have a lot of things to rejoice about this morning -- I see Glen
Campbell back there with his button of his son, John,
featured in the Register Guard of the state champion Sheldon Irish
football team! The game of the century last night at Reser Stadium
in Corvallis. John made one of those touchdowns, had a great
kickoff return that setup another touchdown, so all of the Campbell
family is rejoicing this morning. What an incredible game.
And then, our Board
President, Eliza Drummond, ran in the Sacramento Marathon last weekend
and qualified for the Boston Marathon [applause!]. Coming in at
just under 4 hours in the 26 miles. I feel her pain -- I worked
out on my elliptical machine for 15 minutes, I know what it's like :).
At that rate, in 4 months I'll be caught up with Eliza!
Our passage this
morning, continuing in the story of John the Baptist we
introduced last Sunday,
from the 3rd chapter of the gospel of Luke, verses 7 through 20:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
So let me get this
straight -- John is in the wilderness, surrounded by a brood of vipers,
preaching about this coming wrath of God using images of axes chopping
down trees and chaff thrown into the unquenchable fire, and he gets
himself arrested for criticizing Herod (and we know the end of that
story, he gets beheaded), and this is the good news?! Am I
missing something here? I'm afraid to hear what the bad news might
We often focus on
John the Baptist during Advent because Advent is the time of preparing
for the coming of God into our world once again. So looking at how
John prepared the way for Jesus back then tells us a little bit about
And the first thing
that jumps out at us when we read these stories is this harsh judgmental
tone and rather violent rhetoric that seems antithetical to that
peaceful story of Christmas of the babe in the manger and all our images
of Jesus, mild-mannered and gentle and compassionate and loving.
Kind of like the
letter I received in the mail just last Sunday:
Message from the Lord God Almighty"
[always good when it comes in black &
white, just to be clear].
"To all church leaders in America who remain silent on the news of
this my day of judgment. Why did I allow you to become a
church leader? [Indeed,
that's the question I've been asking myself -- why Lord? Why
me? :) ].
Was it not to spread my word and my word alone? Now,
therefore, I the Lord give you this command: begin to warn my
people now about my day of judgment. That this land is about
to swallow a bitter pill, launching a torrent of unprecedented
disasters that will crush the pride of Americans and shame the land
that is champion of the world. Begin to show my people how
they can survive it, teach them to pray, to increase their obedience
to my laws, to pass on this warning to their loved ones and
If you refuse to warn them about the urgency of my Word, I will
bring you down in shame and toss you out of the church and I will
send you to Hell to join the devil and his angels".
So, I've done my job,
I'm off the hook :). It's interesting to note that the letter came
from some ministry in Ohio. Well, she'll find out on January 1st
whether or not the Lord speaks from Ohio or from Oregon. A little
more riding on this Rose Bowl that usual :).
But seriously, it
always amazes me when I get things like this, although typically these
days they come by E-mail rather than snail-mail, after 2,000 years of
waiting and people making predictions and warnings and all of that, and
all the scriptural warnings about those who make such proclamations (to
know the time, to know the mind of God) that would presume to proclaim
such. I'm amazed, and saddened by it.
But if we find this
message from "The Lord God Almighty" rather jarring, imagine what that
message of John the Baptist sounded like in ancient times.
You see, what makes
the preaching of John so awkward and uncomfortable for us is that he's
not looking at the Roman occupiers when he says "You brood of vipers".
He's not talking about the priests of the Temple or the prostitutes in
the street. He's not talking about rich or poor. He's not
talking about soldiers or tax collectors. He's looking at the
whole crowd. He's talking to us.
In the call to
worship last Sunday there was a typo. The line was "God is with us
to bless and confront us". Surely it should have been
"comfort", right? And we sat there and tried to figure out if this
is what it was supposed to be, or not. I wasn't sure, but we went
with comfort, we figured it was safer. But sometimes we do need to
Precisely why we rang
the chimes this morning, 350 times (plus a few for the benefit of the
news crew out there :), because this is one of those times when we need
to be confronted with the harsh, uncomfortable reality [of global
warming] and not be distracted by the bogus claims of "climate-gate"
created by a couple of scientists in their unfortunate/apparent
manipulation of a little bit of data. The reality is that the
overwhelming consensus of climatologists is that climate change caused
by human activity is a reality. And as we close this first decade
of the new millennium, it is already clear that this will be the
warmest decade in human history, if not all of history.
Doesn't mean we won't continue to have cold spells like we did this past
week -- weather is a different issue from climate, although they are
But if we do not
succeed in lowering greenhouse gases to a sustainable level -- 350 parts
per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- we will drastically
alter the face of the earth with devastating consequences by the end of
read the editorial in the newspaper today, John Pitney at First
United Methodist Church and I, wrote for the Register Guard. I was
rather chagrined to note when I picked up this morning's paper our
editors chose to pair that, to balance it out, with an editorial by
Sarah Palin. So it makes us appear that we're taking on the former
candidate, the former Governor of Alaska. Of course, which one did
they put on the front page of the editorial section, right? :).
At any rate, Ms.
Palin says she knows climate change is a reality, she has seen it --
from her own house :). But she says that she questions whether or
not it's caused by human activity, that it may be part of the natural
cycle of the earth. And, furthermore, she says, the cost of
emission reductions far outweigh any potential benefit.
talking here about catastrophic changes the earth.
