Friday, November 30, 2007

Let’s Keep Christmas

I love Christmas. A lot. I always have. And so I get concerned about the integrity of the holiday.

When I was a child, I remember some people getting all upset because some of the stores were putting the message “Merry Xmas” on their windows. People said that those small town merchants were taking Christ out of Christmas.

So I, like many children and too many adults will do, repeated what I had heard without verifying the facts. At school one day I was bemoaning the fact that people were taking Christ out of Christmas by writing “Merry Xmas.” A classmate of mine said, “You know, what you’re saying is really not right. In Greek, which is, you know, the language of the New Testament, ‘Christ’ is spelled ‘Xristos.’ So the ‘X’ in ‘Xmas’ is really just an abbreviation for the Greek spelling of Christ.”

Well, in the first place, at that point in my life I didn’t know that Greek was the language of the New Testament. But I minored in Greek in college and found out he was right. In the second place, I still think it’s more respectful to spell the name out fully as “Christmas.” Nevertheless, I took advantage of my newfound knowledge and regularly used “X” as an abbreviation for “Christ” in my seminary class note-taking. Those professors at Southern Seminary talked about Christ a lot during my years there (1979-1986) and my poor right hand needed all the breaks it could get!

I don’t hear much about “Xmas” these days but I sure hear a lot about the “War on Christmas.” That “war” is being waged, they say, by companies that don’t want their employees saying “Merry Christmas,” that use the term “Happy Holidays” in their advertising, or that apply their non-solicitation policies to the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers.

That same “war” is being waged, they say, by people who put pressure on government entities not to have religious symbols as part of their holiday decorations and by those government officials who give in to such pressure.

Let me pose these few reminders for your consideration.

First, let’s be careful not to develop an unbecoming persecution complex. The fact is that we are blessed with the great gift of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to worship. We have the freedom to worship as we choose, to worship as often (or as seldom) as we choose, to attend any of the hundreds of thousands of houses of worship in our nation, and to talk about our faith with anyone who will listen. Let’s not characterize any perceived affronts as “persecution” or “war.” It’s an insult to people in other nations who really are being persecuted for their faith.

Second, rather than boycotting those stores where the clerks are required to say “Happy Holidays,” why not try this instead? When that clerk hands you your bag and says “Happy Holidays,” give her a big smile that matches that Christian love you have already displayed to her (because you are careful to show the love of Christ to all those you encounter while shopping, aren’t you?) and say, “Merry Christmas.” If she’s a Christian who wishes she could say “Merry Christmas” she may give you a wink or a smile or a pat on the hand; in any case you’ll lift her spirits. And if she’s not a Christian you’ll have born an effective Christian witness—if you say it with humble love rather than with superior disdain.

Third, give some serious thought to the question of the propriety of expecting corporations and governments to do our work of proclamation and witnessing for us. We followers of Christ are free to do all of the promotion of Christ that we want to do without anyone’s interference or help. But are we doing it?

That leads me to one more thought. I fear that we Christians long ago capitulated to our culture in the matter of Christmas. American culture has long since turned Christmas into a buy all you can (whether you can afford it or not), get all you can, eat and drink all you can frenzy of consumerism. It seems to me that most of us just go along thoughtlessly with that way of observing Christmas.

While some folks fret about the culture taking Christ out of Christmas, I fret about Christians taking Christmas out of Christmas. After all, the word “Christmas” is literally the “Mass of Christ.” The celebration is, for we who are Christians, all about the worship of Christ.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. I think that family gatherings, gift giving, and shared meals are, when done within reason and with a bias toward simplicity, entirely appropriate ways of celebrating the birth of Christ. But, if we are Christians, shouldn’t worship of the child who was the Word of God incarnate be the focus of our celebrations? And shouldn’t that worship extend into the way we bear witness to him with our lives? And shouldn’t we bear witness to him with lives that reflect the life of the one who was born in a stable, who came to lift up the lowly and bring down the lofty, who grew up to be a man who had no place to lay his head, who trusted radically in his Father, and whose life and death were all about giving, sharing, and loving? Shouldn’t we bear witness to him in those ways at Christmas time and all the time? Isn’t that how we should keep Christmas?

Maybe we should propose a truce with our culture. They can have the holiday. We’ll keep Christmas!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Advent Calendar (A Story)

It had been handed down to her by her mother to whom it had been handed down by her mother. The story was that her doughboy grandfather had picked it up cheap at a shop in France just after World War I ended. Somehow it had made it home undamaged, all the way to Chattanooga. It had in fact arrived there before he did, which had almost given his mother a heart attack, because she took it to mean that his stuff was coming home but he wasn’t but they gave her some smelling salts and read the Psalms to her and by the time he got home the next day she was fine. In fact, that day she acted quite normally for a woman whose only son had just come home after spending the better part of a year dodging German artillery and poison gas except that he caught her crying at the sink as she washed the dirty dishes from the homecoming meal and he came up behind her and squeezed her and she gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth and turned around and kissed him on the cheek and said, “What’s in that box that came yesterday?” “Let me show you,” he had said.

He had opened the box on the kitchen table and together they had carefully unwrapped each piece. The figures were varnished wood carvings that were intricate in detail. There were angels, shepherds, wise men, camels, donkeys, and sheep. As his mother had continued to unwrap the pieces he had picked up one of the shepherds. The shepherd figure held a crook that had somehow been carved from a very small stick. He was kneeling and the folds in his robe had wrinkles within them. His hair had waves in it. What really stood out, though, was his face. Had anyone pressed him to describe the expression on the shepherd’s face he would have had a hard time doing so. It seemed to reflect a combination of wonder, fear, reverence, faith, and maybe even shock. He could hardly take his eyes off that face.

He was shaken from his spell by his mother’s voice. “While you’ve been staring at that fellow,” she was saying, “I’ve finished unwrapping the pieces.” She was shaking the baby in his face as she spoke.

“OK,” he said, “but didn’t you see this?” He removed the tissue paper from the box where his mother had been dropping it. From the bottom of the box he pulled a large flat piece of wood. It measured about three feet by three feet. It had a stand built into the back so that it could be propped on a tabletop so he propped it on the tabletop and then stepped back to observe it. Intricate carvings of trumpets and angels formed a border; at the very center of the top was a star. The square of wood was divided into other smaller squares by strips of raised wood. He quickly counted. There were twenty-five squares. At the top of each square was a tiny metal loop. He picked up one of the sheep and, using the small hook on its back, hung it on the first square. The sheep and he stared at each other for a moment.

“It’s pretty,” his mother said. “What it is?”

“The fellow who sold it to me said it was an Advent Calendar.”

“How nice,” she said. “What’s an Advent Calendar?”

“It’s a thing you use to count down the days until Christmas. That’s what you do during Advent; you count down the days until Christmas. It’s a church thing.”

“I never heard of such a thing at our church,” she said.

He thought about the raucous worship services that they held at the Beulah Holiness Church. “No, I guess you haven’t,” he said, “but this Presbyterian fellow in my unit explained it all to me.”

“Well,” his mother said, “I don’t know if I hold much truck with such things.”

Nevertheless, the hand-carved Advent calendar that her grandfather had sent back from some little village in France a few weeks after Armistice Day had become a valued part of the family’s Christmas tradition. For over eighty years now parents and children had stood reverently around the Advent calendar while adults and teenagers had read Bible verses and children had hung the figures of the shepherds, the wise men, and the animals on the calendar. Three days before Christmas Joseph was placed on the calendar. Two days before Mary took her place. The climax came on Christmas Eve when the baby Jesus was placed in the small manger that was build into the bottom of the twenty-fifth square. The artisan who had carved the calendar and the figures had apparently thought it inappropriate to put a hook on Jesus.

A couple of years after getting home from Europe her grandfather had gotten married and a couple of years after that he and his wife had produced their first child. The first question their daughter ever asked about anything she asked one year after about twelve days of hanging figures on the Advent calendar: “When’s Jesus coming?” She had asked it that year—it must have been around 1926—for the next twelve nights until she asked it on Christmas Eve, and her father had answered and watched her little freckled face light up like a lamp as he said it, “Tonight’s the night that Jesus comes.” It had become a part of the family liturgy that year and had remained so ever since—the youngest child in the family who was able to talk would say each night, “When’s Jesus coming?” until on Christmas Eve the oldest member of the family who could still talk would answer, “Tonight’s the night that Jesus comes.” And all the family would say “Amen.”

She was remembering all of that family history on this Christmas Eve, the one in 2007, as she put the dirty dishes from her family’s Christmas Eve supper of chili and cornbread into the dishwasher. In an apparent fit of Christmas-inspired generosity both of her teenaged children had offered to help clean the kitchen but she had said “No.” And so her family—her teenagers, her husband, her mother, and the little one of the family, the unexpected caboose who had just turned four in October—waited patiently in the living room, chatting quietly as the white lights on the tree flickered and the ornaments produced their great joy by doing no more than hanging there, which is how most things that bring great joy go about doing it. The little one had been the star of the Advent calendar show this year. For twenty-four nights now she had dutifully and sweetly asked the question as that night’s figure was being hung on the calendar: “When’s Jesus coming?” Everyone had smiled and sighed and oohed and awed. She would say it again tonight but this time her grandmother would answer, “Tonight’s the night when Jesus comes” as she placed the baby Jesus in the manger and then all the family would say “Amen” and then they’d see what was in their stockings.

