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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, December 11, 2017

John The Very Anxious Baptist

2017-12-10 Mark 1:1-8 John The Very Anxious Baptist


Only 15 days 'til Christmas.


Did anyone else's blood pressure just go up?


It's supposed to be the Sunday of peace.

We lit a candle of peace.

We sing about peace.

Peace on earth.

The Prince of Peace.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

So for the preacher to remind you that the end is nigh kinda kills the mood.


It's not my fault.

It's that Apostle Mark.

Mark's telling of the gospel jumps right in, with both feet, splashdown into the icy cold waters of un-peace and unrest.

Mark has no Christmas story.

Mark has no sweet baby Jesus child.

In Mark, Jesus just appears, a full-grown man.

He leans his ear toward the distant howling of that weird preacher, John, who also just appears.

John's out there, in the wilderness, waist-deep in the river, baptizing everyone he can get his hands on.

John proclaims the coming of Jesus, but John does not say, "Merry Christmas."

Not even, "Happy Holidays."

John screams at the people, "Repent!" Repent you brood of vipers! For your end is near!

The way he says it, you don't know if you've got 15 days or 15 seconds.


We all want peace.

We all want the world to be at peace.

We all want our families to be at peace.

We all want our souls to be at peace.

But the good news of Jesus Christ does not start with peace.

Not in this book.

In Mark, the good news begins with un-peace, with John, a very anxious baptist, who's making everybody else anxious, too.




Mark 1 says,

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins….

Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Kathy called a few days ago and asked if she could do the Children's Sermon.

That was a really sweet thing to do this week.

If you ever want to make a pastor's day, call and ask if you can do the Children's Sermon.

But, still, I had mixed feelings, because I had a very Biblical idea that I thought the kids would love.

First, and sadly, you can not order locusts on Amazon.

But you CAN get cicadas.

A can of 100% REAL, edible Cicadas (double exclamation point).

For only $9.99 and free shipping.

Meat Maniac Inc. – promises: "These cicadas are oven roasted and dehydrated… not fried, with no colors or perservatives (sic)."

"Dried Cicadas contain over 50% protein and are low in fat" and "they have a delicate nutty flavor."

"There are approximately 10 large cicadas per can."

Which would have been more than enough for Children's Sermon.


But, Kathy called.

Sorry, kids.

Maybe next year.

All this is to say, John was weird, like a prophet of old.

A strange, sour man.

You think his food was hard to swallow, try sinking your teeth into his anxiety-producing message.

This is not the time to be jolly.

'Tis the season...

to repent, for the end is near, the kingdom is at hand.




You know the problem with the world these days?

There's just too much to worry about.

And not nearly enough time to worry about it all, even if you give up sleeping, and some of us have.

At least we have a football coach.

The world just feels like it's on edge.

The edge of something.

Something big.

Now, I doubt the people who came to John were all that different from us.

Their world was smaller.

But their worries were just as countless.

Their world was on edge, too.

So John appears.

All edgy.

Dressed weird.

Eating weird.

Shouting at everybody.

Quick! You, heathen! Get thee baptized! Because He's coming.

Not exactly sure who He's gonna be.

But he's big, and powerful.

I'm not worthy to unlace his shoes.

I use water, but He will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.


Now, the people probably weren't sure exactly what that meant.

But they had an idea.

A very worrisome idea.

You see, since the time of their great-grandparents' great-grandparents, they'd been told that someday, the Messiah would come.

The one to bring God's great day of reckoning upon the earth.

"The great and dreadful day of the LORD" (Mal 4:5).

"The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Joel 2:31).

But first, "a messenger" will appear, a voice, crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!"

And out of nowhere, here's John the Baptist.

Doing exactly what the scripture said.

Doing bible-y, prophety things.

Eating bugs, for goodness' sake.

He's the real deal.

The people see him.

And they start to think: if he's real, then, maybe… the stories from the Bible… maybe they're really real, too.



And maybe our end is nigh.

Maybe our end is nigh.

How's your blood pressure, now?





Every week, we pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done."

Be careful what you pray for.

We say the words, but we have no idea what we're asking.

We have no idea how dangerous this prayer could be.

What we mean is, "My kingdom come, my will be done."

You don't want peace. You can't handle the peace.

Not God's peace.

What we want is to be pacified. Distracted. Entertained.

We want Jesus to come on our terms.

To come whistling down the road of wishes.

