Letter #27

Lily Leaving the Splash Park

Dear Lily,

You are one spunky, full-of-life little girl! Someone said you have moxie the other day! They were right. So, basically, you’re a joy to be around – and you can also really try our patience too!

One of the things I love so much about you is your fearlessness and love for adventure. You can imagine my surprise, then, when you were terrified at your first swim lesson a couple of weeks ago. Granted it had been about 8 months since you went swimming last, but last year we could barely hold you back! You were extremely quick to try to crawl or walk into the water. The Pacific Ocean, the Northern Sea, Loch Lomond, several frigid rivers, and many different pools – you’ve been in all of them and loved them. But last Saturday as we stepped into the YMCA pool for swimming lessons I encountered something I never have from you: fear. Terror is more like it. You spent 30 minutes crying and saying, “OUT!”

I will confess that I was pretty embarrassed. I had just been bragging about you to the life guard, and asking about advanced lessons. That was, of course, prior to getting into the water. I was embarrassed, but I was not ashamed. I was surprised by your fear, and I realized that loving you through that experience was the best thing I could do.

I decided to not let you out early, but to work tirelessly at helping you to have fun. We played with toys, and even poured water on my head. Eventually you calmed down, just as we were getting out. As we got into the car, I told you how proud I was of you for staying I the water. I gave you a sucker, and told you we’d go again later in the week, prior to our next lesson. On Friday we went again, prior to our Saturday lesson. You were still scared, but you only cried once. Eventually you grew so comfortable that you even giggled. I was so proud of you that day, Lily, for facing your fears. I told you that you were swimming like a guppy (Bubble Guppies is your favorite TV show) and you began singing the theme song as we swam around “saving” the various toys in the pool!

Then, the next day we went back for your lesson and your loved it. You didn’t cry once! In fact, the life guard used you to show everyone how to hold your breath under water. We’ve still got a bit of work to do on that but what a turn around! You actually put your face under 10 times during that lesson (I think you finally started closing your mouth and eyes!). Since then you went swimming with your mom once, and you won’t stop talking about going swimming! What a brave little girl you are.

Lily I love you. You are such a gift. I’m sorry that I was embarrassed by your fear, but I’m so glad you shared it with me. Even more than that, I’m proud of you for overcoming your fears and for sharing that process with me. I do a pretty good job of hiding this, but I have fears too. This week you reminded me of the importance of facing those fears, and about inviting others into the vulnerability that requires.

So . . . thanks! I can’t wait till our next swim lesson!

Love,

Your Father

June 13, 2013

Letter #26

Dear Baby Bronco,

I can’t begin to describe how happy I am. We found out about you just a few days ago: April 26, 2013 to be precise. What amazing news! I’ve been hoping and praying for you for some time now. I just love being a Father, and I can’t wait for another little baby!

We’re going to do our best to not find out about your sex until your birth. We have names, basically, picked out either way! If you’re a boy – we’ve had your name picked out for a LONG time! If you turn out to be a girl, well, I think we’ve got it figured out. We’re still talking about that, though.

One of the most amazing things about being parents is learning how much more love we are capable of, how much more room for love and laughter there is in our lives, and how much more in love we will continue to grow, your Mother and I, through the process. We learned this lesson with your sister Lily – the love in our lives has grown exponentially! We’re still learning this lesson. And now we’re in for more!

Having been through this once already, I think I’m even more amazed that you – the little child who will laugh, cry, climb, eat, sing, dance, cuddle, and hopefully sleep :-) – that you are infinitesimally small right now. That God is knitting you together in your mother’s womb, causing you to grow, and soon to thrive, is simply amazing. That so much life and love could start out so small – that is truly amazing.

I love you little child. You are already blessing and enriching my life in so many ways. I can’t wait to meet you.

