Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My New Blog

Please accept my invitation to check out my new blog This Preaching Thing.

There, in brief (300 words or less) posts, I reflect on the ministry of preaching in which I have been involved for almost forty years.

Let me know what you think.

My other blogs--On the Jericho Road and Prayer 365--will continue...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt

(A sermon based on Hebrews 2:10-18 & Matthew 2:13-23 for the first Sunday after Christmas Day)

Here on the day after the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our attention is called to the rest of the story: “Since…the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The writer of Hebrews has in mind especially the death of Jesus on the cross, which, following as it did the most significant birth ever birthed and the most significant life ever lived, was the most significant death ever died. It was so significant, Scripture affirms, because Jesus Christ was both human and divine. Being divine, he could accomplish for us what no other person could accomplish; being human, he had in him the promise of the same kind of life we all have…a life filled with good and bad, with pleasure and pain, and a life that ends in death.

In Jesus, God took it all on—the pain, the problems, the temptations, the suffering, and even the death—that comes with these lives of ours. And he took them on to do something about them.

You see, human life is risky business from the get go. From the moment you began to form in your mother’s womb until the day you die, it’s a dangerous journey; it’s a good journey, a journey full of potential and full of challenge, but it’s still a dangerous journey. As Job said in the midst of his sufferings, “Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

That’s the way it was for Jesus, too…and it was that way from the get go, not just at the time of his crucifixion. We see that truth in the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt.

As an infant Jesus was already in danger; before he was two years old Jesus was on the run—he was a member of a refugee family, his father no doubt an immigrant worker in Egypt.

We see all kinds of clues in this story as to how we are to regard what is taking place. Somehow, Matthew means for us to connect what is happening to Jesus with what had happened to the people of God in the past.

For one example, the murderous intentions of Herod against Jesus that led to the slaughter of other young male children in Bethlehem reminds us of the pogrom conducted by Pharaoh against the Hebrews during their sojourn in Egypt from which baby Moses was saved. Matthew wants us to understand that, as he will develop more fully in his Gospel, that Jesus is the new Moses, that he is the ultimate fulfillment and interpretation of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For another example, Jesus’ earthly father was named Joseph, he was prone to have interesting dreams that were messages from God, and he ended up having to go into exile in Egypt. Sounds a lot like what happened to Joseph in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? And it was the Old Testament Joseph’s exile in Egypt that led ultimately to Israel’s exile in Egypt.

Matthew said that Jesus was taken into Egypt “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” That prophet was Hosea and with those words Hosea was referring back to the Exodus from Egypt but that’s exactly the point…Jesus was going through the same kind of thing through which Israel went…exile in Egypt and return from Egypt. On one level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus in his life and death and resurrection sums up and embodies the experience of Israel—he is the new and ideal Israel, so to speak. On another level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus went through the kinds of things through which God’s people—through which all people—go in their lives.

Also, in interpreting the “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem by Herod’s forces, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18 citing Jeremiah 31:15). That verse in Jeremiah refers to the exile of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, the Joseph tribes (Rachel was Joseph’s mother); one tradition placed Rachel’s burial place near Bethlehem. Again, we see what is happening to the infant Jesus connected with what happened to the people of Israel before him. Jesus in effect embodied and took on the suffering of the people.

Jesus came to take on our suffering, to live it and to die in it and to overcome it.

So—“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). He goes with us and helps us in whatever we are going through.

So—“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He died for us so that our sins can be forgiven.

So—“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). He died his death so that we would not have to live our lives in fear of our own deaths, a fear that takes all the joy out of this life.

Jesus, then, took on our life with all its suffering and pain and struggle—and he did that throughout his life, not just at the end. He did so as one of us but he also did so as God; in Jesus Christ God entered into and defeated the troubles that threaten to defeat us.

Thanks be to God!

