Jail, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Paw Patrol Stuffies

Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Joy Sunday, where we are supposed to rejoice in all things.

And the primary scripture passage used for this Sunday used by churches around the world is…

The_Beheading_Of_St_John_The_Baptist_sm.jpgJohn the Baptist in jail, right before King Herod orders his head on a platter.

Rejoice, right?

And to make it even worse, in this passage John the Baptist is questioning whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.  John the Baptist!  The baby who leapt in his mother’s womb when he met Jesus in Mary’s womb… The guy in the wilderness who preached about repentance and paving a way for the Lord… The guy who was unfit to until the sandals of Jesus!  And here is, doubting his entire life’s purpose.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jail, violence, and questioning one’s existence.

Rejoice, right?

Last week, we rea that John knew who Jesus was when he baptized him in the wilderness.  He knew that Jesus was the one.

Or at least he thought he was the one, because at this moment in his life, he appears that he was profoundly disappointed in Jesus.

It’s a theme that actually occurs over and over again the Bible… We want Jesus to be one thing, and instead, we get another.

In this case, Jesus’s response points us in that other direction.

When asked if he was the one that the Jewish people were waiting for, he answered:

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

When Jesus is asked if he is THE one, he points to the blind, the lame, the sick, and those without a lot of money.  He points to those on the outside.  He points to those without power.  He points to those whose lives are often hanging on by a thread.

You want to know if Jesus is the one we’re waiting for?  Don’t look over there… Look over here.  Don’t look for those whom the world calls winners. Don’t look for People of the Year.  Don’t look for Consumer Choice Awards or Year End Best of Lists. Don’t look to the covers of Cosmopolitan or GQ magazine.  Yes, all of them are beloved children of God.   But that’s not the direction that Jesus points to.

Look over here instead.  Look at the unwed pregnant teenagers giving birth behind the house. Look at families fleeing for their lives because of war.  Look at those of us who wonder where their next meal is going to come from.  Look at those of us are grieving.  Look at those of us whose lives are hanging on by thread.

If you want winners, look to politics and sports and magazine covers.  If you want Jesus, you have to look elsewhere.  And if this is tough, well, that’s why Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Here’s the challenge for us today.

Often, we end up placing ourselves in the shoes of Jesus, especially at Christmas. We give extra, we volunteer more, we make toy mountains at malls and share more. All really good things.

For example, this year at mu daughter’s school, the students were invited to donate a stuffed animal for the kids at Steinbach Family Resource Center.  So I loaded up my kids in the van and off to the store we went, in an attempt to teach them that it is better to give than to receive, and that the point of life is to give back all that we have received. (Although when they picked a Paw Patrol animal and at the til I realize it was $15, all I could mutter to myself was “this is highway robbery.”)

We often cast it upon ourselves in the role of Jesus and spread Christmas cheer to the world.

I think the challenge for us isn’t to stop spreading Christmas cheer, because sweet mercy me we need people’s generosity and an extra dose of kindness every year, but rather the challenge is for us to see it as a first step.

I think the next step for us is to move from trying to “be” Jesus to others and start trying to “see” Jesus in others.

The movement is from “being” Jesus to “seeing” Jesus.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, a pastor and author whose voice I listen to, considers the significance of this shift:

“If you encountered a homeless man and decided to act like Jesus toward Him, what might that look like?  Perhaps you would feed him, clothe him, affirm his dignity, and tell him that he is loved by God.  Without question this is beautiful and important.  However, consider it from the other side:  if you encountered a homeless man and decided to treat him in the same way you would treat Jesus, what might that look like?  How might your posture be different?  The contrast becomes clear.  [If we try to be Jesus], we are still more or less coming to the man with a posture of superiority, aren’t we?  The haves coming to help the have-nots, so to speak.  We are the savior.”

But when truly treating him like he is Jesus, everything would be reversed.  Suddenly, our approach to the homeless man is not as someone who is in need of what we have to offer, but this perspective recognizes that this person has as much to offer us as we do him, maybe even more.  It is in this way that we need the poor more than they need us. Or, more honestly, as we humbly relate to the poor, our own poverty is exposed.  Either way, in treating the homeless as Jesus, the transformation is mutual, not one-sided.  It is a beautiful twist, as we attempt to treat the other as though we are serving Christ.  When we see Jesus in the least and act accordingly, it is only then that we ourselves begin to be like Jesus in appropriate ways, becoming servants of all.”  Vulnerable Faith, p. 137-138

I love this movement from “being” Jesus to “seeing” Jesus, because while we can still spread Christmas cheer, it also allows ourselves to be open to some sort of transformation.

It’s Christmastime, and we’re already bombarded with lots of expectations and more than enough guilt, so I’m not going to tell you go and find a homeless man and see Christ in him (Although if you do, good job!).  I don’t want to add yet another thing to the list to overwhelm us at Christmas.

But what we will do this morning, is spend a minute in prayer thinking about all the people that we are going to see this Christmas, at work, at home, and family gatherings, and ask God to help us see Jesus in them.  Because if we can see Jesus in the people around us at Christmas, I’d say that’s a pretty good start to understanding the story of God coming to us as a baby in a manger.