Love,

Your Father

May 1, 2013

Embarrassing Inequality

Each week during this school year I’ve had the honor of going to a nearby inner-city school in KC, MO with a few of my colleagues. I spend 30 minutes sitting with my 2nd grade reading buddy, listening to her read, asking her questions about what she’s been reading, and getting glimpses of her life. This is truly one of the highlights of my work week.

The problem is that each time I go I am reminded, and thoroughly embarrassed, about how terribly unequal our education system is in the USA. This embarrassing inequality can easily be traced back to economic and racial inequalities that are still all too prevalent in our society.

I’m used to these types of schools; these are the sorts of schools my amazing wife Lauren has spent her teaching career working in (by choice). Familiarity, though, does not breed acceptance in this case. Rather, I am more and more frustrated and embarrassed each time I step foot in that school – a school that can easily be taken as a representative for so many other schools in KC, MO and the USA as a whole, particularly in urban and rural settings where poverty is the norm. And while surely the school could do more to improve conditions, much of this is a systemic issue that will require a major overhaul in order for conditions to change.

I won’t rant, there are others who have done that well. I’m not really the person to see on this stuff, either, but I do know that Jonathan Kozol has done some amazing work in the area of the inequality of our education system in the US. Here are simply a few things I’ve learned, and observations I’ve made, over this past school year:

  • KC, MO schools are unaccredited. That’s right, unaccredited. All of them. It’s been this way for a LONG time, too. I wonder what sort of future my little reading buddy will have as a result of this tragic reality that will place her on an uneven playing field with other kids her age when it comes time for college? I don’t understand how this is even possible. 
  • The particular school I’m reading at has a mobility rate of around 75%! That means that close to 3 out of every 4 will not finish the school year where they began.
  • Many of the parents of the kids in the school I read at are homeless.
  • The class I’m in has had three teachers this year alone! Fortunately, the young woman who is their permanent teacher has been there for more than half of the year now.
  • Last week as I was walking up to the school I noticed several used condoms lying on the sidewalk, just next to the little garden area. Used condoms. I wonder how many of the schools in Olathe, Blue Valley, or wherever, can boast of that sort of greeting to their children, parents, teachers, and guests?!
  • This week I noticed that the teacher had a desk. I heard her comment about it too – about how nice it was to finally have a desk. School will be over in about two weeks and this teacher just got a desk THIS WEEK!

This sort of thing is just not right, which means that it is wrong. This sort of inequality is sinful. Outside the  USA, I’ve walked into elementary schools in Russia, Mexico, Kenya, Jamaica, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic – at none of these was I greeted by a used condom, and at every single one of these, the teacher had a desk. The fact that this experience happened here, at home, in the USA, is embarrassing to me. Seriously.

This sort of situation has to be done away with. These conditions must end. Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, No Partiers, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and everyone in the middle – they all should be embarrassed by this. I want my children to never go to a school like this, and I don’t want that to come true at the expense of hundreds of thousands of “those” kids, over there, who do.

Children – all of them – deserve better.

Covering Up Luther: A Summary

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Many have asked for a bit of a summary on my recently published book Covering Up Luther, well, here goes:

Near the end of his life, Karl Barth’s son gave him a rug from a recent vacation. For some strange reason, Barth took the rug and hung it in his study in Basel (as seen on the right). One doesn’t usually hang a rug up, and certainly not over a bookshelf. That is precisely what Barth did with this rug, though. The bookshelf he covered up contained the Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s Works. Barth would go on to call Luther’s works his Pandora’s box. As such, he wanted to remove them from his sight, but not to remove them from the shelves altogether. Curious. This book, is an attempt to understand why Barth made the decision to cover up Luther’s works in this way.

The book is titled, Covering Up Luther: How Barth’s Christology Challenged the Deus Absconditus That Haunts Modernity. It is available here on Amazon, and here on Kindle.  The same is true for those who might purchase the book in UK, for both paperback and Kindle versions.