(The image is "Joseph and Mary Prepare to Leave," by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, published 1753)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 3 of 3)

From 1993-1999 I served as a professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time Belmont was still related to the Tennessee Baptist Convention—a relationship that has since ended—but even during my time there the college in general and the School of Religion in particular had a very Moderate bent. I was philosophically and theologically comfortable there although I did get a small taste, through some professors outside the School of Religion, of what my life and my scholarship might look like apart from some commitment to what I am most comfortable calling an evangelically oriented faith—and I knew that I did not want to go there, although certainly no one at Belmont required or even encouraged me to do so.

The reasons I left academia and returned to the pastorate are complicated and personal and still somewhat unclear to me, but among the reasons were my yearnings for study that was geared toward proclamation, for involvement with people in all the seasons of their lives, and for encounter with things high and holy through worship leadership.

When I returned to the pastorate I went back home—that is what it felt like—to the First Baptist Church of Adel where I served a second stint from 1999-2003.

In 2003 I moved to The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, an experience that deserves an article—if not a book—of its own but about which here I will simply say that I wish I could have and would have done a better job of leading that very fine congregation and that one of the reasons—one among many—that I could not and did not was that I was not forcefully insistent enough on leading them to face the changes that had taken place in their sociological and ecclesiological and denominational settings.

During my years at The Hill the SBC ended its participation in the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Georgia Baptist Convention ended its relationship with Mercer University. While I tried to lead the church to see the error of the two conventions’ ways in those matters—and I did succeed in leading them to include both the BWA and Mercer’s Baptist Scholarship Fund in their budget for the rest of my time there—I knew that for the most part their hearts were not with me on those issues which indicated to me the unfortunate mismatch that our relationship had become.

In December 2008 I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia, a church that, while it maintains its commitments to the missions efforts of the SBC, also provides generous space for involvement with the missions and ministries of CBF, for which I am very grateful.

Despite my gastro-intestinal—not to mention spiritual—inability to be overtly political in my efforts, I believe I can honestly say that I have over the years done my fair share of toting the Moderate or “free and faithful” Baptist banner.

I once served as a member of a committee that was recruited to recommend Moderate vice-presidential candidates for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

I served on the Board of Directors for the Baptist Heritage Council of Georgia until we voted ourselves out of business this year.

I am currently on the Coordinating Council for CBF of Georgia.

At the fall meeting of the Valdosta Baptist Association in 2002, when a resolution of support for the GBC in its dispute with Shorter College, which was at that time attempting to become independent of the Convention, was presented I attempted to amend the resolution to make it more even-handed but the motion failed for lack of a second. I then was the only person in the room who spoke in support of Shorter and against the resolution and I think I was the only person to vote against the resolution.

In November 2004 I made a motion at the GBC annual meeting that the state convention restore its share of the funding to the Baptist World Alliance in light of the SBC’s withdrawal from that organization but my motion was resoundingly defeated.

In November 2005, when the GBC voted to end its relationship with Mercer University, I was one of only two messengers—and the only Mercer alumnus—to speak against the motion; in fact, I made a motion to postpone the question since the recommendation had come with no advance notice but my motion was ruled out of order.

I attended the Baptist World Alliance meetings in Birmingham, England (2005) and Honolulu, Hawaii (2010).

In November 2010, when the GBC voted to declare the Druid Hills Baptist Church a “non-cooperating” church and thus withdraw fellowship from it because the church has a woman serving as co-pastor, I was the only messenger other than the Druid Hills deacon chair to speak against the motion.

That statement on the Druid Hills matter is the last public stand I intend ever to take at a Baptist meeting.

Over the years I have also written quite a lot about Baptist matters. From letters to the editor of our Baptist state newspaper to posts on this blog to articles in the Baptist Heritage newsletter to church newsletter articles to essays at, I have tapped out quite a few words about Baptists on various computer keyboards.

This article is the last one I intend ever to write on Baptist matters.