As she placed some spoons in the dishwasher’s silverware holder her mind went back over it one more time. She had thought about it over and over since it had happened at lunchtime. She had thought about it as she did some last minute shopping that afternoon. She had thought about it as she tried to hustle her family out the door so they wouldn’t be late for church. She had especially thought about it during the Christmas Eve worship service when one of the readers had read a Scripture that contained a phrase that she was sure she had never heard at the Christmas Eve service before: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And now she was thinking about it again.

She and some other ladies from her civic club had volunteered to serve lunch at the homeless shelter, something they did several times a year but always made sure to do on Christmas Eve. The words “I enjoy it” always sounded strange to her when she said them in response to someone’s query about why she did it but on some level it was true. So she had been enjoying herself that day at lunchtime as she had scooped the dressing out of the pans and dumped it on the plates for those men, women, and children who obviously needed it so much. She was looking up to say “You’re welcome” to one of the many she served who said “Thank you” when she saw them. A man and a woman—they looked to be around seventy—were going around the room. They obviously went together although they were going around separately. Each held a big red cloth bag.

She kept watching them as she served the dressing. She watched them talking to the people at the tables like they were long-lost family members. She watched the lady sit for a while at this table and then for a while at that one. She watched the man bounce toddlers on his knee while their parents ate. She watched the lady wipe more than one runny nose. She watched as one mentally ill woman who always frightened her when she came through the food line shoved the lady away and then she watched as the lady bowed her head in an obvious quick prayer even as she tried to keep from falling. She watched them as they pulled gifts, all carefully wrapped, out of their bags and gave one to every person in the room. She dipped dressing and watched the man and woman do what they were doing.

Then she watched them leave. After they left she asked the social worker who ran the shelter who they were.

“They’re legends, that’s who they are,” he replied.

“No,” she had pressed him, “I mean what are their names?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “They’ve been doing that here for years. They do it all over town in places like this. And, before you ask, yes, we’ve asked their names. They just smile and say ‘Merry Christmas’ and go on their way.”

She put the last dish in the dishwasher and walked into the living room. As she entered everyone got up and gathered around the table that held the Advent calendar. Her mother already held the baby Jesus in her hand. Her teenaged daughter read the Christmas story from Matthew and then her son read the one from Luke. Her husband said a prayer. And then it was time for the big moment, the moment that had been repeated according to the script for three generations, the moment when her little girl would, in voice sweet and innocent, utter the words “When’s Jesus coming?” and when her mother would place the baby Jesus in his manger and triumphantly proclaim, “Tonight’s the night when Jesus comes.”

Her little girl spoke: “When’s Jesus coming?”

And that’s when she said it. She couldn’t help it. It just came out. It just came out because it was the truth. Before the scripted, traditional response could be offered by her dear mother, who had earned the right to say it by living so long and so well, the words jumped out of her mouth.

“I think he came this afternoon.”

And every jaw gathered around the Advent calendar dropped.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Believe in Santa Claus

I am a forty-nine year old Baptist minister who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children--and I believe in Santa Claus.

I believe in Santa Claus because of what the Bible teaches. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother.” My father always told me, even when I was a teenager and he was in his fifties, that he believed in Santa Claus and that I should, too. “Without Santa Claus,” he said, “we would lose the spirit of Christmas.” I am bound to follow the teachings of the Bible. Therefore, I continue to honor my father and believe in Santa Claus.

Visiting Santa Claus was one of the most exciting and anxiety-producing aspects of my childhood Christmas experience. I would plan ahead, polishing and perfecting my list. It had to be just right. You shouldn’t ask for too much and appear greedy, I figured; that might land you on the naughty list. But you also shouldn’t leave anything off that you really wanted. If you did, you might not get it! And if I didn’t get the exact G.I. Joe accessories that I needed, then what kind of Christmas would that be?

I have so many memories of visiting Santa Claus.

In my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, Wisebram’s Department Store was Santa Headquarters. Our Santa was a down-to-earth accessible Santa. There would be none of that fancy Santa throne stuff for him. No, he just sat himself down in the shoe department, right there on one of the seats where we sat to try on our shoes. Well, I didn’t sit there because I wore prescription shoes and had to go to Griffin to get them, but he sat where most Barnesvillians sat.

I confess that I had my first doubts about Santa right there in the Wisebram’s Shoe Department. One year, as I was sitting on his knee, I noticed that a staple was stuck in his beard. I puzzled over that until my puzzler was sore (credit: Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). I was concerned that maybe, just maybe, that beard had been stored in a box somewhere and there it had acquired that staple. I puzzled my way out of it, though. Who could say from where the staple came? The mystery was only enhanced! Besides, doubt is necessary as a complement to real faith.

Some years my parents and I would go to the Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta to do some Christmas shopping. In the 1960s that mall was the most magical place I had ever seen. Every department store there had a Santa Claus! That did not trouble me, for my father had long ago explained to me that Santa had to have many stand-ins while he was working at the North Pole.

One particular year I was in a quandary. I wanted a toy electric guitar. There were two models of it and I could not make up my mind which one I wanted. When I thought I had my mind made up, I went to one of the Santas and told him. He said that sounded fine to him. But then I got to thinking that I would really rather have the other model. So I went to the Santa in one of the other stores and told him that I had changed my mind. He looked at me a little funny but said that it sounded all right to him. Then I changed my mind again but I got concerned that I might confuse Santa so much that I would get a harp rather than a guitar so I decided to just leave it up to him.

Once during my childhood I entered an agnostic phase in my attitude toward Santa. I felt that there was plenty of evidence that there was no Santa but I was not willing to say for sure. I mean, what if there was, you know? This much I knew, though: the stand-in for Santa Claus that came to our church was Dock Knight, who was married to my mother’s cousin and who I had been raised to call “Uncle Dock.” I was convinced of it. And I told my father that I was convinced of it, over and over and over. That year, as Santa was prowling around the sanctuary, my father said to me, “Look back there.” There in the back of the church, standing with his arms folded across his chest, was Uncle Dock. Someone might as well have scattered magic Christmas dust all over my brain. Hope was rekindled! I had found a reason to believe again.

Such memories!

One of my friends was told by his mother from the very beginnings of his Christmas consciousness that there was no Santa Claus. I noticed that he always got just as much good stuff as I did. But I also noticed that he never had much joy about the Christmas experience.

I still have joy. There are much more important reasons that I have Christmas joy, of course, than that Santa Claus is coming to town.

But he is coming.

I may be a forty-nine year old Baptist preacher who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children, but I’m all tingly just thinking about it. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for all the rationality and maturity in the world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Christmas Play

In the church of my childhood one of the major events that took place during the weeks leading up to Christmas was the Christmas Play.

I have no idea how the casting was done. Somehow, parts would be assigned and rehearsals would begin. The cast and crew would work for weeks and weeks in preparation for the single performance that would take place on a Sunday night a couple of weeks before Christmas.

The plays were horrible.

They were also wonderful.

If you want to get a feel for what they were like, watch the movie Waiting for Guffman, which revolves around a community theatre production. Compared to the Christmas plays at Midway Baptist Church, the play in the movie was Tony-worthy.

To be fair, that play was a musical. We did drama at Midway.

I don’t remember the plots. I do remember some of the scenes.

I remember my overall-clad father, standing at an open window outside of which a red light glowed, declaring “That’s a big fire (he pronounced it ‘far’) over there (he pronounced it ‘thar.’)” I suspect that he had pronounced it straight during the rehearsals. Daddy was a ham.

I remember two brothers, portrayed by Randy Berry and Danny Bates, getting into a fight over a toy—I think it was a toy train—under a Christmas tree.

I remember my one and only appearance in one of the plays. The play was set in a department store. I was in line at a cash register. I wanted to buy a gift for my sick mother. With my quarter I planned to purchase a gray rose. Who ever saw a gray rose? The nice clerk told me that for the same quarter I could purchase a pretty red one. It was stark, moving drama. Preacher Bill rolled in laughter during the entire scene.

I remember the obligatory nativity scene near the end of each play. It was usually a dream sequence, I think. Somehow, though, they got the Christmas Story into whatever Christmas story they were telling.

Like I said, the plays were horrible. It would be kind to call our actors amateurs.

But like I also said, they were wonderful. They were wonderful because those were our church members, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, up there on that stage making fools of themselves, whether they knew it or not, all for the sake of our entertainment and especially for the sake of telling the story of Christmas.

They were wonderful exactly because of their amateurish character. In these days of slick production values and hyper-critical “make sure it’s quality stuff” church audiences, it’s refreshing to remember the sincerity and maybe even integrity of those cheesy performances.