The book is my doctoral dissertation, which means that it is a work of Systematic Theology, and one that is meant to be quite specialized. For those interested, I successfully defended my dissertation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on November 10, 2010, and graduated in May 2011. While the work for my dissertation began at Garrett, the bulk of my research was done while studying at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland in 2008-2009. When we returned home to the US in 2009, I began writing. That process took almost a year. I wrote chapters 1 and 2 while in Clovis, NM at my parents home. The rest of the book was written in Bentonville, AR, while serving as a pastor at Bentonville Church of the Nazarene.

You should also know that, first and foremost, this is a book about Barth, and not about Luther. Luther certainly plays a role in the book, but merely as seen through the later Barth’s eyes. The title is deceptive in that way.

Finally, before summarizing the book, I will confess to a few major motivations behind the writing of this book. First, my hope is to challenge the notion that Barth’s theology is best understood as dialectical. I am firmly opposed to dialectical reasoning in theology, primarily as a result of reading Barth. He was increasingly opposed to dialectics, a point that has not been given sufficient attention. Second, I am deeply interested in theological or dogmatic (dogma = theology from and for the Church) ecumenical work – particularly between Protestants and Roman Catholics. (I was originally planning to examine and write about both Barth and Henri de Lubac, but this proved to be far to “wide” for the narrow expectations of a dissertation. The research on de Lubac will have to be returned to later!) I believe Barth’s mature theology has been deeply influential on both, and has much to offer in such dialogue. Similarly, given the somewhat unique way that I read Barth, I believe that two groups in particular might want to examine or re-examine Barth: Wesleyans and those who self-identify with the theological sensibility known as “Radical Orthodoxy.” The former, because of Barth’s strong doctrines of revelation and sanctification, the latter because of Barth’s increasing pre-occupation with his Roman Catholic friends and critics.

I should also point out that I’m extremely happy and fortunate to have this book be included in the Veritas series, which is sponsored by the Centre for Theology & Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. The series includes several really amazing books and has an amazing reputation. My hope is that my book will only enhance this reputation. My good friend Eric Lee is hugely responsible for my good fortune here, for getting my dissertation in the hands of Conor Cunningham and Pete Candler. I can’t thank you all enough for your help, and for this great honor.

A Brief Summary

To understand why Barth wants to distance himself from Luther, it is important to examine the nominalist theology that Luther inherited, and, in turn, passed on. This is done in chapter 2. There, I argue that the one of the primary reasons that Barth grew disenchanted with Luther was the latter’s preference for the Deus Absconditus or the hidden God. Luther sought hard to maintain a dialectical tension or relationship between the Deus Absconditus and the Deus Revelatus (revealed God). I believe that as Barth grew older, he saw in Luther’s progeny that the former came to trump the latter, indeed, necessarily so. (Whether Luther himself was guilty of this or not, is not the subject of the book.) Barth was concerned with where Luther’s theology led, and it was this that worried Barth. In examining the theological origins of Modernity, I argue that the Deus Absconditus is actually the God (or the functional theology) of Modernity. In turn, the Deus Absconditus requires the theological system of nominalism (I’m mostly interested in Nominalism as the pure, random, and mysteriously powerful divine will – especially as seen in German Idealism), which itself requires the philosophical framework of dialectic (for Hegel: positive-negative-aufhebung or as is it commonly described: thesis-antithesis-synthesis). I argue that Barth wanted to distance himself from all three (Deus Absconditus, Nominalism, and dialectic), and I attempt to show why in chapter 2. Scrapping dialectic, therefore, I argue that paradox is a much more helpful and faithful category within which to understand Barth’s mature theology.

CASCADE_TemplateIf chapter 2 is even remotely successful, then it is clear that I am working with a somewhat novel reading of Barth. With this in mind, next comes an Excursus, in which I set out to challenge the dominant contemporary thesis regarding Karl Barth’s theology, namely, that Barth is a dialectical theologian. Bruce McCormack’s powerful work on the subject serves as the foil in this section. Here I continue to argue that dialectic is not only unhelpful, but that Barth himself rejects it. I demonstrate that the primary source that McCormack works with to develop Barth’s dialectical theology was, in reality, originally referring to varieties of paradoxes, rather than dialectic.

