The Way Leads Through

(Isaiah 43:16-21Mark 6:17-29Luke 7:18-23)

It didn’t end well for John, as the world counts these things.  It’s no surprise; when you greet visitors with “You vipers!  Who warned you to flee the coming wrath!” chances are you won’t be elected president of your local ministerial association, let alone offered a book deal and a radio show.  This isn’t classic church-growth strategy; it’s more like bizarro Dale Carnegie:  How to Win Enemies and Influence People to Kill You.
We might say this is because John told the truth; but that doesn’t go far enough.  Fact of the matter is, this world doesn’t necessarily mind truthtellers, so long as they keep it within acceptable bounds.  You can preach truth all day long and not ruffle anyone’s feathers at all, if you’re careful about it, and a great many preachers do.  It’s only when you go from preachin’ to meddlin’, as they say down South, that you’re in for trouble.  John was a meddler, in a big way; he spoke the truths the world wanted to avoid.
The world wants to avoid them because it wants to avoid anxiety and pain.  You can see it in how we react to the prospect of conflict—it tends to be fight or flight.  Some­one challenges us, or does something we really don’t like, and we get anxious; if we don’t consciously stop ourselves, we’ll let the anxiety drive us into reacting rather than thinking.  We may opt for flight—avoid the conflict; back down, deny, change the subject, pass the buck—or we may choose to fight, to go on the attack and try to win the battle.  Similarly, when we face doubt and the struggles in our souls, we tend either to flee—perhaps through denial, or losing faith—or to fight.  We may fight our doubt by explaining it away; we may turn our anxiety outward, looking for someone else to blame.  What we don’t do when we’re just reacting is deal honestly with the real issue, whatever it is.
When we see something unpleasant, we want to avoid it, or to make it go away.  That’s perfectly understandable; but often, it isn’t healthy, and it isn’t right.  What’s more, it produces tendencies in our societies, and in our churches, that really aren’t good.  We hide our sins and our weaknesses, we deny them or pass the blame, because we fear how others will react if we’re honest; we don’t want to humble ourselves before those we’ve wronged or let down, and admit that we need grace and mercy.  We don’t confront those who have wronged us, or who have done something we think is inappropriate or even sinful, because we don’t want to face the conflict; but that anxiety has to go somewhere, so we turn instead to gossip and complain about them to someone else.  We cover up our doubts and our struggles, because we think real Christians don’t have those problems.  And we don’t tell others about the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, about his love and grace and the price he paid for us, because we’re afraid of what they might say or do.
In short, when we see a problem, when we see an issue, when we see something hard, we look for a way to avoid it—we look for a way around.  John shows us, through his whole ministry, that God’s way doesn’t lead around:  it leads through.  Sometimes speaking the truth, even doing so in love, brings conflict; we would prefer to avoid that conflict, but God leads us through it.  Not that we should try to create conflict, but we shouldn’t let the threat of other people doing so dissuade us from speaking the truth or doing what God is calling us to do.  As Paul tells Timothy, God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline—the self-discipline and the power to look our fear and our anxiety right in the face, acknowledge them, and then do what they’re telling us not to do, in the love of God.
We see this in John, in his treatment of the Herods.  They were a mess of a family in a lot of ways, some of which are on display in Mark 6.  Herodias was at this point the wife of Herod Antipas; previously, she had been married to Antipas’ half-brother Herod Philip, until she divorced Philip and Antipas divorced his wife to marry her.  What exactly John had said about the whole affair we don’t know, but it’s not hard to see why he felt the need to say something; if you’re calling the nation to repentance, you can’t really ignore that kind of flagrant public sin among the rulers if you want to have any credibility.  So, John called out the whole situation, Herod Antipas had him arrested, and ultimately Herodias connived to have him executed.
It’s hard to face much more resistance than that; but even though it cost him his life, John did not back down from speaking the truth.  Still, it’s clear that the whole situation rattled him.  At the time of our passage from Luke, John is in prison, and he’s starting to wonder if maybe he’s made a mistake; yes, he’s known all his life that most of God’s prophets came to a bad end, but having it happen to him has shaken his faith.  But you’ll notice, he doesn’t try to rationalize anything, and he doesn’t just give in to his doubt—he goes to Jesus with it, through his disciples.  He moves throughhis doubt, to the Lord; and he is comforted.
That’s how it is, in the wilderness.  We see the valley of the shadow of death, and we think we can find a way around it—or maybe even avoid the wilderness altogether.  We can certainly find paths that look like they’ll do the trick.  The thing about the wilderness, though, is that what looks like an easier way is usually a dead end, or even a trap.  The path laid out for us may seem unnecessarily hard, and often seems to be going the wrong direction; but if you leave it for a shortcut, you’ll usually find yourself sooner or later in a blind canyon, or up on a ledge with no way forward and no safe way back.
If we want to make it to the end, we need to trust our Guide; he’s the one who made the way, and he’s been through it before.  And more than that, he’s the one who promised to make the way for us in the wilderness, through the desert, and to provide for us along the way so that we can make it through.