To slide down the chimney with gifts for the good boys and girls.


You don't want God's apocalyptic peace.

The peace John and Jesus proclaimed.

The peace where peacemakers are the Children of God.

The peace where the poor are housed, the hungry are fed, the meek inherit the earth.

The peace where the rich and the full are sent away weeping and gnashing their teeth.

We don't want the peace of God's justice.

Because that would mean the ways of the world would have to change something mighty.

It would mean we'd have to change.

We'd have to repent.

Just like John told us.




John said, "Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Other translations say, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Take your pick.

The repenting stays the same.

When we hear "repent" we think apologizing.

We think it means being deeply and sincerely sorry.

And maybe you should be.

Maybe there are things you need to feel sorry over.

Maybe you should tell someone you've hurt you're sorry.

Apologize. And make amends as best you can.

But that's not what John meant.

God is not moved by how bad you feel.

John's repentance isn't about working up a good apology.

It's about changing your ways.

Changing the culture.

Literally, the word means, turning.

Turning things around. Turning upside down.

Turning from sin and turning to the ways of righteousness.

It's a change of attitude, a change of mind, a change of spirit.

A change of how we all treat each other all the time, every day.


We're witnessing an example of this kind of repentance right now.

Men in positions of power are being called out for the ways we've treated women and other men, when the cameras are off and the doors are locked.

The mighty are falling, someone new every day. And it's painful to watch.

Almost as painful as it is for the women who say, me too.


If we want peace, true peace, the lasting peace of Christ, we've gotta wade into the waters of ice-cold injustice.

We've gotta feel the discomfort of others.

We've gotta shake in the shoes of other people.


Peace is not the absence of suffering.

Peace is suffering made meaningful.

If we want repentance, if we want peace, we've got to own our anxiety.

We've got to claim our worries and face them.

We've got to take responsibility for the unrighteous ways we treat each other, and then correct ourselves, correct our workplaces, correct our homes, in the name of God.

Then – then – there can be peace.

Then – then – Christ can come.

Then – then – we'll be lifting up the valleys, we'll be making the paths will be straight, and the way of the Lord will be prepared.




They say you should live each day as if it was your last.

I know what they mean, but that just makes me anxious.

I wonder, what if we lived each day as if Christ was coming in 15 days.

Two whole weeks and a day.

Suddenly, that seems like a lot more time.

Time to get stuff done.

Time to check things off the list.

Time to do the work of repentance.


The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

It's near.

But not quite within reach.

It's still a few days away.

There's a lot of time between now and Christmas.

Time enough for us all to make some peace.









Sunday, December 03, 2017

I Couldn't Think of a Better Time

2017-12-03 Matthew 24:36-44 

Today, we lit a candle of hope. 

I couldn't think of a better time. 


I'm telling this from memory, so forgive me. I once got to hear the great preacher, Fred Craddock. He told how during Bible college, he was playing in an intramural softball game. He was standing in the outfield for what seemed like forever. Not a good sign. It was the late innings and his team was down by some insurmountable number of runs. Another devout Bible college outfielder wandered over and whispered, "Isn't it going to be great when Jesus comes?" And Fred answered, "I couldn't think of a better time." 

Matthew says, "Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." 


And it's hard to know if Jesus meant that as a threat or a promise. Maybe both.  


But I look at the world these days – all the arguing, and the sexual misconduct, and the natural disasters, and the wretched violence, and the nuclear threats – I look at the world and think, "If Jesus isn't coming back now, I couldn't think of a better time." 


But that's not what the church says, is it? You did not see us light a candle of the apocalypse. We don't light a candle of Armageddon. The world does that on its own. Every day, the world lights new blazing fires of hate.  


But the church – always having to be different – the church lights a candle of hope. If only it was bigger and brighter. But that's not the way hope works. Hope is a small thing. Hope flickers, but it shines toward a brighter day. Hope is small, but it is mighty. Hope tells the world, you have your ways, but we believe in a different way, ways of peace, ways of joy, ways of love, ways of Christ. You see, that Advent wreath's just getting started. We've got three more candles. And Christ is the center. Hope is just the start. 


We, the church, stand in defiance. We dare to hope. We, the church, stand in courageous opposition to the powers and principalities of inhumanity, and unloveliness. That's what the church does. When darkness is all around us, we choose the light of hope. Hope's what that lonely little candle proclaims today. And I couldn't think of a better time. 