But the main reason they were wonderful is in the point that was made: the Christmas Story is our story. The epiphany in those plays had to do with the fact that the Christ who came at Christmas comes into our run of the mill lives in our run of the mill world and changes things—he changes us. Yes, he came to the manger and was visited by shepherds; yes, angels announced his coming; yes, something marvelous and miraculous happened all those years ago.

Just as much of a miracle, though, is that it still happens now.

And that’s what those awfully terrific and terrifically awful Christmas plays taught me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Little Big Words: Love

(A sermon based on 1 John 3:11-24)

We’ve been talking about some of the “little big words” in our life with Christ. These are little words that have big meanings and big implications. So far we have talked about the little big words grace and faith. Today we turn to love.

I suspect that love may be the biggest of all our little big words. It lies at the heart of who God is. It lies at the heart of what Jesus did. And it lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

What are some the truths that our passage teaches us about the love that a Christian has and displays?

First, love is basic to the gospel message. John wrote, “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (v. 11). Things that are said from the beginning are very important things. What John has uppermost in mind is the beginning of the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. “From the time that Jesus came into the world and from the moment that he began to teach and preach,” John is saying, “the teaching that Christians are to love one another has been basic.”

We can make this idea more particular. Surely we would all have to say that from the time that we first became aware of the good news of Jesus we have heard the necessity of love taught and preached. If you don’t remember hearing that, then you might to wonder about the kind of Christianity that was being promoted—or you might need to wonder how good your memory is! From the beginning of our Christian lives we have heard love preached.

Or we can make this idea more general. We can say that the primacy of love has been part of the fabric of God’s world ever since he created it. Indeed, righteousness and love have always gone hand-in-hand. So Cain, John said, killed Abel because Cain was of the evil one and his deeds were evil. The lack of love is symptomatic of an evil heart being influenced by the evil one; the presence of love is symptomatic of a righteous heart influenced by the Righteous One.

In all of these ways, love is basic to the gospel message. The introductory course in the Christian faith is Love 101.

Second, love is a sign that we have been born again. “We know,” John said, that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (v. 14). There’s a song that says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Well, we can change the pronoun and still sing the truth: “We’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Love is life. To be born again is to be born into God’s love and God’s life; it is to be set free to live and love as God intended.

Sometimes Christians who are sensitive to their failings or who tend to over-intellectualize things get to having doubts about their salvation. The first category of Christians will try hard to be better and to do better so that they can know they’re saved. Those in the second category develop headaches trying to think their way through to assurance. We’re better off accepting what John says: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” When Christ’s love is poured into our hearts, when we really get grace and mercy and love, then we can’t help but grow in our love for one another.

We’re still a week away from the first Sunday of Advent and we’re still a month away from Christmas. Still, a Christmas story from classic literature offers a good illustration. In the Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch was a mean, miserly character who lived on a mountain outside Whoville. The Grinch tried to steal the Whos’ Christmas by stealing their presents and decorations and food on Christmas Eve. The next morning he expected to hear their wails of sorrow. Instead, he heard them singing songs of Christmas joy.

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?" "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!" "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And what happened then...? Who-ville they say That the Grinch's small heart Grew three sizes that day!

When Jesus comes into your heart, it grows. It doesn’t grow three sizes. It grows and grows and grows. And that’s how you know you’re a Christian.

Do you remember the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” Try this one: “Christian, Christian, if you’re quite contrary, then how has your heart grown?”

Third, love is a matter of the heart. John said that we should not be like Cain who killed Abel. He went on to say, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them” (v. 15). This goes to the state of our hearts. Recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

In other words, real righteousness does not consist in just avoiding harmful acts; real righteousness consists in having a heart so changed by the grace of God that you want to do good to people and not to do harm to them. I may never strike you and I may never say a hurtful thing to you—but what is the stance of my heart toward you? If I wish harm on you or if I think of you as less than human or if I see you as an object to be abused or exploited, then my heart is not a heart filled with love.

Love means more than not doing harmful things. It means having an attitude of grace and mercy toward people that sees them as fully human and deserving of God’s love.

Fourth, love is a matter of action. Here is the flip side of what I was just talking about. I just said that the avoidance of harmful acts does not constitute love; the heart must be changed so that our motives and our attitudes toward others are positive and helpful. Real love, though, will issue in positive actions on behalf of others. John said,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (vv. 16-18)

Here is the essence of God’s love: Jesus laid down his life for us. That is how God showed his love for us. If we are saved by that love and if that love has been poured into our hearts, then we will lay down our lives for one another.

Chances are slim that we will have to literally do what Jesus did and give up our lives for one another. Therefore, it’s all too easy to say that we would do so. The real test is in our actions. Do we have hearts that are so filled with the self-giving, self-emptying love of Jesus Christ that it overflows in practical acts of kindness to our brothers and sisters? There is simply no way in heaven or on earth to reconcile the love of Christ with greedy and selfish actions. Loving hearts and loving actions show that the love of Christ is in our hearts.

Only the grace of God can put the love of God in your heart. Is it there? Such love shows itself in love acts on behalf of others. Are they there?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 17

Georgia defeated in-state arch rival Georgia Tech for the seventh consecutive year. In fact, the Bulldogs have not lost to the Yellow Jackets since Mark Richt became head coach in Athens.

It was a hard-fought game, as this one always is, and GT made it close until well into the second half. Georgia clearly had superior talent and much greater depth than the Jackets and they finally pulled away. Georgia also had luck on their side as three fumbles in their own end zone that could have been recovered by Tech for touchdowns instead turned into touchbacks.

It was good to see Thomas Brown lead the way. The oft-injured senior running back rushed seventeen times for 139 yards. Another senior who missed all of last season with an injury and who is finishing out this season with an injured knee, Sean Bailey, caught three passes for 85 yards. Junior Mohammed Massaquoi caught six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for one touchdown and had a thirty one yard run for another.

Georgia’s defense intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble.

Because of Tennessee’s heart-stopping 52-50 win in four overtimes over Kentucky, Georgia will not play in the SEC Championship Game against LSU. Arkansas’ thrilling 50-48 triple overtime win over #1 LSU insures that no SEC team will play in the BCS National Championship game, which is a shame, since the SEC is, in my opinion and in the opinion of many folks who know a lot more it than I, the strongest conference in the NCAA. But, the way that the SEC teams beat up on one another week in and week out is what makes is so strong.

It appears that UGA is a lock for an at-large BCS bowl bid, although in this crazy year we shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch. Where will the Dawgs land? Well, it won’t be the Sugar Bowl since the SEC champion will get an automatic berth there. Therefore, Georgia could be heading to the Rose, Fiesta, or Orange Bowls. If they go to the Rose, they will play the PAC 10 champion, probably USC. That could only happen if Ohio State plays in the BCS Championship game and does not go to the Rose Bowl. If Georgia goes to the Fiesta Bowl, they would play the Big 12 champion, which would ordinarily be the winner of the Big 12 Championship Game between Oklahoma and Missouri. But if Missouri wins that game they will likely play in the BCS Championship Game; then I would guess that the Big 12 representative in the Fiesta would be Kansas. If the Bulldogs go to Miami, they would play the ACC champion, which will be the winner of the Boston College vs. Virginia Tech game.

Personally, I’d love to see Georgia play USC in the Rose Bowl. That would be a matchup between what are arguably two of the hottest teams in college football here at the end of the season. And, UGA has not played in the “Granddaddy of Them All” since 1943. They’ve never played in the Fiesta Bowl and last appeared in the Orange Bowl in 1960.

It’s been a great season for the Bulldogs. Next season looks good, too, as the Dawgs will return nine starters on defense, Stafford will be a junior, Knowshon Moreno a sophomore, the three freshman starters on the offensive line will be back with a year’s experience under their belts, some seventeen redshirt freshmen will make their debut, including highly touted running back Caleb King—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We’ll have to do a lot of worrying about the Braves before any of that matters!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I Am Thankful For...

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. The temperature today here in Augusta, Georgia is predicted to be 81 degrees. As Charlie Brown would say, "Good grief!" But, they're saying it may rain tomorrow and that would indeed be cause for thanks here in what has become known in the media as "the drought-stricken South."

It is vital to the Christian life, I believe, to live with a persistent sense of gratitude. We should be grateful to God for the big blessings and for the small pleasures in life. With that in mind, I offer the following list of things for which I am grateful. They are in no particular order. I am fully aware that some are very serious and some are downright silly. But, as I said, I believe that we should be grateful for all things great and small.

1. I am thankful for water heaters. Having to take cold showers all the time would be awful. Of course, here in the drought-stricken South, we're grateful for water, period.

2. I am thankful for my children, Joshua and Sara. They are the apple of my eye as well as the source of much of my hair loss. They are wonderful and challenging. They are my legacy and I feel good about that.