Wildfire Season

(Isaiah 40:1-8Malachi 3:1-5Mark 1:1-8Luke 3:7-9)

One of the realities of life in the wilderness is that fire is very much a threat.  To the extent that there is any life at all, there are wildfires—in all but the harshest deserts, in the grasslands, and of course in the forests.  We knew this well in Colorado:  when wildfire season comes, you prepare, you keep watch, and you pray.  It may not be you, but there will be those who see their whole lives burn.  There always are.  Whether you’re thinking about the threat or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s always there.

One of the things that made me shake my head when I was at Trinity was how many people weren’tthinking about the threat, and in fact were actively refusing to.  The fire danger for us was astronomical due to millions of acres of dead trees, killed by the mountain pine beetle; everyone was supposed to have their trees sprayed every year, to protect them from the beetle, and to thin the trees around their homes and other buildings, to slow the spread of any fire.  Many home­owners, though, refused to do either.  They didn’t want to cut down any trees, and they didn’t want to pay the money for spraying, so they just ignored the problem; and all their trees died.

By the grace of God, we didn’t see the whole county burn down; indeed, by his grace, it still hasn’t, and by now I’d guess most of the dead wood is gone.  But as the threat of fire loomed, judgment for decades of mismanagement of the land, there were many voices warning of that judgment and demanding repentance; and most people understood that those voices were good and right.  When judgment is real, when the warning is true, proclaiming it is not cruel or unkind—it’s a necessary act of love for others.

This is why John the Baptizer—or John the Forerunner, as the Orthodox call him—speaks so sharply to the Pharisees when they come down to see him.  He doesn’t care to trim the message to fit what they want to hear; he’s not focusing on meeting their expectations, or judging his success by whether or not they’re happy with him.  Instead, he’s telling them the truth.  He’s proclaiming the comfort of Israel, but that message of comfort is also a warning, and they need to listen up.

His language here is striking.  David Rohrer, teaching pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, captures it vividly from his childhood experience of wildfires:

The image that comes to mind for me is the fires that burn various parts of the foothills in Southern California each year.  One of my memories of growing up there is watching these fires destroy just about everything in their path.  

After the dry summer, the chaparral plants were like fuel waiting for ignition.  When that spark came and the Santa Ana winds fanned the flame, this fuel burned hot and fast.  As these fires voraciously consumed chamise shrubs and sage brush, the cha­parral animals fled before the flames, trying to find safety.  John is making use of a similar image.  In effect, he says, “You are like a bunch of little snakes coming out from under a burning bush.”

Calling them vipers is harsh.  Not only are vipers poisonous and de­structive, but snakes were associated with the enemies of God going all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  John is looking out at those who considered themselves the best among the children of God, and he’s calling them children of the Devil.  He knows they aren’t coming in sincere repentance; he sees their hypocrisy and calls them on it.  But here’s the key:  he isn’t just condemning them, he’s trying to grab their attention and shock them into listening.  There is still time for them to hear his message, to understand the significance of his baptism, and to repent of their sin—or else, the judgment.