Chapters 3 and 4 are long, detailed examinations of Barth’s works. My hope in these chapters is to let Barth “speak for himself,” and to thus speak in a way that is quite different from the way that he is usually allowed to speak. In chapter 3 I examine how Barth deals with the way that humans know God, specifically the subjects of the Knowledge of God, the Analogia Entis (or analogy of being), and Natural Theology. In chapter 4 I examine Barth’s Christology, specifically from Volume IV of the Church Dogmatics. Here, I think that the paradoxical shape of Barth’s Christology is clearly on display. I playfully use one of Barth’s phrases to describe Barth’s paradoxical Christology as “the absurd possibility of the absurd.” As I understand it, dialectical reasoning assumes a fundamental antagonism, or conflict. Christologically speaking, this conflict is that of divinity and humanity. I am not satisfied with the notion that Jesus is the aufhebung or synthesis between divinity and humanity, for such a result entails antagonism or conflict. The beauty of the Incarnation is that in Jesus there is no conflict between divinity and humanity, for both co-exist paradoxically in the one whole Jesus – in a way that neither trumps or destroys the other. God remains God, humanity remains humanity, and Jesus is both, in a perfectly whole non-schizophrenic, or chaotic way. This is the paradoxical center of the Gospel, which I believe is central to Barth’s mature theology.

Finally, I conclude in chapter 5 with constructive thoughts on the direction Barth scholarship might now move, specifically in the areas of ethics and ecumenical dialogue (with Roman Catholicism in particular). In this chapter I attempt to parse out why all that I’ve written matters, and how I hope this work might change the way Barth is often encountered, and thus influence the direction for theology in general, and Barth scholarship in particular.

Thanks for your support. If you get a chance to read the book, feel free to comment here, or to email me with questions and/or comments at rustybrian@gmail.com.

Peace,

Rusty

Letter #25

Merry Go Round

Dear Lily,

My apologies, dear, it has been far too long since my last letter.  My how you’ve grown over the last two months.  You are now talking all the time – and much of it is intelligible!  You’re also running, climbing, and getting into everything.  Oh, and you’re obsessed with a show called “Bubble Guppies.” You’re favorite word just might be, “Buppies!”  As you grow, you only become more and more adorable and fun.  Seriously, you are a joy to be around Lily.  I can’t wait for 5 o’clock each day so that I can walk in the door and see what you’re up to.  I treasure our times together each evening – and oh how I love the weekends!  You’re delightful Lily bean.  I love you.

The other night, I was talking with your mother, and it hit me that you’re not a baby anymore.  There was a time, maybe 6 months back, when your mother and I would both find ourselves sad about how fast you were growing.  It seemed so obvious that you were growing quickly and you would not be our little girl for much longer.  Somewhere along the way, though, those feelings stopped.  This was not because I wanted you to grow up, but I think because I saw what and who you were growing into and it was even better!  You were growing into a little girl.  You were growing out of being a baby.  While there was some obvious sadness about moving out of the “baby phase” this new phase is wonderful.  You’re becoming a little person: you’re thinking, responding, processing, creating, laughing, and playing in incredible ways.  As I already said, Lily, you are a delight.  Your mother and I love you so much – and we are so happy with the little girl you’re becoming.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you need to be sleeping through the night! Seriously child, what the heck! :-)  But you are doing better, and I suppose you can’t be perfect, can you?

So I guess, what I’ve realized, is that I need to forget about the hopes that you won’t grow up – that you’ll stay so little.  You’re not a baby anymore.  You never will be again.  That is sad.  The good news, though, is that you’re growing into a little girl – my little girl – and you’ll always be just that!