Why? Well, as this memoir attests, I have expended a lot of time and energy and emotion on things Baptist over the years and frankly, I am weary of it.

Thirty years is a long time and that’s about how much time I’ve given to the effort.

Enough is enough.

It’s not that I don’t care anymore; I do. It’s not that I don’t still believe in the historic Baptist principles for which I have stood up all these years; I do. It’s not that I don’t think there’s value in trying to be a voice in the wilderness, so to speak; I do.

It’s just that the SBC is, from my perspective, long gone and, so far as the GBC goes, I’m weary of speaking up and having the only voice I hear in agreement be my own echo—except for those few friends who offer me some “Atta boys” from a distance. All of my friends gave up on that effort long ago and their wisdom likely far surpasses mine. It’s not that I have felt like what I was saying was going to change anything but I still felt like somebody needed to say it and I knew that if I didn’t it wouldn’t get said.

But maybe it just doesn’t need to be said anymore.

Anyway, I’m not going to say it anymore.

The main reason, though, that this is the last thing I’ll ever write about Baptists is that life is short. I’m 52 years old now and I want to use my energy and my thoughts and my heart and my words wisely.

There are for me more important things about which I need to speak and to write.

I’m still a Baptist—kind of a Moderate Evangelical Progressive Pietistic Baptist, but a Baptist nonetheless—so no doubt my Baptist identity will still come out in my speaking and writing.

But so far as giving space in my life and in my thoughts and in my writing and in my speaking and in this blog to Baptist controversies and conflicts and developments—I am so very weary and I am so very finished.

As for me, I say, “Thanks be to God!”

As for those who may care, I say that I hope you understand.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 2 of 3)

It was during the years I spent at Mercer that I began to gain some knowledge of and appreciation for who Baptists were and what Baptists had traditionally championed. I remember no particular lecture or conversation or book that set the process of enlightenment in motion; it must have happened to me by osmosis over the three years that I was consistently exposed to the influence of such fine Baptist scholars and churchmen as Howard Giddens, Harold McManus, and Robert Otto. All I know is that by the time I graduated from Mercer in 1978 I understood that Baptists had emerged from the English Separatist movement of the early 17th century—thus that we did not go all the way back to John the Baptist (unless one uses that name to refer to John Smyth)—and that such principles as the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, local church autonomy, the priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state were the time-honored convictions that stood at the heart of the Baptist identity.

Debra Johnson and I were married six days after I graduated from college in June 1978; she had a year to go at Mercer so we stayed in Macon until she graduated in August 1979. From January to August I served in a full-time temporary staff position at First Baptist Church of Macon, a congregation that understood and practiced historic Baptist principles more faithfully than any congregation of which I had to that point been a member; my eight months there served to solidify my commitment to those principles.

It never occurred to me, even as I realized that I was becoming a different kind of Baptist than I grew up being or a different kind of Baptist than those of the more fundamentalist variety, that I would not be able to work in loving cooperation with them for the sake of the cause of Christ—but it would unfortunately occur to some of them that they could not work for that cause beside me and the kind of Baptists with whom I was finding and would continue to find that I had the closest connection.

It was in June 1979 that the Conservative Resurgence in or Fundamentalist Takeover of, depending on your perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention commenced with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the convention in Houston, Texas. Rogers’ election proved to be the first step in a successfully sustained multi-year strategy to gain and maintain control of the SBC through the slow but sure takeover of the boards of trustees of the seminaries and agencies of the convention.

I entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky in August 1979 and would spend the next seven years of my life earning two degrees from that fine institution. My entire seminary career was lived out in the shadow of the controversy that was raging in the SBC. Indeed, SBTS was one of the prime targets of the verbal and written pot-shots that were regularly being delivered by the foot soldiers of the Takeover.

