151213 – Do You Understand?

Yr C ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 3:7-18

(A very loose translation of Luke 3:7-18 for today’s church)
Larry said to the crowd that came out to be preached to by him, “You self-righteous jerks! Who told you God’s standards don’t apply to you? Walk your talk! Don’t think just because you hang out at a church that you’re all good. In God’s way there’s no compromise. A half-hearted faith is good for nothing.Do-You-Understand

And the congregation asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said, “If you have more than you need, share. Be ethical. Be satisfied with what you get. Don’t be a jerk!”

And the people were astounded that it sounded so easy and they wondered how did Larry learn this amazing stuff?

Larry answered by saying, “Look, I’m just splashing some cold water on you to wake you up a bit. Religious rituals are just a launching pad. The real work is the part that comes next. Transformation comes over time with the fire of the Spirit, and it’s hard to allow yourself to be worked on, but it’s worth it. Do you understand?”

And so, with many other brilliant sermons, he helped the people notice!

Doesn’t that just make you feel joyous on this “joy Sunday?”
Ok, let’s start with the context. If you weren’t here, make sure you read last week’s sermon on the website.

Today is part two. It picks up immediately following last week’s reading about repentance, forgiveness, and sin where I offered to you an interpretation that said you could also understand that as meaning a transformation to a new way of thinking that allows you to let go of the negativity of feeling crappy about missing the mark so often and opening yourself to allowing God’s bulldozers to come in and work on filling in your valleys of self-pity and humbling your mountains of self-importance.

So that’s what he was teaching – and here’s how he was teaching it! Immediately after John says all that stuff he looks the people square in the face and calls them a “brood of vipers” – which I think today would translate as a bunch of self-righteous jerks! Ouch!
Please know that I’m not calling you that.
I’m just trying to give you an approximation of how it might have felt to be there. I mean these are people who made a big effort to get out to the wilderness and gave John their time and their ears and he berates them with an insult.

Frankly, I think part of it is the shock value of it. When I started with the words “self-righteous jerks” it definitely caught your attention.
Maybe you felt guilty or insulted.
Maybe you got defensive and thought of the ways you aren’t a self-righteous jerk.
Maybe you figured I’d finally snapped!

But you need to go beyond the insult and understand why John was so provocative. He wasn’t saying they were intrinsically evil people. He was saying that if they thought that just by showing up and doing some religious stuff that they were transformed they were woefully misinformed. And he also said that you cannot inherit a spirituality or faith – you have to grow your own from scratch.

So, hear this carefully – if you think that showing up at church on Sunday means you’re all good, and if this is the sum total of your spiritual intentionality, then guess what? You’re a self-righteous jerk!
That is not my sense of who you are at all, but only you know for sure. And if you’re hearing this as an attack and you’re feeling uncomfortable then you probably need to sit with that for a while and figure out what’s up.

We are not here to come to an intellectual understanding of certain doctrines so that we can believe the right way about the right things. That’s a sure-fire road to becoming a self-righteous jerk! No, we’re here to affirm that God is in this place and every place, to open ourselves to noticing that Presence, and to allow that revelation to take root and work within us so that we realize that every moment of every day we are in the midst of a spiritual experience and then our ethics and attitudes ought to reflect that sacredness.

Why? Is it to try to earn points?
Are we afraid of God’s wrath?

Verse 7 said “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” But that word wrath is more nuanced than that. Wrath is not a righteous anger that is lashing out but rather the passion of an unyielding holy love that cannot be compromised, so when our actions miss the mark and we live unethically it rubs against the immovable standard and is exposed as lacking. What some perceive as wrath is a holy light that refuses to do anything but shine – and the feeling of judgement comes when that light shows us stuff we tried to keep in the shadows.
God doesn’t judge us – God’s light shows us our crud and then we have to deal with it.

John says that if you’re really in the transformation business then your life will show it. It isn’t about isolated acts of kindness or compassion – it’s about a lifelong, ongoing, deepening pattern and habit of kindness and compassion. We don’t do it because we fear wrath; we do it because we’ve experienced love and are inspired to love in return.

And the congregation asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said, “If you have more than you need, share. Be ethical. Be satisfied with what you get.
Don’t be a jerk!”

And the people were astounded that it sounded so easy and they wondered how did he learn this amazing stuff?

Think of all the good you do. Think of all the ways you share.
Think of all the mittens, and gift bags, and food bank items, and donations to digging wells, and our Church Work in Durham ministries, and the Mission and Service Fund.
You people are wonderful givers! You really are. You are generous and loving and I firmly believe you’re doing it for all the right reasons. You should be really proud of the good you do individually and as a congregation.