3. I am thankful for books. I love books. Sometimes I try to reduce my collection and I discover that I have a hard time getting rid of even bad books. I particularly love books on Christian spirituality, books on Biblical Studies, classic novels by such folks as Twain, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Clancy, and Grisham, and the two books that have my name on them as author and editor. Those two are available for purchase to the right of this page. Go on--buy one and make me even more grateful!

4. I am thankful for baseball. I am particularly thankful for the Atlanta Braves, who have provided me with much helpful distraction over the last forty years. I am becoming ever more thankful for Little League, high school, and college players who play for the love of the game and not for a ridiculously big paycheck. I would be thankful for kids who play pick-up games in a yard or field somewhere--you know, the kind of game where you choose up sides and do that hand over hand thing with the bat to determine who will bat first and then play all day in hundred degree heat and are happy as a lark doing it--but I'm not sure that such kids or games exist. More's the pity.

5. I am thankful for vocation. I've been a preacher/pastor/teacher/writer for almost thirty years now. It is still a great honor to deal with the written Word on a daily basis in my professional life. I pray that I do honor to the living Word in the way that I do my work. It's hard work sometimes but it's always good and meaningful work.

6. I am thankful for my wife. Debra and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary next June. She is to me a source of wonder because of the way that she embodies joy, peace, faith and love. When I try to tell her how wonderful she is she doesn't quite believe it. That just adds to the wonder.

7. I am thankful for the Georgia Bulldogs football team. I am a fan no matter what kind of season they have. This year has been a very exciting one. I would be even more thankful if they would get their graduation rate up.

8. I am thankful for my teachers who taught me well. At Gordon Grammar School: Mrs. Light, Mrs. Elliott, Mrs. Pitts, Mrs. Fambro, Mrs. Tenney, Mrs. Heinz, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Ruffin (she was married to my father's first cousin), Miss Vescey, and Coach Tenney. From Forsyth Road School/Lamar County High School: Mr. Myles, Mr. Julian, Mrs. Key, Mrs. Powers, Mr. Harvey, Mrs. Easton, Mrs. Byars, Mrs. Harris, Coach Wimberly, and Coach Pace. From Mercer University: Dr. Giddens, Dr. Otto, Dr. McManus, Mrs. Hennesy, Dr. Glover, Dr. Evans, Dr. Leitch, and Dr. Youman. From Southern Seminary: Dr. Kelley, Dr. Watts, Dr. Culpepper, Dr. Owens, Dr. Hinson, Dr. Leonard, and Dr. Moody. Most of the folks on that list have moved on in one way or another, be it to the next life, to the next job, or to retirement. They all helped mold and make me. I am grateful.

9. I am thankful to my home church, the Midway Baptist Church in Lamar County, Georgia. They taught me to love the Lord and that I was loved by the Lord. A greater gift can hardly be given. I probably wouldn't know five people if I walked in their sanctuary today, but way back when the folks there taught me a lot. It was also right entertaining sometimes.

10. I am thankful for Campbell's tomato soup. Now, I'd much rather have a bowl of homemade vegetable soup or of Brunswick Stew (for my non-Southern readers, I'll write an article explaining that delightful treat sometime), but, when it's cold outside, it's good to be able to throw together a nice lunch of tomato soup with a toasted pimento cheese sandwich. And I can fix it myself!

11. I am thankful for free and faithful Baptists. It's an overused term, I know, but it's still meaningful. In a day when being Baptist has come for too many to mean rigidity, conformity, and fundamentalism, I am grateful for those who still bear witness to a Christian faith that shows itself in compassion, liberty, and fervency--in short, that comes from the heart and that changes the life.

12. I am thankful for folks in other faith traditions who remind me that, thank God, it's not all up to us Baptists.

12. I am thankful for the basic food groups: fried catfish, steamed oysters, Buffalo wings, barbecued chicken, fried chicken, steak, barbecued pork, barbecued ribs, chocolate ice cream, German chocolate cake, pecan pie, coconut cake, sweet tea, and coffee.

13. I am thankful for anti-perspirant, whether it's worn by me or by others.

14. I am thankful for people who tell me that I'm great and for those who tell me the truth.

15. I am thankful for the family from which I came, especially for my father and mother, the late Champ and Sara Ruffin. They taught me to love the Lord, to love the church, to be kind and gracious, and to live in faith. I hope that I carry their best traits in me.

16. I am thankful for people who prepare things and fix things and clean up things; they keep the world running.

17. I am thankful for politicians who just tell the truth and who try to do what's best for the country or state or city and who do what's right regardless of the political implications for them. I wish I could think of one.

18. I am thankful for National Public Radio. They offer the most in-depth coverage of the stories that really matter that you will find anywhere. They come as close to being non-partisan as you're going to find in the media. They help pass the time when I'm on the road. Their on-air personalities aren't clowns.

19. I am thankful for neckties. When I stop and think about it, I really think that they're a total waste. I mean, why do men wear a long piece of cloth that serves no purpose around their necks? Still, I think they look nice and I like to wear them. I guess I'll never be an emergent church pastor.

20. I am thankful for this blog and for the people who read it. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Things Change

The name Wayne Dehoney is very important to me although he wouldn’t have known me from Adam. Dr. Dehoney, who was the long-time pastor of the Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, died on November 15, just a few days after his wife passed away. He served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and he also served on the Executive Committees of the Tennessee and Kentucky Baptist Conventions. He was very involved in the work of the Baptist World Alliance. His name will live on through Dehoney Travel, which he co-founded and which organizes trips to the Holy Land and to many other places.

But none of that explains why Wayne Dehoney is important to me. He is important to me because his name is on one of the two diplomas that I received from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees when I received my M.Div. in 1982. So, whenever I glance at the diplomas on my wall, my eye often falls on his name.

I don’t reckon that Dr. Dehoney would have been deemed qualified to serve as a trustee in these new days. But he was one back when Southern was a very important institution to me.

Things sure have changed.

I was called to preach when I was in high school. My father, who was a fine man, a deacon and Sunday School teacher in a rural Baptist church, and a textile mill worker, told me, “Son, I can’t give you much advice. But I think that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.”

So I did. I attended and graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, which was the flagship institution of the Georgia Baptist Convention. I then attended and earned two degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1859 as the first seminary for Southern Baptist ministers. I not only attended Baptist schools, as my father had advised, I attended two of the most historic, most respected, and, if I do say so myself, most prestigious Baptist schools in the land. I am grateful for the education that I received at those institutions.

But Southern fell in the onslaught that was the fundamentalist takeover/conservative resurgence of the late 20th century. I am sure that the present students at Southern appreciate it for what it is now and that is as it should be; why else would they be going to school there? I am not saying that Southern is not a good school anymore. To the contrary, I am certain that one can receive a solid theological education there. Nonetheless, I reject the premise that Southern needed to be completely changed or radically reformed. I received an education there that was biblically sound, academically rigorous, and thoroughly Baptist.

Southern is a different kind of Baptist school now than it was when I was there. Things have changed.

Mercer University is no longer affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. A few years ago, leaders in the GBC used the existence of a student organization that dealt with gay issues as an excuse to do what they had long wanted to do: rid themselves of the “Mercer problem.” The problem with Mercer was that it had a charter that insured that the Board of Trustees would never be directly selected by the convention. Therefore, the GBC would never be able to get control of Mercer as they could their other institutions.

In a way, I don’t blame the GBC for initiating the “divorce” with Mercer. The Baptist vision that is nurtured at Mercer is far different than the one nurtured by the GBC. Mercer was in a position to resist the conformity that is so valued in organized Southern Baptist life now and GBC leadership could not abide that. Neither, if you go by the vote taken at the GBC session in which the Mercer matter was dealt with, could rank-and-file Georgia Baptists, although the moderates who would have supported Mercer quit going to those meetings long ago. I was there and I spoke against the motion; I found out what it is like to be a “voice crying in the wilderness.”

I love Mercer. Mercer did much more for me in forming my Christian identity, in nurturing my sense of call, and in coming to grips with what it meant to be a Baptist than Southern did. Does Mercer have its faults? Indeed. But Georgia Baptists impoverished themselves by ending the historic and very fruitful relationship they had with a major university. Now Mercer, under the leadership of President Bill Underwood, is doing everything it can to become a national Baptist university. President Underwood is being very intentional about preserving and developing Mercer’s Baptist identity. Can that be done with no official connection to a sponsoring Baptist body? I think so. I hope so. But it will be hard.

I just find it all so ironic. My good father encouraged me to attend Baptist schools. I not only attended Baptist schools—I attended two of the best Baptist schools. They are still Baptist schools but they are different kinds of Baptist schools than they used to be. One I still feel a strong connection to while the other I feel no connection to at all except in a historical sense.

Yep, things sure do change.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Little Big Words: Faith

(A communion meditation based on Galatians 3:23-29)

We’re talking about some of the little big words that are important in our life with Christ. Last week we talked about grace. Next week we’ll talk about love. Today we turn our attention to faith.