Now, there's a chance
-- and she's right about this -- there's a chance that the scientists
could be wrong. The question is: how much are we willing to
bet on that?
Thomas Friedman, I
thought, wrote the more telling piece this week, appeared in the paper
on Wednesday, using the principle argued by then-Vice-President Dick
Cheney that if there's a 1 percent chance that Al Qaeda could acquire
nuclear weapons that you can't take that risk, and you have to take
precautionary measures. And so Friedman said that, yeah, there's
no guarantee that the scientists are correct, but surely the odds are
greater than 1% that they are. And furthermore, the consequences
if they are correct, are much greater than that of a nuclear-armed
Now think about that.
The consequences of climate change being much greater than a
nuclear-armed terrorist group.
How much are we
willing to risk that over a thousand scientists working in collaboration
as well as independently, that they're wrong? That this is all
some grand hoax perpetuated or caused by a few that have manipulated the
data for what reason I cannot imagine.
And we continue to
pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a record pace, now at 390
parts per million (ppm), increasing 2 ppm every year, which is 40 ppm
over what NASA scientist James Hanson and his team of 7 others have
concluded is sustainable for the earth. And he is using
data that has not been questioned or refuted.
So maybe John the
Baptist is right. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the brood of
vipers, and they is us.
So there are times
when harsh judgments and sharp criticisms are needed and Advent, the
time of preparing for the Lord's coming, is such a time.
But it's not about
judging for judgment's sake, rather it's judging to bring a conviction.
Not a conviction as in a sentence of punishment, but conviction as in a
change of heart. Conversion. Repentance. Or as our new
slogan for the church says, transforming lives, transforming
Christianity, and transforming the world. That's what it's about.
That kind of transformation that impacts everything.
What must we do?, the
listeners of John asked.
What must we do?, the
What must we do?, the
What must we
do?, we ask.
And it's rather
striking that John's answer is not "Believe the right things!" so that
you don't go to hell. But do the right things. Share
your food, and even your clothing. Much in the same way we have
been doing this past week with the Egan Warming Center downstairs
[bringing in the homeless whenever the temperature drops to 28 degrees
or below]. Don't cheat anyone. Don't threaten anyone.
Don't abuse your power. Be satisfied with your fair share.
Now there's a message for us, especially as we listen to the developing
nations in Copenhagen at that gathering [on climate change] saying to
the rich/developed/wealthy nations 'You know, you are the primary
contributor, you are the ones that need to take a look at what your fair
Now, this is not to
be an exhaustive list by any means, but it provides a basis for an
ethical code to live by. Doing the right things, as defined not by
your self-interest, but by the interests of all those lives you
touch, upon whom you have some impact.
Right before the
service, Arthur, who is one of the homeless folks we have taken in,
lives out in our parking lot, brought in this selection out of a book
he's reading -- "Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays
Christianity", by Bruce Bawer. In it, he tells the story of Mark
Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which (if you remember the
story) Huck has helped a slave, Jim, escape from his owner. Only
Huck is having doubts about that, because the message he is hearing from
society and from the church in particular is that that's theft.
That's wrong. Slavery, you know, is God's will, and therefore he
should turn in this slave, otherwise he is risking his soul to eternal
And so in this moment
of conversion he decides he'll write a letter, send it to the slave
owner to reveal where Jim is hiding. And then he thinks about how
kind, and good, and gentle that Jim has been, what a good friend he has
been on this journey they have had together. And he looks at that
letter, and Huck says:
was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two
things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding
my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll GO
to hell." And tore it up.
And so Bawer writes:
"Though his society and its churches, which have set God up as a
supporter of slavery, tell him he's wrong to help Jim escape and will go
to hell for it, Huck's love and his conscience compelled him to help Jim
anyway. In the end, by acting in accordance with his love and
conscience, Huck does the truly Christian thing. The true disciple
of Jesus, Twain tells us here, is not someone who follows church dogma
out of fear of hell, it is someone who, in defiance of everything (up to
and including the threat of hell-fire) does the right thing out of
I'm not sure if
Arthur knew the title of my sermon or what, but he hit the nail right on
President Obama, I
thought summed it up well in his speech in accepting the Nobel Peace
Prize on Thursday, he said:
"The one rule that lies at the heart of every
major religion is that we do unto others as we
would have them do unto us.
Adhering to this law of love has always been the
core struggle of human nature. We are fallible.
We make mistakes, and fall victim to the
temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes
evil. Even those of us with the best intentions
will at times fail to right the wrongs before
But we do not have to think that human nature is
perfect for us to still believe that the human
condition can be perfected. We do not have to
live in an idealized world to still reach for
those ideals that will make it a better place".
And then the
President went on to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, in noting that he was
there on this day largely because of the work of Dr. King. And
quoting from Dr. King's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize (I
believe that was in 1967), he says:
"I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present
nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness'
that forever confronts him".
And so the President
told the Nobel audience:
"So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the
divine that still stirs within each of our souls".
The world as it ought
to be. The spark of the divine that still stirs in each of our
And he then concluded
with these words:
"We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and
still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of
deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that
there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for
that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the
world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here
That is indeed our
work. It's the work of Advent. It's how we prepare the way
for the coming of the Lord.
To do the right thing
for the benefit of all, and for all the earth.