In early 1980 someone issued a “hit list” of seven professors serving at various SBC seminaries who were, in the judgment of the list issuers, “liberal” and therefore unfit to be teaching at their respective institutions. As it happened I was taking classes with two of those professors, Church History with Glenn Hinson and a Greek translation course on the book of Revelation with George R. Beasley-Murray.

Dr. Hinson was not happy about being included on that list. On the first day of class after news of the list hit the Baptist news, he let a little of his anger show which was very unusual for him. It is true, I am sure, that Dr. Hinson was and is not “orthodox” enough by the standards by which the forces arrayed against him were measuring him and everybody else they had in their crosshairs but I will say here what I have said many times over the years: if the good Lord would give me a choice between being judged on my own Christian faith or that of Glenn Hinson, I’d go with Hinson’s. I have never known a more genuine Christian gentleman

Dr. Beasley-Murray, on the other hand, found the whole thing funny. On the first day of class after the list came out, he pointed out the irony of his being included on a list of “liberals.” Back home in Great Britain, he said, when a Bible Society was producing a new translation, they liked to put him on the committee as the “token fundamentalist.” One’s application of such labels depended heavily on the vantage point of the labeler, I learned.

I for my part was deeply troubled over the attacks that my school and my professors were enduring. My seminary, as well as all the Southern Baptist seminaries, eventually fell and almost all my professors left SBTS, much to my sadness.

It was during my seminary years that I had my first experience attending an SBC annual meeting—and it was the mother of all meetings that I attended, namely, the 1984 meeting in Dallas, Texas in which some 45,000 Baptist brothers and sisters gathered to fight it out in the name of the Lord. I traveled, along with many other students, on a chartered bus from Louisville to Dallas and stayed in a Dallas motel with all the arrangements having been made by the SBTS administration, although we did pay our own way.

After I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia in the fall of 1986 I made attendance at SBC meetings and at Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) meetings a priority; indeed, I attended every SBC annual meeting from 1987-1991. Over those years, as is well documented, the Takeover forces won victory after victory until finally, by the early 1990s, they controlled every board of every SBC institution and agency.

Here nausea becomes a player in my story.

When I went to Adel, a county seat town in rural South Georgia, I admit that I wanted to shine as a “Moderate,” as my ilk had unfortunately labeled themselves in an effort to deflect the admittedly inaccurate “Liberal” moniker, Baptist; I wanted to lead the way for those who, as I did, knew the true Baptist history and heritage and who, as I did, wanted to preserve Baptist principles in the face of the encroaching darkness—and I wanted to convert those Baptists who did not see and want the things about and for Baptists that I saw and wanted.

And I tried. I really tried. I attended meetings. I voted for Moderate candidates in Baptist presidential elections. I gathered up members of the church to serve as messengers and shuttled them to several state convention meetings and to one national convention meeting—I was able to entice them with a visit to New Orleans, including a very nice dinner at Commander’s Palace and a late night stroll around the French Quarter.

Then one year in the late 1980s—and I really don’t remember which year—I agreed to serve as something like a zone chairman for a Moderate political operation in Georgia; my assignment was to identify churches and pastors that might be friendly to our cause and to contact them to encourage them to have their full allotment of messengers present at that year’s SBC meeting to help us elect the Moderate candidate.

I made two or three such phone calls and with each one my queasiness increased. I found that I was a prime illustration of the truth observed by historians of the Controversy that one reason for the success of the Takeover forces was that Moderates did not have the stomach for the fight. Finally I called the state coordinator and told him that, while I would be present at that year’s convention to vote for our candidate, I simply could not continue to serve as a political operative. It was making me sick.

The last SBC annual meeting I attended for a very long time, and I have attended only one since then, was the meeting in Atlanta in 1991. Every time I walked into the convention hall and took a seat, that nagging nausea would return; it would increase when we stood to sing some song about Christian love and fellowship. SBC meetings were making me sick. So I stopped going.

Perhaps that says about all that needs to be said about me: Moderate political activity to attempt to stem the Takeover forces made me sick and participating in the meetings run by the Takeover forces also made me sick.