I love you Lily.  Thanks for being the blessing you are.  You’ll never know how much you mean to your mother and I.

Love,

Your Father

February 6, 2013

Eucharistic Devotion From Sunday, December 16, 2012

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In Night, Elie Wiesel’s account of his Holocaust experiences, the author describes a scene in Auschwitz where a young boy was hung.  Afterward, someone cried out, “where is your God now?”  Upon seeing this boy on the gallows, the reply given is that, “God is there, hanging on the gallows.”  The implied logic of this answer is that God, and thus hope, is dead.

This statement, for Wiesel, served as a basis for the loss of faith in God.  (As I understand it, eventually, Wiesel regained his faith, though in such a way that theodicy, or the question of evil, would always be at center stage.)  I understand Wiesel’s sentiments, his concerns, his pain – after all who am I to critique a Holocaust survivor’s wrestling with evil.  I do, however, disagree with his conclusion.

There is no justification, no explanation that “works” for the murder of innocent children.  Such things do not make sense – and they never will.  If we begin with suffering, pain, and anger, we will make it no further than our beginning.  We have to begin someplace else…

But I do think that the respondent (perhaps it was Wiesel) was right.  God was hanging on those gallows.  Moreover, our God, the Eternal, Almighty, Unchangeable, and Impassible God was shot in a primary school in Connecticut on Friday.  I believe that this is true.  For you see, our God is always to be found with the oppressed, the persecuted, and especially with those too weak to defend themselves from such unspeakable evil.  God was there.

This does not have to make sense – it will not make sense – but it is true.

We will not find suitable answers for such terrible events.  These things simply do not make sense.

BUT, I would urge you to come to this table.  To receive the body and blood of our Lord – if I might be so bold – the slain carcass of Mary’s child.

These elements, this table, provide meaning for the entire world.  Suffering, and such unspeakable acts of evil simply are not intelligible on their own.  But these elements, this table, render suffering intelligible – it is the only thing that does so.  At this table we gather and remember the suffering of our Lord, and the fact that suffering does not and will not remain always with us, but that it will be resurrected, redeemed, and that one day, it will end.  At this table all suffering is encapsulated, and redeemed.  This table is where hope can be found.

When you’re ready, come, and receive the medicine and antidote for our illness, and joy when none else can be found.

Will you come?

 

 

Unlearning Evil, or, Learning to Be Good

My Daughter Lily Wearing Her Mom's Apron

My Daughter Lily Wearing Her Mom’s Apron

This sermon was preached at Kansas City Trinity Church of the Nazarene on Sunday, December 16, 2012.  I hope these words will be helpful to you in some small way.  As is always the case, but especially with this sermon, the sermon is only the beginning.  Afterwards, we begin a time of response including offering, confession, passing the peace, and communal prayer.  This time of response finds culmination when we gather together at the Eucharistic table and then are sent out into the world.   This sermon, then, is incomplete without the words that I shared at the table, and then, of course, with the experience of receiving the elements.  I will post that culminating reflection tomorrow for those interested.  Thanks for reading.

By the way, given recent events, I figured a picture of my child, whom I love dearly, made a pretty good cover image (blurry though this one is) for this post.

———

Today we were to look at the life of John the Baptist.  Quickly at least, we were going to examine his life and teachings.  We were going to consider how he prepared the way for Jesus, what that looked like, etc…

Even a quick glance at our passage for today from Luke reveals that much of this involved embracing the role of the prophet.  John spoke hard words, words of admonishment and rebuke to his own people, in hopes that they would heed God’s call for repentance.

We were going to look at all of this…..  That is, though, until children were senselessly and brutally slaughtered at an elementary school in Connecticut.  What happened on Friday is unthinkable.  It is made all the worse by the fact that this shooting is only the most recent in a long and growing number of school shootings and public massacres.  Such things are not meant to be.  They are not in “God’s plan.”  God certainly did not will for this shooting to happen.

