« Advent 3 2018 Sermon -- The Rev. Matthew Stewart | Main | Sermon Advent 1 2018 - Matt Stewart »
Thursday
Dec132018

Advent 2 2018 Sermon -- The Rev. Matt Stewart

I had a change of heart this week on John the Baptist. Honestly, in the past, I’ve never been that big a fan of him. This week and next, we hear from this older cousin of Jesus who comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And next week it gets even more judgmental and intense where he says to a crowd that has come to seek his baptism. To them he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  I’ve never had much use for John because his brand of judgment seems so foreign to me and to my understanding of the loving way of Jesus. Harping on about sins and end times is just not where my piety and faith takes me and so I haven’t found John that compelling a figure in the past

But this week, I found myself appreciating John anew for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I thought about his sort of weird distinctiveness in the Gospels, he’s kind of an interesting side character. The Scriptures say he lived out in the wilderness, wearing camel hair clothing and eating locusts and honey. You know if this was TV or the movies he’d be that character you kind of like even though he’s not all that rational or pleasant… the John Goodman character in the Big Lebowski or the Hound in Game of Thrones… that’s John the Baptist… there’s something there even amidst all unpleasantness. 

But, the other reason I like him more is because of how he’s been mistranslated. Returning to what we heard in today’s Gospel, it says John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The issue here is that a lot of those words don’t capture the original Greek well at all.

For starters, there is the word rendered “repentance.” I imagine some of you know this already but the original Greek word here is metanoia which literally means ‘go beyond your thought’ or ‘change your mind.’ For the earliest Christians, metanoia meant a reshaping of not only one’s thoughts but one’s life. It wasn’t until later that it came to be poorly rendered as repentance… which leans much more in the direction of guilt and remorse than personal transformation.

Also it helps to understand what “forgiveness of sins” is. I won’t take you into another trek down into Bible nerd-ery but suffice it to say, it’s accurate to translate “forgiveness of sins” as “release from those tragic realties which hold us down.”  So, John’s message ISN’T fundamentally about creating feelings of guilt, or unworthiness, or shame. No, John comes to challenge his hearers, and us, to be open to being changed.. that our minds… that our hearts.. that our ways of being and living would become more and more whole… and more and more free… more and more released to grow and to thrive.  

One of the many ways Christianity has fallen short is by minimizing salvation as some sort of transaction designed to appease an angry God, rather than knowing salvation to be an ongoing process of growth and transformation… where we are constantly evolving into more and more loving and beautiful individuals… in a more and more loving and beautiful world.

When you think about it, it is an outrageous claim that John is making... that amidst a world of empire and violence… that transformation can happen. We look at ourselves… our own shortcomings… our own foolishness… our own fears… our inability to get out of our own way… and the idea that we could be radically reshaped for the better… it can be hard to see.  And we look at our world… and try to imagine positive change… even more hard.

But in this same kind of world John evokes the language of the prophet Isaiah

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In a pre-industrial world… before there was the kind of construction equipment like we see outside our church walls right now… for Isaiah, to claim that valleys would be filled and mountains made low.. That is saying that God will do the impossible. That God will open pathways for exiles to return to home when they see no way home… and that when it looks like nothing good can come to us… that is when the Saviour does come.

Our modern prophet for this week says something similar, albeit from a decidedly different vantage point. Asher O'Callaghan is a transgender Lutheran pastor. The text we read from him today talks about the beauty of those whose gender is trans or non-binary. And as our collective understanding of gender expands, I think maybe, even for those of us who are cis-gendered, it allows to have more a lovely, lively and fluid understanding of what it is to be human. That all of us are inexhaustibly diverse and flexible in our own selves. You know the ancients would talk about the idea of the microcosm. That each of us is a small version of the whole world. 

The famous second century Christian theologian Origen said, “You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and even the stars.” You are a little world.

There is way more to each and every one of us than we can possibly imagine. In some ways, the entirety of all that God makes can be found in each and every one of us. And so what that means beyond how amazing we are is just how much we can always be changing and growing. Asher O’Callahan writes, “God created us. All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God's image we live. God is still creating you.”

God is still creating us. God never stops building us up where we are weak. Never stops lifting us up when we fall. Never stops breaking down the walls that separate us. Never stops asking us to stretch ourselves in ways that will be uncomfortable but will allow for love and relationship to flourish.

God never stops loving us. Never stops connecting us. Never stops saving us. 

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”