It's so good to have youth from throughout our presbytery here today. Some have driven many miles. Journeyed from foreign counties. They come from churches where sometimes "The Youth" really is "The" youth, the teenager. An army of one. Like Beyonce. Together they call themselves, "The Small and Mighty Youth Group." God bless your Presbyterian hearts. Your church, your youth, may be small, but you can still be mighty. You are a sign of hope. 


We celebrated a baptism. We celebrated THE baptism commanded by Christ himself. A baby is tiny. Adorable, but helpless on her own. Unable to perform deeds of courage or think thoughts of greatness. And yet we see them as miracles. "Look! She turned over!" "Look! She took her first step!" We post videos. Grownups cry. Go, "Awwwww." A baby is small. But she is also mighty. She is a sign of hope. 


Mighty hope always starts small.  




Emily Dickenson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers." You youth: Do they still make you read that poem in school?  


Hope is the thing with feathers  

That perches in the soul,  

and sings the tune without the words,  

and never stops at all. 


Here's what I remember about that poem. We've all found feathers on the ground. What's the first thing kids do with a feather? They wave it around. To see if they can fly. That's not hope. That's pretending. Doesn't work. So, failing at flight, what's the next thing kids do with the feather? They throw it in the air. They watch it float, light as an angel, back down to earth. 


Emily Dickenson could have chosen an eagle. A great bird of prey that soars near heaven and snatches its victims before they know what hit them. But that's not hope. She chose the smallest of songbirds, perched, in the soul. Not even flying. Singing. 


Hope is the thing with feathers it doesn't even use. 

Hope perches. Hope sings. Persistent. Devoted. Enduring. Small. But mighty.  


This, this is the hope to which we as a church are called. To remind the hopeless world that there is hope. Could you think of a better time? 




Now. It's hard to read this passage and not talk about The Rapture. Many people, and maybe you read today's scripture and see exactly what it means. A clear warning. 


Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 


That sounds scary, to me. Maybe it's supposed to be. But I think that reading it that way snuffs out the hope Jesus intends. At least for half of humanity. Get right, or get left. "Rapturology" puts us in the judgment seat of God, puts us in the skybox, making the calls in advance of a day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son. More premeditated assault than hope. There are other ways to read this. 


They call this passage the Little Apocalypse. As if any apocalypse could be "little." In this Little Apocalypse, more than anything else, over and over, is the message from Jesus that no matter what you think you know about the future, you don't know Jack. You think you're smart, but God works in mysterious ways. Over and over, Jesus repeats the promise of surprise. 


"Apocalypse" makes us think of destruction. But literally, it means "an uncovering." The opposite of destruction. It means a disclosure of knowledge, a revelation, enlightenment. Surprise. The curtain is pulled back. We go, "Ohhhh." In Jesus's day, an apocalypse wasn't a nightmare. It was a dream, a gift. A hopeful, "vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities." 


Hope doesn't help us predict the future. It's not a wish. It's not a fairytale. The hope of Jesus is apocalyptic not in threat but in promise. Not the nuclear fireball, but flickering candlelight, to help us start to make sense of the now we can see, enough to help us face whatever comes next. 




I heard a radio interview last week with retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Winnefeld about his late son Jonathan, and Jonathan's death from addiction to opioids. Winnefield had written an article for The Atlantic called, "No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic." Because it's a thief in the night.  


When asked, "What have you learned that you would say to families facing addiction?" Winnefield said: 


"I think on the front-end, as your child is starting to enter into this downward spiral, at the very, very beginning, it's, don't let hope conquer reality." 


"Don't let hope conquer reality." 


And I wondered, what would Jesus say about that?  


I think the hard truth of scripture's little apocalypse is there will be little apocalypses and big ones that rock our world. There will. Not the angels, not even Jesus will wave a wand and make them go away.  


Hope is not denial. Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is the opposite. Hope is eye-opening courage, courage to wake up, to get woke, to face reality even if we can't conquer it. To name it, deal with it. 


Fragile as a feather. Thin as a candle. Small, but mighty. Awake. For whatever comes in the night. 




Today, we lit a candle of hope. 


Whatever the world holds. Whatever your world holds, carry the light of that candle. Carry the flickering hope of Christ inside you. Carry it now. Carry it tomorrow.  


I couldn't think of a better time. 







Bart D. Ehrman, "How Jesus Became God", pg. 59, ISBN978-0-06-177818-6