It’s times like this that I’m reminded so strongly why I am an Arminian and a Wesleyan in my theological outlook, and not Reformed. Don’t get me wrong, I have many very good friends who are Reformed in their theological convictions.  I just do not agree with them, at the end of the day, on a few things.  (More about this later.)

God did not cause, call for, or condone the shooting of these innocent children, or their teachers and administrators.

With this tragic event, we have all been plunged into despair – an appropriate Advent theme – a place we were going to go to next week.  Next week we get to talk about God’s answer for this despair.  But since we find ourselves in despair a bit earlier than expected, I thought we would ask “why?”  “Why are we in despair?  What is wrong?”  And, in light of John the Baptist’s teachings, I thought we’d also ask, “what is, or can be, our role in this?”  How do we prepare a way for the Lord, when we have absolutely no idea where to begin or what to do?

The question of what can our role be, here, is crucial, for as I said, God did not cause, call for, or condone what transpired in CT – but God will work through this situation to somehow bring about God’s goodness.  The Kingdom will outshine this utter darkness.  But to do so, God needs our help.  We are how God acts in the world.  We are the those who are called to follow after John the Baptist, we are those who are called to prepare the way.

To do that, we’re going to have to learn how to be good, which means we will have to unlearn or forget the ways of evil.

Hopefully this doesn’t come as news to you, but humans are sick, we have an illness, a disease.  It has affected all of us, throughout time.  It’s inherited and learned, and it goes all the way down.  As Christians we call this disease sin.  We have various ways of thinking about it’s core – pride, lust, greed, hubris, the will-to-power.

This is not how we were created, but it is how we have fashioned ourselves.

Unnaturally, then, this is the human condition: we are sick with the disease that is sin.

I’ve always been drawn to literary and cinematic depictions of this unnatural and yet very real state that characterizes humanity.  It annoys Lauren sometimes, because such movies and books are typically pretty depressing!  I think one of the reasons for this interest is my concern that we Wesleyans tend to have a very weak doctrine of Sin, that is, if we talk about it at all.  We’re so ready to get to holiness that we gloss over and sometimes forget all about the reason that there is a need to pursue holiness in the first place.

We pursue holiness – the perfect love of God and neighbor – because God has called us to it, i.e., it is NOT natural to us.  It is a calling, it is the result of God’s grace, and it is only possible by God’s grace.  Pursuing holiness is an antidote, if you will, for our sickness.

That’s why I like books like Crime and Punishment and The Heart of Darkness, and movies like Mystic River and There Will be Blood (Lauren really hates this one!).

These all give us a glimpse of the darkness and sickness of sin that grips humanity.  In There Will be Blood, for example, there is a scene where the main character, Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day Lewis, confesses to his brother that he hates other people, that he has slowly built up his hatred over the years, and that he despises all other people, that he just wants to be rid of all other people.

I take this scene to be a confession of sorts on behalf of all of sinful humanity.  I think the director intended it that way.  This scene is raw powerful, and it makes me, at least, want to despair.

We are sinners.  Wesleyans affirm this, we even affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity – along with John Wesley and Jacob Arminius.  This means that we believe that we are sinners through and through, and that we are unable to do good on our own.  Grace is necessary, for us to do good.  What makes us different from, say, Calvinists, is that we believe that God has indeed offered us all that grace, and continues to offer this grace, preveniently, to all humanity.  In short, as much as we hate to say it, we believe that we are bad people, but, according to God’s grace, it is possible for us to be good.  (This is a fundamental tenet of being a Wesleyan and an Arminian.)  That pursuit, is known as holiness.  And it is indeed a pursuit, for unlearning evil and learning good takes time.  It feels unnatural, and it can be a very lonely process.  If we are going to follow God, though, this is something that we will have to do.

The good news is, that as difficult as this process might seem, we were made for goodness, we were made to be in harmony with God and others.  With every step, the growing pains grow lighter, and the ways of goodness become more and more natural.

