Unworthy Obsessives (Welcome to our World #1, 2016-1204)

12/03-04/2016 Christ Mountain Top, The Lord’s Table
Isaiah 11.1-10, advent wreath
      With Nativity Hymn IV of Charles Wesley, v 2
Matthew 3.1-12, kids
Romans 15.4-13, message

Wow. I love this story from Matthew’s gospel that we shared with the kids. If you’re a fan of watching other people get confronted, especially the ones painted by the story as “the bad guys”, it’s perfect. They self-identify as “children of Abraham”. Instead, John the firebrand labels them “brood of vipers”. Talk about a put down! Taking them out at the knees! Good thing we’re not Pharisees, right?
      I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty in common with those Pharisees. In John’s time, in Jesus’ time, they were the scrupulously observant Jews. They were widely respected for their piety and obedience. They were the faithful church-goers, the good tithers, the Sunday School teachers, the choir members, the Bible study group. They were obsessive about following God. And somehow unworthy. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
      Baptism, which was being celebrated by others, was not for the Pharisees. It was part of the conversion process for Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. So, why would any self-respecting child of Abraham, especially one of the good guys, the obsessively religious, need baptism or repentance?

Here’s the trouble, and it is addressed in the passage from Romans as well: When you are confident that you are that good, when you know for sure that you are worthy, you tend to conclude that your goodness makes you better than…. I know I’m preaching to myself, but I hope that I’m not the only one who has struggled with that secret pride.

This is our world, isn’t it? Whether in moral terms or in practical terms, we compare ourselves with each other. Those folks who wear their ball caps cocked to the side. Those folks who sanitize their grocery carts. Those folks who tell off-color jokes. Those folks who aren’t as committed as I am. Those folks with a different skin tone or accent. I remember, as a young person, being a bit judgmental of other young guys who wore their hair parted in the middle. They were far too fashion conscious and I was above all that. If I’m not as bad as my neighbor, then I must be pretty good.

Lord Jesus! Welcome to this crazy mixed up world of ours.
Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God
You've been promised, we've been waiting
Welcome Holy Child
Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make yourself at home
Please make yourself at home

Bring your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry souls be filled
Word now breaking Heaven's silence
Welcome to our world
Welcome to our world
            Chris Rice, “Welcome to Our World”

We compare ourselves with each other and we conclude we are better. It is the fatal pride of the Pharisees, as John confronted them. It is the call of the apostle Paul to the Romans: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15.7). Paul was applying it, in his particular context, to the church opened to both Jews and Gentiles. And it is far too easy for us to think of that as only a first-century problem. Anti-Semitism is alive and well today, and among Christian people as well.
      Interestingly, Paul was a Pharisee. And, he could boast, in all seriousness, about his obsessive religious practice: “as to legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless” (Philippians 3.6). Nevertheless, he also claimed to be “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15).

We do need to step back a moment when we talk about a world in which our most obsessive religion is unworthy. Sometimes, the conclusion is, “then, why bother?” Psalm 37, in Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message, reads, “There’s a future in strenuous wholeness” (37-38). There is great value in obedience to God – not out of our own compulsions or obsessions, but because of God’s love for us and our love for God. However, none of that obedience makes us more or less worthy before God. And none of that obedience makes us better or worse than our neighbor.
      The problem with our obsessive religion is that it is so often combined with judgment, and usually judgment that has nothing to do with what really matters. Did you hear what the prophet declared about Israel’s coming savior? “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear” (Isaiah 11.3). But we are really good at judging a book by its cover.
      One of the ways we judge one another is by religious labels. Unfortunately, even Christians judge one another by these labels. The Rwandan genocide was Christians against Christians, under slightly different labels. Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and ethicist, offers a modest proposal for peace on earth, “for Christians to stop killing one another.” That’s nice, but even that modest proposal becomes fairly complicated when we think, for example, of the numbers of Christians in Iraq and the large numbers of Palestinians who are followers of Jesus. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
      Another way we judge, or prejudge, one another is along lines of race and ethnicity. Bob at the convenience store: the Asian cashier, the American customer with non-standard English.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
      If we wish to welcome Jesus to our world – the great hope of the Advent season – then part of our labor and calling while we wait is to welcome one another. To welcome strangers as guests. Clinging to our obsessive religion as a way to make us feel better than or more important than … that’s not exactly the way to welcome Jesus, or the stranger.

Perhaps this very welcome is a modest proposal for “peace on earth, good will to all”, for the kingdom describe by the prophet:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11.6-9).

Yes, Lord Jesus, come. Welcome to our world.


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