The kind of faith about which the New Testament usually speaks is really trust. What we call “saving faith” is really “saving trust.” There is a differentiation here that is crucial because a synonym for “faith” is “belief” and these days to “believe” usually means to accept certain things as facts. “I believe in this doctrine,” we say, or “I believe in that doctrine.” “I believe this politician’s words” or “I believe in that politician’s words.” Such belief is acquiescence to a particular way of thinking or talking.

Saving faith is not belief in a certain doctrine or a certain theory or a certain system. Saving faith is belief in a person named Jesus Christ. Such saving faith is much more than belief that Jesus Christ existed or that he is the Son of God or that he is the Messiah. Saving faith is having a trust in Jesus Christ in which you throw your entire life at his feet knowing that only in him can you find life.

I tried to think of some parallels to such trust, of some situations in life in which we give ourselves up to someone else because we have no choice. In a way, it happens in our relationship with a doctor. I believe that my doctor is a doctor. He has the diplomas on the wall, the antiseptic office, and all the instruments that a doctor should have. But my belief that he is a doctor does not help me at all. When I am sick, though, I believe in my doctor in the sense that I trust him to know what to do to help me get better. In a limited way, then, I entrust my life to him because I can do no other. Similarly, I know that my accountant is a CPA. He has all the credentials. But just believing that he is a CPA does me no good. Once a year, though, I take my piles of papers and receipts and records to him and I say, “Please save me!” I put my faith in him in the sense that I trust him to help me in my helplessness. Again, marriage works this way. I believe and I know that my wife is a woman and that she is a good woman. But she helps me (and I her) because of our relationship. I go to her in marriage and say “Here I am with all my good and bad, with all my strengths and weaknesses, and I trust you to help me.”

So you see there are some situations in our lives in which we throw ourselves on the mercy of others because we really have no choice and because we know that, in a limited way, they can “save” us.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is that kind of trust, only now the stakes are much higher because we are talking about being saved from hopelessness and lostness; we are taking about being given life and hope and grace and love.

There is something very radical about such trust. Earlier in this chapter Paul had said, “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham” (Galatians 3:6-7). In the story in Genesis, the statement “he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) comes after God had told Abraham that he, though at that time childless, would have many descendants. Abraham’s belief was a radical trust, a radical leap of faith. He trusted in God’s destiny for his life even though he had no evidence at that moment on which to base his trust.

There’s something—a lot, in fact—to be said for letting go of your past, of your fears, of your own hopes, of your plans, of what you think you know and just stepping out on faith. It’s really the only way to reach the ultimate goal. You may recall that famous sequence in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy has to face a series of challenges to get to the place where the cup of Christ could be found. After he made it through the first two challenges he came to an opening that led to what looked like a bottomless chasm. The opening on the mountain face opposite him was much too far away to jump. There was nothing before him but air. Going by the clues in his father’s notebook, he realized that he had to take a leap of faith. He stepped out into the nothingness—and found solid footing beneath him. Only in so doing did he reach his goal.

Trust is the key. God’s gift of faith enables us to step out and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. When we do that, because he is the Son of God and the Messiah, we find life and love and hope and joy and grace—we find salvation.

As we gather around the Lord’s Table today we celebrate the little big word “faith”—and remember that in the leap of trust we find salvation.

To where does such faith lead us? It leads us to family. “In Christ Jesus,” Paul said, “you are all children of God through faith” (v. 26). Through our trust in Christ we become part of the family of God; we belong to him. We all need to belong; there is no greater belonging than to belong to the family of God. When we are adopted into his family, we receive his Spirit that constantly reminds us that we belong to him (4:6). Our identity becomes caught up in the fact that we are God’s children.

There is something special about family. Now, every family is a mixed blessing and some family situations are downright bad; we all know such truths. Still, for most people, home and family have a very powerful draw, as becomes so obvious this time of year. Why is that? Among other reasons, it is because home is where we belong and family is who loves and accepts us no matter what. We find much of our identity in family; we often look like, talk like, and sometimes even think like our family members.

Saving faith leads to a similar circumstance. Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v. 27). In the waters of baptism we have put on Christ; we have become enveloped in him. Thus we now find our identity in him and we find our true nature in him. We are members of God’s family and we are clothed in Christ. We belong! That identity also affects us for the better. We are to be always growing in Christ and daily reclaiming more and more of our true nature in him. It all happens because of faith.

As we gather around the Lord’s table today we celebrate the little big word “faith”—and remember that in faith we become members of God’s family and we become clothed in Jesus Christ.

Such faith is available to all and all who take the leap of faith are equal members of the family. All of us who have faith in Jesus Christ are baptized into him and have clothed ourselves with him. Therefore, Paul said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). We are one. We have all been saved by the same Jesus Christ in whom we have all had faith. Were it not for faith in Christ none of us would be a part of this family of faith, but because of faith in Christ we are all members of it.

I don’t know why it is so hard for us to accept the fact that, in Christ, we are all equal. We are all sinners saved by grace through faith. We are not classified any longer by our gender or our social standing or our ethnicity; we are all under the heading of “Christ Jesus.” In him we find life. In him we find meaning. In him we find community. In him we find each other.

As we gather around the Lord’s table today we celebrate the little big word “faith”—and remember that in faith we are one in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Georgia 24, Kentucky 13

It started out well, with Asher Allen nearly returning the opening kickoff for touchdown. It then turned bad, with the Dawgs losing a fumble in the red zone. Soon, they had suffered two pass interceptions and were down 10-0 late in the second quarter. But Georgia scored a touchdown late in the half to cut the lead to 10-7.

The game-changing play occurred in the third quarter when Kelin Johnson blocked a Wildcat punt. Before you could say "Herschel" the Dawgs were up 21-10 and then held on for a 24-13 victory over a very good Kentucky team (remember, only the Wildcats have defeated #1 LSU this year).

The running game carried the offense this time. Knowshon Moreno rushed for over 100 yards for the fifth straight game; the last Georgia running back to do that was Herschel Walker. Thomas Brown also had a solid game. Quarterback Matthew Stafford made some key throws but had a sub-par day, throwing for only 99 yards and no touchdowns.

The real story was the defense. To hold the high-powered UK offense, led by outstanding senior quarterback Andre Woodson, to only thirteen points was a great accomplishment. Woodson did throw for 268 yards, but the Cats rushed the ball 29 times for 29 yards. That's right--they averaged one yard per carry!

Next week's game is against Georgia Tech. The Dawgs have won this one six straight times and will be favored in this one. It's always a war, of course.

This weeks' amazing score: Louisiana-Monroe 21, Alabama 14.

This weeks' frustrating score: Tennessee 25, Vanderbilt 24. Had Vandy won, Georgia would be in the SEC title game. That could still happen if UK beats UT in Lexington next Saturday.

Most likely scenario: UT beats UK and then loses to LSU in the SEC Championship game. That puts LSU in the BCS championship game and probably lands UGA in the Sugar Bowl, provided that the Dawgs beat the Ramblin' Wreck. That would be pretty good for a team that looked dead a few weeks ago after being thrashed by the Vols.

Friday, November 16, 2007

This Week in Baseball

There are two big news stories in major league baseball this week.

First, newly crowned home run king Barry Bonds was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Second, the New York Yankees and Alex Rodriguez have reportedly agreed on the outline of a contract that will pay him $275 million over 10 years.

The glory has departed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The New Baptist Covenant: Positive Promise and Potential Problems

The New Baptist Covenant (NBC), as I understand it, is an effort to bring about increased unity among Baptists who desire to rally behind the Great Commission in all of its implications for ministry, be they spiritual, physical, emotional, or social. This effort grew out of a meeting held at the Carter Center in Atlanta on April 10, 2006 which was attended by the leaders of several Baptist groups and institutions, including the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), several predominantly African-American bodies, Mercer University, and Baylor University, among others.

The participants in that meeting decided to plan a convocation in which historic Baptist principles would be celebrated and opportunities for further partnerships could be explored. That meeting will take place in Atlanta January 30-February 1, 2008. The groups involved in that meeting are for the most part members of the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF) which is a regional body relating to the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of the Communications Committee for the NBC, although honesty compels me to report that I have been asked to do nothing and thus far have fulfilled my responsibilities successfully!

I have previously written hopefully and positively about the upcoming meeting. I remain hopeful and positive for the following reasons.

First, the Baptist world is a big world filled with varied constituents and we need to get to know each other better so that we can work together in common cause. I am an admitted “big tent” Baptist who believes that we can celebrate what unites us doctrinally, accept what divides us with love and grace, and find our meaning and purpose in Christ’s great call to missions and ministry.

Second, given all the negative publicity generated by so many in Christian and Baptist leadership, it will be good if we can offer a gracious, gentle, kind, proactive, and positive witness to our nation and to the world. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. I shudder to think what they think they know when they see our family squabbles and divisions.