I attended the meetings in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991 that led to the formation of what is now known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). One of my regrets is that I did not return to Adel from those meetings determined to try harder to lead those good folks to go down that road; my one defense is that I believed that most of them did not want to go there and I loved the church too much to inflict such division on them.

I believed then, though, and I believe now, that any Southern Baptist congregation that is not dominated by fundamentalism and that has an appreciation for and a commitment to Baptist principles would be best served by aligning itself with the CBF or the American Baptist Churches or by becoming non-aligned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 1 of 3)

I was a Baptist before I was a Christian.

Allow me to explain.

My mother always bragged about the fact that she took me to Sunday School and church for the first time when I was ten days old which means that I was enrolled in the Sunday School of Midway Baptist Church, located in Lamar County, Georgia, four miles outside of Barnesville on City Pond Road (a road that I spent my entire childhood thinking was named “County Maintained” because that’s what the only sign on it said); indeed, given that those were the days of “Cradle Rolls” I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody from the church was standing there in the delivery room to sign me up as soon as I exited the birth canal.

Since Baptists don’t believe that you can become a Christian until you have reached a point in life where you can accept Christ for yourself and since I waited until I was almost eight years old to put my life of sin behind me and turn to the Lord and submit to the believer’s baptism that made me an “official” member of the church, you can see why I say that I was a Baptist before I was a Christian. I had attended, worshipped in, and studied the Bible in a Baptist church for all those years before I became a Christian.

I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t learn much about being Baptist at Midway. I don’t recall our ever having a Baptist doctrine study and believe me, if we had, my parents would have made sure I was there. We did have Training Union during my formative years and there may have been some Baptist doctrine included in those classes but if so it didn’t stick.

My mother was the church treasurer and at the monthly church business meetings she would say how much we had sent to Searcy Garrison (the then Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Georgia Baptist Convention) that month; I later learned that those were our Cooperative Program gifts she was talking about. And around Easter time she would talk about how much money we had sent to somebody named Annie Armstrong and around Christmas time she would mention how much we had sent to another lady named Lottie Moon; given all the money they were getting I kind of wished one of them would adopt me.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was a good Southern Baptist in the sense that he didn’t think there was anything particularly perverse about Baptist Sunday School literature or about Baptist institutions of higher education, although he had little to which he could compare the former and so far as I know he had never set foot on the campus of one of the latter until he dropped me off for my freshman year at Mercer University. Daddy would get riled up when some independent Baptist preacher or poor misguided church member who had fallen under the influence of some such false prophet questioned the veracity of said literature or integrity of said institutions; while I couldn’t understand at the time why he thought it was such a big deal, I later—much too late to tell him so, unfortunately—came to appreciate his efforts.

I went to Mercer because somewhere along the way I had sensed and accepted a call that I perceived to be from Almighty God—whose almightiness was proven by the fact that he was able to find me in Lamar County, Georgia—to be a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ, in its Baptist permutation, naturally, and so I heeded my father’s advice: “Son, it seems to me that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.” Well, I was so I did, although Mercer was not my first choice mainly because I had once heard someone use the word “liberal” to describe it and, while I was wasn’t sure what that meant, it didn’t sound good but, thanks to some not-so-gentle prodding from my high school English teacher Mrs. Key, whose father-in-law was a Baptist minister and Mercer graduate, I, to make a long story short, changed my mind.

My first year at Mercer brought with it my first experience working in a Baptist church; I became the Associate Pastor, serving with the aforementioned Preacher Key, of the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church in rural Jugtown, Georgia, a bedroom community serving Thomaston and Meansville. Once again it was my fate to be a part of a Baptist church that wasn’t all that Baptist; a healthy percentage of the congregation had a Pentecostal—I think primarily Assemblies of God—background. Once, in all my seventeen-year-old wisdom, I preached a sermon at Pritchett on the one Baptist distinctive that I had picked up at my home church, namely, eternal security/the perseverance of the saints/once saved always saved, following which a couple who fell in the Pentebaptist/Bapticostal category verbally accosted me saying in snarling tone, “You’re preaching doctrine”; even at that point in my theological pilgrimage it occurred to me to wonder why preaching one way was preaching “doctrine” while preaching the other way was not, so I concluded that what had them all worked up was that I was preaching a doctrine other than theirs.