That’s why we have this oddity at the beginning of the gospel of Mark.  All four gospels present John as the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah 40; in the gospel of John, we see that that association comes from the Baptizer himself, as he uses that passage to tell the Pharisees who he is.  That, of course, is a word of hope and comfort—God is announcing the end of judgment and the day of his favor.  He is coming to deliver his people from slavery and bring them back from exile.  This is good news.

But.  Mark does something with this that none of the other gospels follow.  He introduces the quote from Isaiah, and then he quotes Isaiah, but in between, he sticks another passage altogether.  This sort of structure is pretty common in Mark—commenta­tors have dubbed it the “Markan sandwich”—and it’s designed to emphasize whatever is in the middle.  So here, right in the middle of this good news from Isaiah, right when his hearers would have expected the word “Comfort,” first they get this piece of Malachi 3.

Why is this important?  Well, Malachi 3 is talking about the same thing as Isaiah 40, but in a profoundly different tone.  He’s echoing a verse from Exodus 23, where God declares, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”  There’s the promise, given for the first exodus, after they have already escaped Egypt for the wilderness. But then comes this:  “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”  There’s the warning:  God will guard and guide you, but only as long as you’re faithfully fol­lowing him.  If you don’t, watch out.

And so here we have Malachi, and here we have Mark pairing him up with Isaiah.  “Comfort, comfort my people . . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together”—but, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”  When the Lord comes, he will come like a conflagration—a refiner’s fire, that burns away all the dross and all the rubbish.  For the righteous, he will be a purifying flame, but for the unrighteous, he will be a blaze of judgment, as their lives burn to ash before their eyes.  No one is exempt; as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, all of us will be tested with fire, to show what sort of work we have done and what sort of lives we have lived.

Wildfire season is coming; we know it, and because we know it, we need to warn others.  It’s coming at the end for all of us, as we will all stand unguarded before the Judge of all the earth to be tested by the fire of his holiness, to face the reckoning for all we have done; and most of us will face it many times before that, as our world keeps trying to burn itself down, letting the passion-fire of its lusts and its hatreds set everything ablaze.  Even earlier this week, I’d been thinking we’ve seen an awful lot of blood and death in the news lately, and then came the horrifying atrocity in Newtown, like a cherry of plague atop a sundae of moral disease.  It’s wildfire season, once again.

This should not surprise us; and while it should make us weep, it should not make us lose heart.  To borrow from Abraham, the Judge of all the earth shall do right.  As much as we moderns flinch from the idea of any sort of judgment, the word of judgment is part of the word of comfort, and necessarily so, because the essence of God’s word of comfort is that all will be made right—which means that all that is wrong will be cast away.  Which in turn means that all those who hold fast to what is wrong, who would rather be cast away than repent, will go with it.  Randy Stonehill, after a ministry trip to Bangkok, wrote a song asking, “Can Hell burn hot enough to pay for all this suffering, the murder of the innocent?  Can Hell burn hot enough to balance out these scales?”  While I grieve that such a question could ever be asked, I have no doubt:  it can and will.

At the same time, God’s judgment isn’t only for those people out there, it’s for us; when we look at the news from Connecticut, we are seeing nothing alien to any of us, but only the same darkness that twists our own hearts.  We would not all be the same monster, but we are all capable of the same monstrosity; we all need the insight of G. K. Chesterton, to understand that when we ask what’s wrong with the world, the answer begins with us.  And so we need to recognize that for us, and for everyone, the only alterna­tive to absolute judgment is absolute redemption in the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Our comfort:  there is an alternative, there is a way out, there is salvation.  Our warning:  there is only one.  All other roads anyone might ever take, the wildfires sweep over them, and they are no more.  Only Jesus is the way through.  Let’s pray.

Bearing Witness to the Light

(Isaiah 60:1-3Luke 1:67-80John 1:6-8)

As we saw last week, the herald of salvation, the one who came to announce that God’s great promise was at last being fulfilled, arose not in the capital, not among the powerful, but out in the wilderness.  The word of life came in a place hostile to life; the message of hope rang out in a land of desolation.  Redemption for the fallen, healing for the broken, and love for the deserted was proclaimed in the desert.

