Thursday, December 14, 2006

Soul food...

Preparing for Sunday's sermon, I stumbled across the words below; they fed my soul. Possibly they will feed yours too...

It all starts here out in the hot sands of repentance. The gospel begins here, if it starts up in your life at all, that is. The gospel begins not with the cry of a baby in a manger, not when shepherds hear the angels sing, and certainly not when the stockings are hung by the fireplace with care or any other such cozy holiday image as we usually think of them. The gospel begins, the gospels say, with John. The gospel begins out in the desert, out in that place that, throughout the entire Bible, is associated with death, chaos, and danger. The wilderness is not the place to go if you're looking for a good time. The wilderness is not safe. But the prophet Isaiah once predicted, and the man John the Baptist later fulfilled, the promise that it would be precisely in the desert, in the place of death, where God would build a highway to new life. You go into the desert to die, the gospel says. But in baptism, you not only drown, you rise back to new life.

Have you ever heard John preach? It's the most refreshing thing in the world! It's new birth, gospel-style. It's a fresh start. It's good news. It's like going to the doctor convinced you've got a tumor the size of a basketball pressing on your abdomen only to be told it's just gas. Take some Rolaids and go home. A new start. Good news! It's like getting called into the boss's office convinced a pink slip was coming only to get promoted to be the head of a whole new department in the firm. A turn-around, a reversal of fortune, good news. You get on the phone and gush, "Honey, you won't believe this but . . ." and then you go on to make her believe it anyway because it's true.

John offered that. A new start. A fresh beginning. The Messiah is coming, John says. He's coming soon and he's going to dip you right into the life-giving waters of no less than the very Holy Spirit of God. But don't get me wrong: none of this means that everything will become instantly hunky-dorey in your life. For instance, if you are celebrating Christmas this year without a certain loved one who died since Christmas last came and went, that's going to hurt. The gospel doesn't say it shouldn't hurt, but only that through the hurt shines the light of Christ. For now at least, even the gospel can't fix everything. Relationships fracture. People up and die on us before we get the chance to say we're sorry. It hurts. John the Baptist knows that. The One for whom John prepared the way knows that, too. Jesus doesn't leave the room in disgust if you find yourself weeping in front of the Christmas tree--as though your sorrow is ruining Jesus' holiday cheer. Instead, Jesus catches a salty tear or two on the tip of his finger and quietly whispers, "I know. I know. That's why I came in the first place."

John helps us to see and remember that. John takes a buzz-saw to the tinsel and glitter of it all, but he's not finally wrecking anything but building something more lasting, more real, more full of the gospel. John is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It starts here or it starts nowhere. Because if it starts here, the gospel will have some longevity to it. If it starts here, the gospel can endure long after we put the decorations away on January 1. If it starts here, the gospel will have depth to it even if we find ourselves merely going through the motions this month because of how sad we feel on the inside. If we start out right, we may finish right, too. And then in between the start and the finish, our lives will bear the gospel fruit of repentance, showing that we really do get it.

Have you ever heard John preach? If you haven't, you should. Because the gospel tells us that the only way to get to Bethlehem is to travel through the desert first. Well, that's not really true. You can get to Bethlehem without going through the desert. But if so, then once you get there, you won't find Jesus.

(Adapted from “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” A Sermon by Fred Craddock.)

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