Sunday, December 13, 2009

Radical Expectations

Luke 3:7-18

The key to success in life is to lower expectations. If you set the bar low enough, then it won’t take much energy or effort to succeed.

Let me give you an example. If, back in August, you expected the Lions to make the playoffs this year– not to mention the Super Bowl -- you were probably setting yourself up for a big disappointment. After all, it’s been a while since the Lions last had a winning season, and they’ve been to a Super Bowl, not even when Barry Sanders was roaming the backfield. But, if all you expected was an improvement upon last year’s results, well then, this year has been a roaring success. Just think, last year the Lions lost every game, making them the first NFL team ever to do so. But this year, the Lions have not only won one game, they’ve already won two games. I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a 200% improvement. What more can we ask of them?

Quite often what would seem to be bad news can be portrayed as good news – if we set a low bar of expectations. Consider the recent report that GM lost “only” $1.8 billion in the last quarter. Now that may not sound like good news, but it beat expectations, and so GM could hail their loss as a gain – simply because the experts thought they would lose a lot more money.

Yes, if we set the bar low enough, we can all be successful in life! But, what if someone raises the bar? Indeed, what if someone sets up for us radical expectations? How should we handle this? How will we define success?

Well, this is the problem this morning’s Advent lesson poses for us. And, the one who
brings to us this high bar of expectation is none other than John the Baptist -- that locust-eating, scraggly-bearded, crazy man of the desert. It is John who invites us to consider a new path, a new way of living in the presence of God. John says to us, God is going to do a new thing, and so we have to get ready.

1. The Way of Baptism – It Washes Us Clean

I don’t know about you, but I find John’s first question to the gathering crowd a bit disconcerting. At the very least, he’s not very polite. He doesn’t welcome the crowd with open arms. There’s no warm up, no flattery. He just calls them a “brood vipers” and asks who had sent them to be baptized. This isn’t the way to grow a church!

Although John might not have the best marketing skills, he does ask a good question. Why are you here? What is your motive? By referring to them as a brood of vipers, he seems to be pointing back to Genesis 3 and the story of the Fall. It would appear that while they claimed to be the children of God, he saw them as the children of Satan. So the question remains – why have you come to be baptized? Are you willing to go all the way and renounce your allegiance to the evil one? This question was part of the ancient rite of baptism. No wonder the Emperor Constantine delayed his baptism until he lay on his death bed. Apparently he decided that being Emperor and being a baptized Christian weren’t compatible. But, here we are, having been called to be baptized, to be washed clean, so that we can take up the journey that leads for us to Bethlehem’s manger and beyond.

2. The Way of the Spirit – It’s Radical

John announces a way forward that isn’t about a set of doctrines, but a way of life. It’s a way of sharing in God’s presence even as we live in the world. According to John, this way forward involves high expectations.

In the verses that precede this morning’s text, Luke points us to Isaiah’s declaration that on the day of the Lord the path forward will be made straight, the valleys will be filled, and the rough ways made smooth so that all flesh might see salvation together (Isaiah 40:3-5). As you listen to this statement from Isaiah, perhaps you can hear the stirring strains of Handel’s aria “Every Valley shall be Exalted.”

John comes into the picture, with Isaiah’s mantle, preparing us for a journey that will transform the world. This is a tall order, and John wants us to look closely at our motives – why are we here? What is our agenda? He asks this question because baptism initiates us into the way of the Spirit. While we may claim to be children of Abraham, John asks whether we have demonstrated this allegiance with fruit. Advent promises a new direction for humanity, but what does it mean for us to enter this new age that John heralds? What does it require of us?

Harvey Cox, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Harvard, wrote a new book called the Future of Faith. In this book, Professor Cox suggests that we’re stand at the edge of a new age of the Spirit. This new age looks back to an age of faith that existed at the moment of the church’s birth in the first century, but it also will look very different from the one we’ve known at least since the day of Constantine. In this new age of the Spirit, we’ll no longer depend on culture or society to define our faith. Instead, we’ll look to God’s Spirit and the bar of expectation that the Spirit sets for us. In this new age of the Spirit, we will again look at the world through the eyes of Jesus, letting his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection define what it means to live before God. This is the new Advent that lies ahead of us, as we journey toward the revealing of the God who comes to us in the babe born in Bethlehem.

3. Living Up to Radical Expectations – Bearing Fruit

John’s ministry involved two things – preaching a message of repentance and offering baptism as the way of receiving God’s salvation. Although John seems to speak harshly to his audience, like Malachi, he assumes that his audience both belongs to the people of God and that they have gotten off track. They need to be washed clean so that they can be made whole.

John invites his audience to participate in a process the ancient church called the “via purgativa.” That is, he invited them to purge their lives of the things that held them back from sharing in the things of God. John invites us to share in the same process, one that might involve fasting or giving of our money or time for the good of another, or it might involve gathering together with a small group of spiritual friends and sharing one’s vulnerabilities. Brian McLaren points out that this process isn’t the same thing as penance, because we’re not paying for our sins. We’re simply practicing humility and service before God.1

In answer to the question – what must we do? John offers his own methods of purging one’s self of the things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence. At first, these words might sound rather dismal, but John says that they bear good news. If you can receive them, your life will be changed by the purifying fire of God that sets us free from the things that hold us back from experiencing the presence of God – that is, the chaff of life.
And what are these radical expectations? John tells those who have two coats – and most of us have more than two -- to share one of them with someone who lacks a coat. If you have food, then share what you have with the one who doesn’t have food. If you’re a tax collector then don’t charge more than what is expected, and if you’re a soldier, then don’t use your power to extort money from your neighbors. In other words, love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

This is the new way of the Spirit, which does set the bar exceedingly high. And, remember that Jesus told the rich man – if you want to be saved, then sell everything you have and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18-30). While these may be difficult words for us to hear, they do set for us a goal, a way of living life in the presence of God that will change not only our lives, but the world itself.

Although the road forward involves high expectations, we go forward lifted up and carried by God’s grace. We go forward knowing that in our own strength we will fall short, because the bar is set so high. But remember that the refiner’s fire doesn’t destroy, it purifies. And the one who baptizes with fire, simply removes the chaff, not the grain. It is, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote many years ago:
In its profoundest insights the Christian faith sees the whole of human history as involved in guilt, and finds no release from guilt except in the grace of God. The Christian is freed by that grace to act in history; . . .2

And this is the good news of Advent: We have been set free by God’s grace to pursue the upward call of God, which will transform not only our lives, but the world in which we live.

1. Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), pp. 156-157.

2. Reinhold Niebuhr in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed., (New York: Harper-Collins, 1989), p. 252.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Advent 3
December 13, 2009

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