Join with me in prayer:

Notice your breathing.

As your breath in, imagine breathing in all of the fullness and goodness of God.

As your breath out, quietly say to yourself, Lord Have Mercy.

Think about all the people in your life.

As they come to mind, imagine how God looks at them.

Ask God to help you see Jesus in them, and treat them as such.



Locusts, Indiana Jones, and Elsa

The story of John the Baptist takes place 30 years after the birth of Jesus, and yet we read the story of him in the wilderness every year on the second Sunday of Advent.

Part of me is always frustrated that I have to try to make connections between the birth of Jesus and this wild man who eats locusts and preaches some pretty harsh words of judgment. jbaptistbaptizing2

But… the other part of me is thankful that I get to use this picture every year.

John the Baptist’s words are harsh, and for many of us, bring up these terrible memories or associations of angry preachers banging the pulpit threatening hell unless we get our acts together. Words of fire and ax and judgement and winnowing forks don’t always sit very well with us.

I’m with you on that.

This week via Facebook and a few in person conversations, and I asked people what words/phrases came to mind when they heard the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”, and more than half of the responses I heard were about fear, judgement, a white-bearded male looking down the from the sky shaking his finger at us, the crusades, quite a “repent or burns”…indiana-jones

Although my favourite one was someone conjuring an image on Indiana Jones, trying to reach the Holy Grail, repeating, “Only the penitent man will pass…KNEEL!”  And then he stops Nazi Germany (or something like that).

But John the Baptist still did tell everyone he met that they should repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.

As I was pondering these words this week, I had an epiphany.

The gospel of Jesus is meant to be good news for everybody.  The angels bring the shepherds good news of great joy that will be for ALL people.  God coming and living among us through Jesus is supposed to be a good thing (thanks Captain Obvious).

But can we salvage the good news of Jesus from all the negative associations we have with the word “Repent!”

I’ll give it a whirl.

First of all, I think the word “near” means more like it’s in close proximity, not time, so we can say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”  This moves the repentance in fear of a future moment to repentance in the present, one where we’re waiting for God to come, to one where God is already here.

Secondly, I like to define the word repent as this: To turn. To do a 180.   So John is telling his listeners, “Turn around, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”

That’s more palatable, isn’t it?  I think that’s a pretty good start.

And we usually associate the word “Repent” with “Stop Sinning!”, which is probably a good thing when we’re killing people and stealing their cars, but can get a little tedious when the preacher gets to decide what’s a sin and what isn’t, and gets to decide who’s sinning and who’s not (and usually it’s not the preacher).

So what I do with this text is think of repenting in terms of not only turning, but specifically of letting go.  Of us letting go of what we are clinging to tightly.  That with all the things that we’re holding tightly onto, we change direction, and let go of them.

One of the greatest myths of life in North America is that we can just keep adding things to our lives.  We can just add more peace and more harmony on top of watching sports on top of Christmas shopping on top of church on top of loving our neighbours.

I don’t think it’s true.  We can’t add without subtracting.  We can’t take on more unless we are willing to let go of something else. We can’t live in a world of more love, peace, joy and harmony unless we let go of all that which is hindering those things.

So then the phrase becomes, “Let go of what you are holding on to tightly, because the Kingdom of God is close by.”

Well, that’s certainly different. I kind of like it.

Let go of what’s holding you back from living into the good news of Jesus.

In my early years as a pastor, I spent a few weekends at St. Benedict’s Monastery hanging out with some nuns and spiritual directors, learning how to rest and how to pray, and every year the first question that was asked of us was this:

“What is God calling you to let go of?”

We can’t live in the Kingdom of God unless we are willing to let go of things.

Our selfishness, our pride, our indifference, the security we find in our wealth, the feelings we cling to when we think about how that person did us wrong yesterday, our own sense of rightness…

The idea of letting go runs a bit contrary to the belief that “I’m okay. You’re okay.”  It actually says, “No. We’re not all okay.  The world is not all okay. We’re all a part of this.  What do we need to let go of to live into God’s new way of living?”

John the Baptist said:  Repent, for Kingdom of God is near.

Today, we can say:  Let go of what you’re holding on to tightly, because it might be keeping you, it might be keeping us, from living the life that God wants for all of us.elsa

And if you have little children, Queen Elsa from Frozen says:  “Let It Go!”  (My 6 year old daughter asked if we would be singing this song today.  I replied, “Your mom told me a long time ago that it was best for everyone if I didn’t sing from the pulpit.”)

What is God calling you to let go of?

As usual, let’s light a candle and pray through that.

Open your hands like you are receiving a gift.

Notice your breathing.

Imagine God looking at you with kindness, tenderness, and love.

Ask the question: “God, what is it that you want me to let go of?”

If something comes to mind, ponder it.  Don’t be mad at it, don’t be embarrassed by it, simply ponder it.

And, when you’re ready, imagine holding it in your hand, and then letting it go.


Good news.  The Kingdom of God is close by.  And my hunch is that if we turn around, God will be there waiting for us with open arms.