That wasn’t the last time that sort of thing happened to me.

Toward the end of my freshman year, the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church requested that the Midway Baptist Church ordain me to the Gospel ministry which they agreed to do despite my youth (seventeen), relative inexperience (seven months of very part-time ministry) and lack of formal education (two quarters of college, although I had already taken both Old and New Testament at Mercer). The ordination was scheduled for an April Sunday afternoon with the ordination council to meet on the Saturday evening before; the council was tasked with making a formal recommendation that I be ordained and I confess it occurred to me that it would be somewhat embarrassing if they decided, on Ordination Sunday Eve, to present a negative recommendation.

Despite what I said above about not learning much about Baptist doctrine at Midway, our pastor, Rev. Herman J. Coleman, known to everyone as “Preacher Bill,” felt it appropriate to grill me on the finer points of said doctrine. So right there in front of that roomful of Baptist ministers and deacons, Preacher Bill read each article of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) statement and, upon the completion of each one, he looked at me and asked, “Do you believe that?” to which I each time answered “Yes, sir.”

Preacher Bill later said that I had given the most brilliant answers he had ever heard.

(Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday night, December 21)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Significance of the Son

(A sermon based on Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

It falls to me today to say something about the Incarnation…about the Word becoming flesh, about God in Christ becoming human, about the significance of the coming of the Son of God.

It’s the kind of event, really though, that should and does render you speechless; indeed, I wish in the depths of my spirit that we could all walk away from this experience today with open mouths, open eyes, and open hearts, awestruck and dumbstruck over the amazing grace of God.

After all, what can you say about

your bride as she turns the corner and heads down the wedding aisle toward you,
the birth of your child as she enters the world squirming and stretching,
a sunset, or
the slipping of someone from this life to the next?

Some experiences defy words or, if words are going to be used, they need to be the words of poetry and not of prose, the words of praise and not of description, the words of mystery and not of reduction. So it is with the incarnation. About all we can do is to stare and to stammer and to praise.

And yet…we do have words about the Incarnation in our Bibles and it is in and through words that we try to share what is on our minds and in our hearts. Besides, preachers are purveyors in words. So, even as I admit that words fail, allow me to say some halting words that are built around two words that we find in our text, two names for the Son that was born on that first Christmas.

The first word is Emmanuel. The name comes from a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible that we find in Isaiah 7 in which the Lord through Isaiah promised King Ahaz during a time of severe crisis that a child who was about to be born, likely the king’s son Hezekiah, would be a sign that God was working God’s purposes out; among other things that son would be called was “Emmanuel” because he would indicate the Lord’s saving presence with God’s people. The early church came to see that prophecy as referring by extension (a prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, after all!) to the birth of the greatest King of all, Jesus the Messiah.

So the angel of the Lord told Joseph that the birth of Mary’s baby would fulfill the Isaiah prophecy and that the virgin’s child would be called “Emmanuel” which means, the angel helpfully offered, “God is with us.”

How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to be with us in that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?

How can we even begin to speak of the grace involved? God—Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, creator of all that is, came down to earth in the person of the baby born that day so long ago. That God went so far to come to us as to become one of us boggles the mind. Surely none of us would dare think that we deserved such an effort on the part of God? But God made such an effort anyway.