And as we said, so it must be, for in the desert, there is silence for us to hear God speak.  The world makes an incredible racket, trying to get its way through manipulation and coercion, through bribery, seduction, flattery, threats, and blunt force trauma.  It shouts down and corrupts, lies and cheats, and shades the truth until there’s nothing left but shading.  Politicians talk about spinning the story, but what they’re really spinning is us; give them the voice of God that thunders over the waters, and they’d deafen us in the space of one 30-second commercial.  God doesn’t do that.

Instead, he calls us from the wilderness—he calls us into the wilderness.  He calls us away from all our striving to control our lives by controlling those around us, and all our attempts to control our world through the application of whatever power we can grab.  He draws us away from our efforts to cover up our sin and hide from our inadequacy.  He leads us out where our maps don’t work, we have no landmarks to steer by, and we do not know the way.  He brings us to the point where all gods fail, and we have no one else but him—where he is our only hope, and our only way—where we have to face the bad news of our life:  we are broken and we can’t fix it.  Our world is fouled up beyond our ability to make it right.  And once we understand in the marrow of our bones and the pit of our stomach that we are in desperate need of a salvation that we cannot provide, then we know that we need a Savior; then we can hear the good news as good news.

And once we get to that point, we can begin to see something else:  if the problem of our sin is far greater than we would otherwise believe, so too is the salvation God is working.  What does Zechariah say of his son?  “You will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”  If you have an ear tuned to the Bible, as Zechariah most certainly did, that’s a cataclysmic statement.

Remember Isaiah 40:  “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places shall become a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”  In Isaiah 43, God declares, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

God calls us into the wilderness so that we must face our need, but also that we might see his power and his glory.  He brings us out where the lights of our cities no longer protect us from the darkness of the night—where the darkness goes on forever, leaving us isolated and alone with the darkness of our hearts and the shadow of death, crying out for any light we can find; and then over us like a sunburst comes the word of his promise:  “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness all the nations, but the Lordwill arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

This is the knowledge of the salvation of God which John proclaimed to his people, the forgiveness of all our sin; it is the sunrise of the grace and mercy of God in the darkness of our guilt and shame and the black shadow of death, to give us light and hope and guide us in the way of his peace.  God isn’t just about making the wilderness a little easier to live in, or giving us a little better flashlight so we can walk a little more easily.  The purpose of God is the utter obliteration of all that is evil and unholy and wrong, and the redemption and healing of all creation, us most of all; it’s to bring life where there is death, and light up the darkness from horizon to horizon.  God is making all things new.

This is the message John was given, to proclaim that God was coming to his people—not to do anything for himself, but all his life dedicated to bearing witness to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  This is the message we have been given, to proclaim that God has come and is coming again, to bear witness to his light in all that we do and all that we say; and in that, there are some things we can learn from John’s example.

One, he reminds us that spiritually, we too live in the wilderness.  We talked about this as we were going through Romans 8; as followers of Christ, we have passed out of the land of slavery, but we have not arrived at the promised land—we are in the land between, the place of testing and challenge, where we have to live by faith and we have to follow God because he’s the only one who knows how he got us here, and he’s the only one who knows how to get us where we’re going.  We’re still in this world, but we no longer belong here; and like John, God has raised us up as his heralds to call others into the wilderness, to hear his promise and to know his hope.

Two, this means that our focus needs to be as laserlike as John’s was if we’re going to do what God has called us to do.  He had one task and one message, to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the day of God’s mercy was dawning, and to call them to seize the opportunity and repent; and so to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.  That was the content of every sermon, and the purpose of everything he did, down to where he lived, what he wore, and what he ate.

This doesn’t mean we need to do exactly what John did; but as for him, in everything we do and say, our goal should be to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In our preaching, in our teaching, in our programs, as we give counsel to one another, we only have one word that gives life.  The late ex-Communist Arthur Koestler once declared, “One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up”; I don’t think ruthlessly is really the right word, but we have been brought into rela­tionship with the One who is truth, and we should follow the spirit of Koestler’s advice.  We should relentlessly proclaim the truth of the gospel, in every situation, in every issue, by our words and by our actions, or else we should be silent:  God is speaking.