There are a few examples I can think of that highlight this process of unlearning evil and learning goodness: Crime and Punishment (as I listed already), Les Miserables (by the way if you have never read this book, or seen the play/movie, please go see the new version when it comes out at Christmas…), Pulp Fiction, and 3:10 to Yuma.  This last film, 3:10 to Yuma provides a wonderful glimpse into the life of a bad man (Ben Wade, played by Russell Crow’s) that is trying to learn to be good.  I think maybe we’ll watch this movie soon, in “Reel Spirituality” and talk about the difficult process of learning to become good.

Well, we have more than great books and films to guide us in this process, thankfully.  Let us turn back to our Gospel passage for today, and hear John the Baptist’s words to the people of Israel, to God’s people, to us, even, about how to pursue good.

Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

  • Slowly walk through the passage providing commentary
  • God can raise up the stones, but God obviously doesn’t want to!  Jesus says something similar.  It is clear, in both instances, that this is a rhetorical statement, for God does not want rock followers – he wants His people, God wants us!

John presents the people with simple and yet hard challenges about how to truly follow and be obedient to God.

John the Baptist taught difficult things to people who did not necessarily want to listen.  He lived out the truth of God’s kingdom in a way that seemed crazy to those around him.  He did so because he was pursuing God’s goodness with the entirety of his being.  John the Baptist’s entire life was lived in service to someone else.  He was entirely devoted to making sure that the people of Israel were as ready as they could possibly be to hear and receive Jesus.

The question that always comes to my mind, is “why? Why would John the Baptist devote his whole entire life to this, even to the point of martyrdom?”  Why?

The answer: because God’s people, humanity as a whole, had gone astray.  Evil and sin ruled the day, and John knew that preparing the way for Jesus meant teaching people how to shake off the shackles of sin, and to pursue the good instead.

John looked around him and saw despair, hopelessness, evil, and he knew, that God was ready to turn this story around.  In the midst of hopelessness and despair, though, John knew that redemption was drawing near.  Moreover, he knew that if God was going to conquer this evil, he would have to help prepare the way by pursuing goodness himself, and by helping others to do the same.

John lived and breathed the words of the prophet Zephaniah.  He felt in his bones the need for redemption.  In light of this, he willingly gave his all to God, so that God might be made all in all, so that the world would know and love Jesus.

Today, unfortunately, I think that we also live and breathe words of Zephaniah.  We experience the need for redemption.  I want to re-read those words as we close.  I want you to hear these words as both a blessing and a calling.

Zephaniah 3:14-20 (NRSV)

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

We suffer from an illness that we have created, and it is one that we cannot cure.  (Please do NOT read me as placing personal blame for what happened in CT on the generic “we.”)  That disease is slowly and deliberately – and quite literally – destroying us.  Violence and disaster seems like it is all around.  Natural disasters seem to only be increasing.  We are afraid, and we are in despair.

But, Church, God will heal us.  God will deliver us from this calamity and despair.  God will turn our shame into praise.  Our fortunes will be restored to us – by the way, I can’t help but think that this does not mean fiscal fortune – but real fortune – our children, their innocence, our happiness and future….

Church, even when it seems impossible, The Kingdom will outshine this utter darkness.  But to do so, God needs our help.  We are how God acts in the world.  We are the those who are called to follow after John the Baptist, we are those who are called to prepare the way.

There are many ways that we can do this.  Today, in light of what has happened, I can’t help but think that one of the most important things that we can do, as followers of Christ, for our sakes, and for the sake of the world, is to commit ourselves to unlearning evil, and to learning the ways of good  – the ways of God – the ways we were created for.

With God’s help, may we commit ourselves to this: small, simple acts of kindness and goodness, love for others, and care for the poor.  May we follow after John the Baptist, even amidst despair, and may we take comfort in the knowledge and the hope that redemption has drawn near.

Let us pray.