How can we even begin to speak of the humility involved? God humbled God’s self to the point of becoming the smallest, the most fragile, the most vulnerable version of a human being. We tend to think of the human journey of Jesus as beginning with his birth but we should remember, shouldn’t we, that he started out like all of us do…as an ovum that became a fetus that matured into a baby. God in Jesus became human and in that humanity there was great peril and danger and risk. We err if we think of Jesus being some kind of “super-baby.”

Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God trying God’s plan out on the archangels:

Finally the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for all of them. He told God how much they would worry about him, if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. People could do anything they wanted to him, and if he seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape for him if things turned sour. Could he at least create himself as a magical baby with special powers? It would not take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features. [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowley, 1997), p. 34]

Some of you may be doubting all of this, but consider: when it came time to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury, Joseph took care of it; Jesus didn’t get up on his baby legs and run himself—nor did he stand and fight.

How can we even begin to speak of the love involved? What great love did it take to motivate such an effort on God’s part to show that love? If ever we needed evidence that God indeed is love, surely here it is. The Bible tells that we love God because God first loved us. As Karl Barth said, ““The incarnation means no ascent of man to God, but a descent of God to man” [Karl Barth, Credo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), p. 66]. What love is this?

So the first word, the first name, that at least helps us to say something about the Incarnation is Emmanuel, which speaks to us of, among other truths, grace, humility, and love.

The second word is Jesus. The name “Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua” and they both mean “the Lord is salvation.” As William C. Placher put it, “Even his name means salvation” [William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 1].

How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to bring about our salvation through that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?

How can we even begin to speak of the action involved? Alister McGrath said, “The incarnation speaks to us of a God who acts to demonstrate his love for us…. Christianity does not teach that man has to climb a ladder into heaven in order to find God and be with him—rather, it teaches that God has come down that ladder in order to meet us and take us back with him” [Alister E. McGrath, Understanding Jesus: Who Jesus Christ Is and Why He Matters (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987), pp. 113-114]. God put God’s love into action and it was the most drastic action ever taken. God saw how much trouble we were (and are) in and took action to address the situation.

How can we even begin to speak of the intervention involved? God saw our need and intervened in—better put, broke into—our world and our lives. When our ancestor Jacob needed desperately to know that God was with him in his lostness and would show him a way out of it, God gave him a vision of a ladder reaching into heaven with angels going up and down it. When we needed desperately to know that God was with us in our lostness, God put a ladder down to earth and came down on it; the cross that would reach back up toward heaven finished the process. God bridged the gap between heaven and earth and came down to us to help us; we could not bridge the gap from our side so God bridged the gap from God’s side.

How can we even begin to speak of the rescue involved? We need to be saved because we are lost. What does that mean? We tend to equate our sins, the things we do wrong, with our lostness but those are the symptoms of our lostness, not the lostness itself. To be lost is not to know where you are or where you belong or where you are going. We belong with God; we belong in close relationship with God. So long as we try to go our own way and to try to fill our “God gap” with something else—with anything else—we will be lost, because we are meant to live with God as our center. But God came in the infant Jesus to begin to do the work—work which was finished at the Cross and the Empty Tomb—of rescuing us from our lostness.


So what is the significance of the Son?

He is Emmanuel—God with us. He is with you.
He is Jesus—Savior. He is your Savior.

But what will you do with him?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Upside Down & In Reverse

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:46b-55)

Please exercise your God-given imagination with me for a little while…

You are young Luke Skywalker, living on a backwater planet on the edge of nowhere with your aunt and uncle, working at what amounts to an intergalactic junk business, when some old guy shows up talking about “The Force” and destiny and eventually, although it takes many years and three long movies, you find out that you have more going for you than all the Emperors and Darth Vaders of the universe ever imagined they did.

You are Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia club fighter with a punch-drunk accent and a debt collector for a local loan shark, when some fancy guys show up talking about giving you a chance to fight the flamboyant heavyweight champion of the world in a Bicentennial spectacle and eventually, after it dawns on you just how overmatched you are, you find out that you have more going for you than all the Apollo Creeds of the world ever imagined they did.