The danger is that ours can become a chequebook Christianity if we’re not careful. We can write our cheque, feel good about doing good, and then go back to our regularly scheduled programming. I say that because we are surrounded by a tragically self-involved and greedy culture. I want you to watch this video to show what I’m talking about. This is really upsetting, but it’s reality. The guy is holding a sign that says “take what you need” and he has dozens of dollar bills taped to his jacket:

For 2000 years the church has had this teaching: “If you have more than you need, share. Be ethical. Be satisfied with what you get. Don’t be a jerk!”
It’s a plain, common sense, easy to understand teaching that every single person in this room would absolutely agree with. And if you asked them I bet every person in that video would agree too.
That disconnect between what one proclaims and how one acts is what makes one a self-righteous jerk.

So John tells it like it is. He says that our religious rituals are good places to start but this is just a baptism with water – it’s the baptism in fire that does the real work.

Here I want to be really careful and make sure you hear me really clearly. Our society is somewhat schizophrenic. We seem to be able to beat ourselves up thinking we’re no good and at the same time act like we’re the most important person on earth.
You’re definitely not as bad as you think you are.
And you’re also probably not as good as you think you are.
The reality is that we’re all human – an imperfect, inconsistent mess of values and attitudes that can range from saintly to evil in the blink of an eye.

In an essay contest sponsored by a newspaper asking the question “What’s wrong with the world?” many contributors wrote long philosophical pieces, but G.K. Chesterton wrote the most insightful answer.
What’s wrong with the world? He wrote two words: “I am.”
As you ponder that ponder this: If the question was “what’s right with the world?” the answer would be the exact same!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

John is not threatening hell-fire and damnation for those who do wrong – he’s offering a profound spiritual insight that says we’ve all got good and bad in us, and rituals like baptism and Sunday worship are good ways to hit the reset button, but Jesus’ baptism of fire is how we Christians understand that the bad stuff gets burned away and the good stuff is refined and purified.
By the way, if you think you’re pretty good and you don’t have any stuff that needs burning away – that’s your stuff!
And if you think you’re not so hot you need to remember that refining takes away the crud and reveals the awesomeness that’s already there underneath.

I think the really big question in all this is how do you know what needs refining? How do you know what you’re supposed to let go of?
Well, some things are blatantly obvious and most of the time we probably already know what needs doing, or dropping. The question is why don’t we do it?
But other things are not always obvious, or maybe we have a huge blind spot and can’t see it. The thing that is needed is called discernment – and the way to do discernment is to pray.

However, in our mainline church tradition we’ve never really been taught how to pray. We think prayer is all about finding the right words and having a conversation with God. “Dear God, blah blah blah blah blah…” That’s not wrong, but it’s way too narrow.
The deepest prayers happen with sighs too deep for words.

silencedDrawing on author Brennan Manning I can teach you everything you need to know about prayer in 5 words.
Are you ready? Here it is: Show up and shut up!
If you really want to pray with your whole being, show up and shut up!
If you really want to hear God’s voice and discern what God is trying to reveal in your life just show up and shut up!
It’s hard to hear anything when you’re doing all the talking.

I think there are two main reasons why this is refining stuff is really hard to do. One is that we hate to be told that we’re not perfect even though we thoroughly know it – we don’t like the idea of God’s Holy Light shining in our dark corners where we try to hide our embarrassing stuff.
And the second reason is that letting go of stuff is hard – even if it’s not great stuff – because we’ve been holding it for so long.
It’s not called refining fluff balls, it’s called a refining fire. But in the end it reveals a better you – the you God sees underneath all our crud.
In poetic language we’d say that God loves us far more than we love ourselves – and we need to see ourselves through God’s eyes.

So here I am, just about at the end of my Advent 3 message, and I haven’t talked about joy yet. Or have I?
What happens after the refiner’s fire does its work?
You’re left with something purer, clearer, more valuable, more lovely, more useful, something closer to what it was intended to be before its inherent beauty got scuffed by jerkiness.
Joy isn’t a party, it’s knowing God’s love and God’s peace in the deepest ways. Jesus’ baptism of fire opens us to true, gushing, overwhelming joy.

It’s now two weeks to Christmas. John the Baptizer is blazing a trail for us, preparing the way.
He’s inviting us to receive the light of the world, but he’s challenging us to understand what receiving such a holy, beautiful, uncompromising light means.
Don’t be fooled just ‘cause it’s coming in the form of a baby.

If we embrace the light we’re embracing a baptism of fire – an immersion that continues for our whole lives – and the joy of becoming who we are intended to be and whose we are intended to be grows and grows and grows.

What on the surface appears to be a harsh challenge is actually a beautiful invitation to an astoundingly joyous journey, if we can get over ourselves, show up and shut up, and discern the love in the call.
Do you understand?

Amen.