Third, many special interest sessions will be offered on subjects such as prophetic preaching, engaging the criminal justice system, breaking the cycles of poverty, finding common ground with other faiths, youth at a crossroads, evangelism, reaching out to the sick, peacemaking, welcoming a stranger, faith and public policy, spirituality, sexual exploitation, race as a continuing challenge, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, religious liberty and separation of church and state, and responding to natural disasters. You could skip the plenary sessions and just attend all the special interest sessions you can fit in and I dare say it would be worth the trip. The facilitators of those sessions come from across the Baptist spectrum in terms of race, gender, and region.

Fourth, in an era when the largest Baptist body in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention, seems intent on isolating itself more and more from the larger Baptist family, anything we can do that will engender stronger intra-Baptist “ecumenical” relations is a good thing. I have always said and I anticipate that I will always say that the SBC’s decision to withdraw from the BWA was a mistake and will always be a mistake. The NBC may create a context within which the BWA can further grow and prosper. I hope so.

Fifth, the NBC Celebration will offer an opportunity for Baptists to demonstrate how diverse we are in ethnicity, gender, region, and politics. I dare say that there has never been a national Baptist gathering that will feature such diversity both on the platform and in the audience. Think about it: red and yellow, black and white not only being precious in God’s sight but also spending precious time together in worship and in discipleship. It may just be a foretaste of glory divine, except that we would need much more representation from the Church at large for that to be the case. Maybe we can work on that in the future.

That is a partial list of some of the reasons that I have seen and continue to see much promise for positive developments to emerge from this gathering of Baptists from all over the United States and Canada. It is for those reasons that I continue to support and to look forward to attending the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant.

But I do see some potential problems as well. Again, I express these thoughts as someone who is supportive of the Celebration and who will, God willing, be present for every minute of it.

The main potential problem that I see has to do with politics.

Now, let’s tell the truth: many Baptists have been very troubled by the perception that has developed since the Reagan years that GOP stands not only for the “Grand Old Party” but also for “God’s Only Party.” That is, the Christian evangelical movement in general and the SBC’s leadership in particular have been very closely aligned with the Republican Party. I am among those who have been very uncomfortable with that alignment. There are many evangelical Christians who really cannot fathom how a Christian could possibly vote for a Democratic candidate. Such thinking is of course narrow-minded. A couple of years ago I said in a sermon that if our church was not big enough for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens then it was not big enough. I believe that about the Baptist movement in general.

During the years that many evangelicals and the GOP have been in bed together, I have said that such a situation was wrong and that if Baptist churches and leaders allied themselves with the Democrats that would be just as wrong. Therefore, I want to say that I fear that the NBC runs the risk of appearing to be too Democratic in its orientation.

As is well known, former President Jimmy Carter is one of the organizers and spokespersons for the NBC. I think that is a good thing. I know that I am naïve, but I cannot for the life of me understand why so many Baptist people are so negative in their attitude toward President Carter. Frankly, I myself have felt that he has been too outspoken in his criticisms of the present administration, mainly because such criticisms seem to be a breech of the etiquette expected of a former President, but those criticisms have just occurred in the past few years and many folks have despised—and I don’t think that’s too strong a word—him for a lot longer than that.

Why? Is it because he so publicly announced a few years ago that he was no longer a Southern Baptist? Is it because they don’t like some of the things that he did or didn’t do while he was President? I really don’t understand. I can name many things that every former President did that I liked and that I did not like. I was a teenager during the Watergate years and I came to have a bitter distaste for President Nixon, but I certainly recognize that he accomplished many good things while he was in office.

Here’s the thing about Carter, though: you would have to be totally unreasonable to deny that the man’s heart is a Christian heart and that his ecclesiological values are Baptist to the core. As has been said many times by folks much wiser than I, he is the finest ex-President we have ever had. While most ex-Presidents tend to sit on boards, play golf, and make small speeches for big money, President Carter has, through the Carter Center, tried to broker peace where there is war, insure free and fair elections around the world, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and address significant health issues in the under-developed world. Twenty years ago I asked someone who worked in close proximity on a daily basis with President Carter if he was as Christian a man as he seemed. My friend thought for a moment and replied, “You know, I don’t agree with a lot of his politics, but yeah, his faith and the way he lives it out are completely sincere.” I have also heard President Carter speak eloquently about the same Baptist principles that are dear to the hearts of all Baptists who have a good perspective on our history and heritage.

In short, it makes perfect sense for President Carter to play a leading role in the NBC. As far as I am concerned, the fact that he is a Democratic politician is incidental. Besides, having him involved gives the whole thing publicity, prestige, and press that it never would have gotten without the involvement of him or someone like him—and I would submit that he is the only one really suited for the role. Perhaps he came to the kingdom for such a time as this.

I can’t say the same for former President Clinton, though. Now, President Clinton is a Baptist; therefore, he has every right to be involved in this or any other Baptist event in which he chooses to participate. I also believe that, while it is not our role to forgive him, we of his family of faith should not unreasonably hold his moral failings against him. (As an aside, I would note the willingness of some Baptist and other Christian leaders to look the other way when it comes to the moral failings of politicians with whose policies they agree.) Still, a case can be made that the moral baggage that Clinton brings with him makes him a bad choice to represent this event.

To be fair, Clinton has described himself as a “cheerleader” for the event. But the promotional materials say that he is scheduled as a plenary speaker along with President Carter. I think that is a mistake. Why? Because his wife is running for President. While I do not believe (and again, I may be naïve) that, as some have claimed, the NBC Celebration was set up with the intention of having an impact on the 2008 presidential election process, it is nonetheless a fact that the Celebration will take place just days before the primary season begins in earnest. I hope and pray that President Clinton’s address will not provide fodder for those who are claiming that the Celebration is designed to help Democratic candidates. Again, I do not think that he should speak at all but if he is going to I hope he will be very, very, very careful in his choice of words. The cause of Christ is what matters here, not the cause of Hillary. From my perspective, if Sen. Hillary Clinton, faithful Methodist that she is notwithstanding, speaks, which so far as I know has not even been suggested, that will be a huge mistake.

The moderate/progressive Baptist movement will not be well served by footage being shown on FOX News or CNN or MSNBC of thousands of Baptists standing and applauding a speech by President Clinton that is a campaign speech for Sen. Clinton. Having said that, though, let’s be fair: were certain conservative Republican candidates, even those who are not Baptists (which covers them all except for Governor Mike Huckabee), to appear before an SBC meeting, certain sound bites from them would elicit thunderous applause and cheers. But that doesn’t make it right if it happens at the NBC Celebration. I am not much in favor of standing and cheering politicians—or preachers, for that matter, so I anticipate keeping my seat. I would advise others to do the same. Polite applause will suffice.

I would feel a little differently about President Clinton speaking had Governor Mike Huckabee not withdrawn from the event. He originally accepted but then withdrew, citing his concern about some remarks that President Carter had made about President George W. Bush’s policies. Gov. Huckabee, himself a Baptist, made a huge mistake in withdrawing. I believe he hurt himself. He had an opportunity to address a multi-racial and multi-regional gathering of people who belong to his own faith tradition. He had an opportunity to make his case for conservative social and family values, which he does very well, to a diverse audience that will come from all over the country. I think that a presidential candidate should be willing to go anywhere and to address anybody. I furthermore think that many of us are looking for a candidate who will show us that he or she has the courage, the willingness and the humility to try to bring the various constituencies of our nation together to work hand-in-hand to deal with the very serious issues facing our nation. What does it say that he will not take advantage of this opportunity to speak face-to-face to a diverse audience that is, I must say again, made up of people from his own faith tradition?

I also believe that Gov. Huckabee hurt the NBC Celebration by backing out of his initial commitment. One of my hopes for this event from the beginning has been that it will show that it is possible for a group of Christians—Baptists in this case—to come together with a willingness to hear from all perspectives and to do so politely and even gladly. I continue to hope that we will show the world how big-hearted and how mature and how noble and how respectful we can be when it comes to hearing and valuing varying perspectives. Gov. Huckabee by his withdrawal lessened the chances of our showing the world that. Why? Think of the press coverage that would have been given to an event in which Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee both spoke and both were received warmly. Why, they might have been treated as nicely as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at the 2006 SBC meeting. She’s a good Presbyterian, by the way. Anyway, the secular press and many non-Christian viewers would have been amazed. Huckabee cost us that and I think he did wrong. I really wish that he would reconsider.

I am grateful that Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley have thus far stuck to their commitments to speak. They provide some healthy balance. It is so vital that, insofar as politicians are allowed to speak at all, that the event be as non-partisan as possible.

I recognize how difficult that really is. After all, it is likely that many of the broader ethical concerns—the environment, social and health issues in developing countries, civil rights, and concern for the poor, for example—in which many of those attending the event are interested are articulated by Democrats better than by Republicans. Still, it is also likely that Republicans voice the concerns of many Baptists on many issues more than do Democrats. Here’s my position: we need for our speakers to address the issues of our time from a biblical and Christian perspective. If that makes somebody say the kinds of things that Republicans like to hear, fine. If it causes someone to say the kinds of things that Democrats like to hear, fine. What I would like to hear is a Democrat sound like a Republican on an issue or a Republican sound like a Democrat, if that is where their Christian convictions lead them. Now that would be news!

The Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is important. How important it turns out to be in the long run will depend on how careful and intentional we are about proclaiming Christ, ministering to a hurting world in light of the implications of the good news for all areas of life, magnifying our unity in Christ, refusing to get bogged down in theological minutiae, and, as I have stressed in this article, refusing to swing too far the other direction in our zeal to show that Baptists are not all radical right-wingers.

I don’t mind being associated with radicals. But I want to be associated with radical followers of Christ, radical proclaimers of the Gospel, radical healers of hurt, radical meters of need, and radical adherents to the historic principles that have long made Baptists Baptists.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Little Big Words: Grace

(A sermon based on John 1:1-18)

A word does not have to be a big word to make a big difference. Take “Yes” and “No,” for instance. They are both little words. But in response to a question like “Will you marry me?” or “Do I get the job?” or “Did I pass the test?” or “Do I have cancer?” they are little words that make a big difference. They are “little big words.”

Over these next three Sundays I want us to think about some of the little big words of our life in Christ: grace, faith, and love. We begin with grace.

I know what it is like to be driven. Some of you will have experienced that dynamic in your life, too. When I was in elementary school I was not blessed with attractiveness, charm, or talent. But I discovered early on that I was good at school work. I did not have to work particularly hard to get good grades. Frankly, it was a gift. I was gifted with a love for reading and a love for learning. Exercising the gift was no problem. So, I made good grades. It felt good to be good at something.

Things changed, though, when doing well at what I was good at doing became too important to me. Before long, my self-esteem got all tied up in how good my grades were. If I made good grades, I was a good person; if I made bad grades, I was a bad person. What had been joy because it was a gift became a burden because it turned into an effort. What had been grace became works.

Really, though, the grace existed long before I found that I could make good grades. My good parents loved and accepted and embraced me as soon as I came into this old world. At that point they could not know if I would be gorgeous or plain, dull or interesting, a good student or a bad one, a jock or a nerd, sick or well, or struggling or successful. But they loved me. Why? For two reasons. First, I was there. Second, I was theirs. I existed as a human being and I existed as their child. So they loved me. They would always be there for me. They would always embrace me. That is grace—the love that comes prior to and regardless of any action that might seem to earn that love.

Henri Nouwen told of attending a bar mitzvah. After the thirteen-year-old boy had read the scripture and delivered a short blessing, he was blessed by his rabbi and his parents. Nouwen said that he could still hear the words of the father: “Son, whatever will happen to you in your life, whether you will have success or not, become important or not, will be healthy or not, always remember how much your mother and I love you.” Nouwen said that he thought, “What a grace such a blessing is” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 55-56].

I never had a bar mitzvah but I had the grace of such a blessing. How grateful I am.

It is not saying too much to say that Jesus himself knew such grace from his Father. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Isn’t it interesting that Jesus heard these words of blessing from his Father before he ever preached a sermon, before he ever offered a parable, before he withstood the temptation of Satan, before he performed a miracle, before he healed a sick person, and even before he was crucified? How affirming it must have been for Jesus, as he was about to embark on his mission of service and sacrifice, to receive the love and affirmation of God the Father! The Father was pleased with him before he did anything. The Father was pleased with Jesus because Jesus was his Son.

The grace shown by my parents is but a magnificent reflection of the grace shown to me and to you by our God in the saving act that he carried out in his Son Jesus Christ. Listen again:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(John 1:1-4, 14, 16-18)

The pre-existent Word of God, who has always been and without whom nothing was made that was made, became flesh and dwelled among human beings right here on this earth where we work, play, eat, drink, love, hurt, and live. It is so marvelous as to be almost unspeakable. Yet the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth so that he could be seen and felt and heard and talked about. The Word became flesh so that we could see in him who God is and what God is like. Jesus was full of that of which God is full—grace and truth. Jesus fully revealed the grace and truth of God.

Now, it is true that it is “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is true that not everyone will receive him and so not everyone will be saved. But it is also true that God loves everybody and that God has shown and continues to show his grace to everyone. Jesus came into this world so that everyone might know about the grace of God. By his very coming he showed that God loves everybody without exception.

So I want every person here today to hear this clearly and to know it absolutely: God showed his love for you by sending Jesus into this world; that love was made most obvious in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He loves you just because you exist. He loves you because he made you. He loves you because you are precious in his sight. He will receive and accept you just as you are. Salvation is not something that you have to earn; it is the free gift of God. He loves you. He affirms you. He will save you.

Christ has all the grace that we need and from him we receive all the grace that we need. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16). About the phrase “grace upon grace” A. T. Robertson said, “Here the picture is ‘grace’ taking the place of ‘grace’ like the manna fresh each morning, new grace for the new day and the new service” [A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V (Nashville: Broadman, 1932), p. 16]. Because you lose a good bit of moisture during a night’s sleep, it is good to know that you can have some water in the morning to replenish your body’s moisture. It is good to know that each day we can have our supply of grace replenished. From Christ we receive abundant grace and endless grace.

When we feel like we’ve had all that we can take, Christ gives more grace.

When we’ve been hurt and wrong and think that we just can’t forgive, Christ gives more grace.

When we can’t take another step, Christ gives more grace.

When we get down on ourselves and start thinking that we are worthless, Christ gives more grace.

When we start wondering if we are worth anybody’s love, Christ gives more grace.

Brennan Manning tells this story.

Recently I directed a three-day silent retreat for six women in Virginia Beach. As the retreat opened, I met briefly with each woman and asked them to write on a sheet of paper the one grace that they would most like to receive from the Lord. A married woman from North Carolina, about forty-five years old, with an impressive track record of prayer and service to others, told me she wanted more than anything to actually experience just one time the love of God. I assured her that I would join her in that prayer.

The following morning this woman (whom I’ll call Winky) arose before dawn and went for a walk on the beach which was less than fifty yards from our house. Walking along the seashore barefoot, with the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up against her feet and ankles, she noticed some one hundred yards away a teenage boy and a woman some fifteen yards behind walking in her direction. In less than a minute the boy had passed by to her left but the woman made an abrupt ninety-degree turn, walked straight toward Winky, embraced her deeply, kissed her on the cheek, whispered “I love you” and continued on her way. Winky had never seen the woman before. Winky wandered along the beach for another hour before returning to the house. She knocked on my door. When I opened it, she was smiling. “Our prayer was answered,” she said simply. [Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), pp. 93-94].

Every morning we can meet God afresh and hear him say “I love you.” What more do we need?

Every day Christ tells us anew that we are loved by God, that we are accepted by God, that we are saved by God, and that we are embraced by God. He takes our brokenness, our frailty, our failures, our successes, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our incompleteness and every day does a little more with us.

This is truly amazing grace!

Know today that God loves you. Know that God accepts you. Know that Christ died on the cross for you without your having to prove that you were worthy of that sacrifice. Know that he is waiting to save you. Know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Know this little big word. Know God’s grace!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Georgia 45, Auburn 20 (And We Were There!)

Earlier this week, word came that the University of Georgia Bulldog seniors wanted their fans to come decked out in black for Saturday’s game against the Auburn Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen. Immediately speculation began as to whether or not the team would wear black jerseys. Coach Mark Richt played it coy all week, never saying that the team would or would not wear black and remarking that it would be nearly impossible to acquire such jerseys on such short notice.

So, as we fans arrived for the game, 99% of us decked out in black (yep, Debra and I joined the throng), we were all wondering if the Dawgs would be wearing black. They were wearing red in warm-ups but we all knew that they could change in the locker room just before they came out for the game. Then, the team captains came out for the coin toss wearing red jerseys. But, when the rest of the team came out of the tunnel, they were wearing black. Following the coin toss, the captains came over to the sideline where they removed their red jerseys to reveal the black ones they were wearing underneath. The place went crazy.

On the Georgia post-game radio show, Coach Richt revealed that the jerseys were actually ordered last summer and, if I understood him correctly, that his plan all along was to have the team wear them in the Auburn game. No matter. The ploy clearly helped to ratchet the emotions up for the game.

But, they still had to play the game and the Bulldogs played it well.

Georgia piled up 417 yards in total offense to 216 for Auburn. The Dawgs’ running game worked very well. Knowshon Moreno rushed 22 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Thomas Brown rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown. It was good to see the oft-injured Brown, who had missed the last few games with a broken collarbone, have a big game. It will be good to have both of these excellent backs playing for the rest of the season, barring injury to either.

Matthew Stafford was effective, completing 11 of 19 passes for 237 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Since the Florida game Georgia has really gotten the downfield passing game going and that has opened up the running game. Senior Sean Bailey was the leading receiver, catching four passes for 96 yards and one touchdown.

The defense played well, too. They held Auburn to just over 200 yards in offense and intercepted Brandon Cox four times.

