Once we had reached a comfortable cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and then as if almost on cue (I think he’d been praying for me), the young man leaned over and started a conversation about airplanes and flying. He then steered it to talking about a recent spate of crashes (I figured this was why he was reading a Bible). I also thought he was being a little morbid, when suddenly he said, “if this plane were to crash today are you 100% sure that you’d go to heaven?” What? This guy was evangelizing me? Couldn’t he tell I was a professional Christian? Then I realized. Cosmopolitan. He’d mistook me for one of them.

Had Jesus had handlers, no way would they have let him near John’s baptismal waters. Sure, he could have stood on the shore and offered words of encouragement to those going in, or even held out a hand to help those coming out. But under no circumstances could he go in himself. It made him look guilty as sin. What were John’s followers supposed to think? What kind of Savior gets baptized and then parties with tax collectors, lets prostitutes wash his feet, does miracles for despised Roman soldiers and basically acts like he hasn’t been to synagogue a day in his life? What are we supposed to do with a Savior who looks like a sinner? Shoot, we can’t even deal with sinners who look like sinners. True, we preach “love the sinner hate the sin,” but most of us are so bad at making that distinction we just end up hating both. It’s better to keep your distance from all that, have proper boundaries. That way nobody can ever mistake you for one of them.

Of course there’s no real need to worry about that. There’s not a chance that anybody would ever mistake you for one of them. That’s because you are “one of them.” As the Bible says, “we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all in the line up at the water. But then down saunters Jesus. Taking his place in line as if he belonged there too. Which he does. Jesus being with us means being in the water with us—taking on our sin that we might take on his salvation; looking like us that we might look more like Him.

But who’d ever heard of a Messiah like that? Certainly not these hangers-on hanging around John. That’s why they were staying on his side of the river rather than going over to join Jesus. John uses the last few verses of our text to convince them otherwise.

John says, “The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way.” In other words, it matters where you come from. The contrast John makes between Jesus who comes from above and his own earthly self is not unlike the ones John has made already: John is the voice preparing the way for the one to come, Jesus is the one to come. John is the best man, Jesus is the bridegroom. John is unfit to untie the sandals Jesus wears. John baptizes in water, Jesus in the Spirit. John is from the earth, Jesus is from heaven. Unlike Jesus, John was the natural born son of purely human parents (albeit with some help from above as Danielle will preach about next Sunday). Jesus on the other hand came from above, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thus is the Son of God. Moreover, Jesus’ heaven-inspired words bespeak his place of origin. John asserts this but adds —casting a caustic glance at his followers—“no one accepts his testimony.”

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” John says, “but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Water was the vivid reminder of God’s determination to eradicate sin. Yet because all have sinned and fall short, John’s cry was not about staying dry. That was a Biblical impossibility. The trajectory of all sinful humanity runs down into the water. Yet for those who believe in Jesus, that trajectory does not end underwater. For those who believe in Jesus, they, like him and with him, rise up out of the water and on to the other side.

Yet for those who do not believe, who “disobey they Son,” there is no life. Disobey is the same word used to portray the wandering Israelites whom Moses rescued through the Red Sea. Moses offered them freedom from slavery and new life in community with their Maker, but they thought he was crazy for leading them through water and into a God-forsaken desert to do it. Despite the fact that the desert was not forsaken by God; He was right there with them the whole time. This word “disobey” is also the word used to characterize those that laughed at Noah as he built his ark. Noah offered them a free ride, but they thought he was crazy, even as the rain started to fall.

Some of you may have caught a piece that I, your new Senior Minister, wrote for a faith and science blog on the website The Biologos Foundation was started by Francis Collins, the current Director of the National Institutes of Health. On the blog I tried to pave a middle way between evolutionary literalists and biblical literalists over the conundrum of a historical Adam and Eve. I tried to imagine Adam and Eve as among the first people rather than as the first people. My musings got picked up, tossed up and then blown up by the infamous Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and other best-selling anti-religious screeds. In a personal email, Dawkins wrote: “I earnestly hope—and believe—that Francis Collins should disown this article, or at least feel embarrassed by it. If he would not, he is unfit to hold high office in the scientific establishment of the United States.” I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered. His attack drew a number of comments, including the following: “I’m sad to say that I myself live in Edina, MN, in fact, only a block or so away from Colonial Church. Reading this post was just yet another rude awakening to the religious lunacy that for the most part in everyday life is operating under my radar... I kind of just assumed that no one really believed in all this [uh, doo-doo], and just went to church because of tradition and a sense of community. I cease to be amazed that otherwise completely rational people can be so incredibly deluded when it comes to believing in religion.”

At least he called me “otherwise completely rational.” Chalk it up to Minnesota Nice. The other comments weren’t nearly as charitable. Though I can actually empathize. Sometimes I wish that my faith was based on more tangible evidence. I wish that the heavens would regularly open up for all to see and spirit-infused flocks of doves would descend daily and God’s voice would thunder unmistakably for all to hear. Not that these things convinced John’s followers who actually did experience them. In the end, as a New Yorker article about Jesus asserted last week, “Belief remains a bounce, faith a leap… the absence of certainty the certainty.” In the end we’re left with a Savior who looks like Jesus—whose broken body and shed blood brings hope to our hardship, freedom from our fear, comfort to our anxiety, and finally life and love everlasting.