You are George Bailey, an intelligent and ambitious young man going nowhere fast surrounded by people who are going nowhere fast in a town that is going nowhere fast until one night when, just when it looks like you are going to lose everything that does matter to you, you have a vision that teaches you that you really do have a wonderful life and that you have more going for you than all the Mr. Potters in the world ever imagined they did.

You are Harry Potter, an orphan living in a cupboard under the stairs of the home of your verbally and emotionally abusive uncle and aunt and your spoiled cousin, treated by them and pretty much everybody else like you’re nothing, until one day a great big guy named Hagrid comes to tell you that those strange letters that those strange owls have been delivering to you say that it’s time for you to enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and eventually, while it takes many years and seven books, you find out that you have more going for you than all the proud and powerful folks you encounter ever imagined they did.

You are geriatric Sarah and you have been living with the best faith you could muster for all those decades since your impulsive husband sensed the good Lord promising that you’d be the mother of a great nation and for decades now you’ve been following the old fool all over the place and you’ve frankly given up everything even resembling hope when some strange men show up at the tent one day and you overhear one of them telling Abraham that now, just past your 90th birthday, it’s time to paint the nursery and buy the baby bed and, even as you laugh, you find out that you have more going for you than all the kings with all their wives and concubines and all their little princesses and princes ever imagined they did.

You are the boy David, the runt of the litter who, when the prophet of the Lord shows up and asks your father to please let him meet his sons, is given the task of watching the sheep while your more substantial siblings are paraded before the preacher until finally, when the prophet inquires if there isn’t maybe just one more, you are brought in and the strange man pours oil on your head and mutters something about you being the one and eventually, after many trials and tribulations and through many personal successes and failures, you find out that you have more going for you than all the big brothers and all the giants and all the kings in the area.

You are an exile from Judah in Babylon who has lived in that land for decades, ever since you were as a youth ripped away from your homeland following that horrible war that killed so many of your family members and friends, and you’ve long ago given up any hope of ever going home or of not living under the thumb of foreigners, when along comes a prophet preaching a message in which he claims that the God you worship is perfectly capable of bringing health out of sickness and hope out of despair and water out of a desert and a road out of a wilderness and life out of death and eventually, you find out that you and your people have more going for you than all the empires and all the armies in the world.

You are a poor peasant girl named Mary who has next to nothing except a strong, simple faith and a decent man for a fiancĂ© when, out of the blue or out of the heavens or out of the depths of your heart appears a messenger telling you that you’re going to give birth to the One that is going to make all the difference for all people and for all of creation and you say “Let it be done to me as you say” and the next thing you know you’re singing about how God’s going to turn everything on its head one day and how the powerful will be put down and the weak will be raised up, and, given what’s happening to you, you can believe it, because you can sense that eventually you’re going to find out that you have more going for you in your simple faith and in your anonymity and in your remarkably awkward predicament than all the respectably married and theologically sophisticated and well-heeled and well-known people in your town or any other town.

You see, the realities of salvation, the realities of the kingdom of God that has come and is coming, the realities of Advent and Christmas and for that matter the realities of Easter and the Second Coming, all boil down to this one reality: God is about the business of turning everything on its head, of reversing fortunes, of changing everything.

It kind of makes you think differently about success and failure, about pride and humility, about wealth and poverty, about repute and disrepute, and about suffering and ease, doesn’t it—doesn’t it?

It kind of makes you think that if, when all is said and done and Jesus comes the second time, God is going to bring about the great reversal and if God has been about the business of getting that reversal going ever since Jesus came the first time, then we who follow and serve Jesus might as well get with the program now—doesn’t it?

You are, of course, not really Luke Skywalker or Rocky Balboa or George Bailey or Harry Potter or Sarah the wife of Abraham or King David or a Jewish exile in Babylon or Mary the Mother of Jesus.

Bu you are you…