This game was great fun and it was a privilege to be there. It’s a great series. Georgia and Auburn have now played each other 111 times in this oldest rivalry in the South that dates back to 1892. Auburn leads the series 53-50-8. Over those 111 games Georgia has now outscored Auburn 1730-1685. You might say that it’s been close.

What now? Well, Georgia can win the SEC East if they beat Kentucky next week in Athens and if Tennessee loses one of its two remaining SEC games against Kentucky or Vanderbilt. Even if UT does not lose again, Georgia is still looking at a New Year’s Day bowl game if they beat UK and Georgia Tech. Both will be tough games and there is reason to be concerned following a three-game stretch in which UGA has defeated Florida and Auburn in very emotional games and Troy in a tough homecoming contest.

My excellent scores of the week come from the world of NCAA basketball, to which I admittedly usually pay little attention. But, let’s give the Atlantic Sun Conference some applause because of these two scores: Gardner-Webb 84, Kentucky 68 and Mercer (my alma mater) 96, University of Southern California 81. Go Baptists! Amazing.

Friday, November 9, 2007

I'd Gladly Pay You Tuesday...

This evening Debra and I plan to go across the Savannah River into North Augusta, SC to have a hamburger at Gary's Hamburgers. In an annual local poll, the hamburger at Gary's is voted the best in the area. We've lived in Augusta for almost five years and haven't tried it yet, so it's about time.

In my humble opinion, Gary's hamburger will have to be spectacular if it is going to beat the one at the Village Deli. They have several specialty burgers but I always order the Basic Burger, medium, with the wedge fries (they have lemon pepper seasoning on them--my more liberal friends like to get the beer-battered fries). That's the best-tasting restaurant hamburger I've ever had. I have to put it that way because the hamburgers that I grill at home are the best ones I get anywhere.

I have some great memories of hamburgers.

When I was a boy growing up in Barnesville, Georgia, the only fast-food chain in town was the Dairy Queen. They had a good hamburger. But the real treat for me came when my parents took me to see Mr. Lifsey who operated a burger stand called the Ron-Sue (I don't know why it was called that) on the corner where, unless things have changed since the last time I was there, the Big Chic is now located. I would sit at the counter and order "a hamburger with nothing but ketchup and a bun without those seeds on it." Mr. Lifsey always laughed at my order but always prepared my burger to my specifications.

About that same time my Aunt Dot and Uncle Sandy introduced me to the joys of a scrambled hamburger. They would just brown the ground beef and put it on a bun. On the rare occasions that we prepare that dish at home, I'll put mustard and ketchup and dill pickles on it. Don't ask me how or why, but it tastes different than a "normal" hamburger. If you toss a can of Manwich Sandwich sauce (in this day and age, you'd think they'd change the name to Personwich Sandwich) in with the ground beef, then you really have a meal. For some reason, Manwich Sandwich requires hand-cut french fries as the side dish.

During my childhood, Macon, being some 35 miles away, seemed to me to be an exotic place. When we went there a regular stop was the Shoney's restaurant on Riverside Drive. They had curb service. You pulled up to a speaker, ordered your food, and, when the waitress brought it out to you, you'd eat it in your car. I always ordered a Big Boy hamburger and lemonade. The Big Boy, which I understand is still available at one chain that operates in areas of the country in which I don't live and which I don't visit, was a double-decker hamburger with lettuce, pickles, and a special sauce that I think was Thousand Island dressing. This much I know: it would make you throw rocks at a Big Mac.

Hardees has had some good-tasting burgers at times. The Big Twin comes to mind.

One of the reasons that I chose not to attend Southwestern Seminary was that on my visit there, when I went into the local Dairy Queen, they had never heard of a Mr. Misty and they sold tacos. I couldn't handle the culture shock. I experienced a little bit of culture shock when we moved to Louisville to attend Southern Seminary. There was a hamburger place right across the railroad tracks from Seminary Village (the Gospel Ghetto), where we lived during our first two years in Louisville. One day I scraped some coins together and treated myself to a hamburger there. I placed my order and the nice lady asked, "Would you like that dressed?" I was at a loss. Was she talking about me or the hamburger? If me, the other option was shocking. Had she asked, "Would you like it all the way?" I would have understood. Of course, now that I think about that....

It was in Louisville that I had my first experience with a Fuddruckers-like establishment--you know, a place where you order your burger and then visit a 2,000 item condiment bar containing everything from onions to coconut. It was called W. W. Cousins. I think they're still there. The best hamburger I ate in Louisville, though, was at a small grocery store on Frankfort Avenue in the Clifton part of town that had a grill in the back. I don't remember the name of the store but the burger was excellent.

While I was in seminary I served as pastor of the Beech Grove Baptist Church in Owenton, Kentucky. The church members there told us that the best hamburger in town was at the Pool Hall. They told us that with a look that said, "Now, ordinarily, we don't approve of our pastor going to the pool hall but, if you're going for the hamburger, we'll look the other way." Had I tried to start a Bible study there, though, I'd probably have been looked on with the same suspicions as those emergent church folks who hold one in a bar.

As you can see, I like hamburgers.

We'll see if Gary's can stack up to some of my past favorites.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #24

Jesus and John the Baptist

Luke 7:18-35

This story about Jesus and John the Baptist comes after the accounts of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant and Jesus raising the widow’s son at Nain and before the account of Jesus forgiving a sinful woman. So when we read in v. 18 that “the disciples of John reported all these things to him” the immediate reference would be to the two preceding stories. Something in what was reported to John prompted him to send two of his disciples to question Jesus. In Israel the testimony of two witnesses was required for proper verification in a legal proceeding. The question that they asked was “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (vv. 19-20).

Why did John ask this question?

Some have suggested that John’s time in prison had caused him to become discouraged and his question would then reflect his concern that the kingdom was in fact not being inaugurated. There is no evidence of this in the text.

Let’s look carefully at what the text does say. First, we see that John’s disciples reported Jesus’ acts of compassion to their teacher. Second, we see John pose his question about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Third, we see Jesus first answer the question by giving a living illustration: he healed folks. Fourth, we see Jesus give a verbal answer: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (vv. 22-23).

This leads us to the conclusion that what lay behind John’s question was the question of whether or not these were the kinds of things that the Messiah would do. Fred Craddock puts it well.

The issue is not whether or not one believes that Jesus really is doing these things; the issue is, Are these the things a Messiah does? It is not one’s view of Jesus that may need adjustment but rather one’s view of a Messiah…. And now most pointedly the question arises, Can someone who gives time and attention to the dead, the very poor, the outcast, the acknowledged violator of the law, and the diseased by God’s Messiah? John has to decide in the same way all of us decide, on the basis of witnesses reporting what they have seen and heard. (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary, p. 100).

That seems to be John’s issue. Perhaps he had to do some adjusting of his expectations of what the Messiah was to do. Most Jewish folks would have expected a political, militaristic, triumphalistic Messiah. John expected a Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire and who would bring about God’s judgment. Did Jesus’ ministry of compassion fit that model? “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus said. Make up your own mind, Jesus said. But understand that what I am doing is God’s way. Perhaps the judgment comes in how you decide for or against Jesus, in whether or not you can see God’s ways in Jesus’ compassion and love.

On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to pin God down, isn’t it? That is the conclusion to which the next sections of this passage lead us. After John’s disciples left Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John. What is Jesus’ motivation here? Is it to make clear that John’s questions don’t negate his ministry? Is it to clarify John’s proper place in God’s plan? Is it to make the point that God speaks in different ways through different people and that some won’t listen no matter what?

Jesus uses two images to make the point that John was no weak or soft person. He didn’t live in luxury in a palace wearing soft clothes; as we know from the other gospels he wore clothing made of camel hair. He was not a “reed shaken by the wind,” which apparently means that his message was not changed for the sake of convenience or popularity. People went to see him not because he was pleasing; they went to see him because he was a prophet. And he was, Jesus affirms, more than a prophet, because he was the fulfillment of the OT prophecy of a forerunner to the Messiah (v. 27).

Jesus’ statement in v. 28 is interesting: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” This statement does not mean that John was not in the kingdom of God. It is simply the fact that the ministry of Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God in a new way and that John was the precursor, the forerunner, to that. We also see the theme here that true greatness is found in the “least,” in those who may not be so “out front” or “in the spotlight” or so “obvious” in their works. Vv. 29-30 show that some, namely the common people including such sinners as the tax collectors, had accepted the ministry of John as valid while others, namely the scribes and Pharisees, had not.

Vv. 31-35 continue to deal with those who rejected the ministries of John and of Jesus. Jesus earlier challenged John to believe that he was the Messiah on the basis of his works of compassion (which were also to be seen as the fulfillment of the Scripture that Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue). The word of the Lord was also communicated through John. These verses point out that some will never be pleased with what they hear and will always find a reason not to believe. If the messenger and/or the message fail to meet their expectations they will shut it out rather than being open to the manifold ways in which God speaks. Discernment is necessary and those who are in tune with God’s wisdom will hear and understand (v. 35).