Now, Jesus isn’t literallythe answer to every question; if someone asks you what has four legs, a bushy tail, climbs trees, and eats nuts, well, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.  Even John, if you’d asked him the best way to prepare locusts, probably would not have said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  There are technical questions and technical challenges that need technical answers.  But those questions and challenges come in the broader context of life, of how do we live and why do we do what we do and what are we living for; yes, fixing the washer just requires the ability to identify and replace the broken part, but knowing why you do the laundry—that requires the gospel.

We need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, with the world, that we need more than just better tools, better skills, and a better to-do list; that the problem with us, with our marriages, with our children, with our relationships with our family, our friends, our co-workers, is not a technical problem, and can’t be solved by trying harder or managing things better.  I have sometimes regretted letting off that crack about “dis­organized religion” where Dr. Kavanaugh could hear it, but I stand by it, and I don’t think he’s wrong to keep bringing it up.  The problem with organized religion is that it too easily communicates the idea that being organized is the answer; being honest about it when we’re rather less than organized keeps our hearts soft to be honest about our greater struggles and failures, and keeps us honest about our need for grace.

“God Is Coming!”

(Isaiah 40:1-8Matthew 3:1-8)

It all begins in a desert.  It has to, really—out somewhere quiet, out away from the world; the world talks too much.  In fact, it shouts too much, and always pretty much all the same thing.  That might sound strange to you, but when you get right down to it, it’s true; everything the world shouts boils down to this:  you have to do this, and do things this way, and you can’t do that, or do things that way.  It’s all part of our frantic effort to pretend we’re in control, that if we just try hard enough and do it right, we can make our lives be what we want them to be.  The problem is, nobody agrees on whatwe have to do and not do; and so people shout, hoping to drown out all those other voices, or at least make them give up and go away.
And out in the desert, out in the wind and the howl of the coyote, is another voice, with another message altogether.  Out away from the world and the riot of all its news, down by the one river running through a land dry as bone, stands a man offering something different:  good news.  Out where the sun and the heat stab like knives, where the harshness of the land sandblasts our defenses and lays our weakness bare, suddenly there is a word of hope.  We’ve made a mess of things; but God is coming to make things right.
God is coming!  That’s the good news John is preaching; though if you’re not sure that’s exactly comfortable news, you’re not alone.  Certainly a lot of people back in the city didn’t think so—especially the professional religious folk who thought they had everything under control and God all figured out; that’s why they came down to the river, not to follow John, but to spy on him.  They wanted to convince themselves that John was a fake so they could go back to their nice comfortable existence in the city where they were the experts who had all the answers and had their lives all together.  God already had them to do his work for him—what did he need with some anti-social loudmouth out in the desert eating bugs?  And in the backs of their minds—not that they would have admitted this to themselves—had to be the thought:  if God really was coming, what could he do but upset their applecart?
But if you understand that your cart’s missing a wheel, it’s already fallen over and the apples are bouncing down the street, and you don’t even know for sure where some of them got off to—well, then you get it:  this really is good news.  If you recognize that you don’t actually have it all together, that in fact you don’t have all the answers, and that nobody really does—if you see that all our efforts at control amount to little more than a house of cards, which stands only until the first hot wind blows in from the desert—then you can hear John’s message as a word of hope.  It’s only when you recognize that you aren’t going to fix your life yourself—and none of us do, and none of us can—that the announcement that God is coming is reason to rejoice; because then we know that every­thing needs to be made right, and we need someone bigger than ourselves to do it.
We don’t have to act like we’ve got it all figured out and we’re doing everything just right; and in truth, we aren’t doing ourselves or anyone else any favors if we try to.  Our message isn’t that if you just try hard enough and do things our way, you can work your way up to God; it’s that God came down to us, because he loves us.  It’s not about us being good enough, or having to be good enough—it’s about Jesus being good enough for us, when we never could.  This is the good news; and if we really understand this, we don’t need to pretend.  We can be a place where it’s safe to be honest about our sin and our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our struggles, both with each other and with God—where confession and repentance are met not with proud condemnation, but with humble grace.  That’s a gift.  Let’s pray.