Preparing for Peace (12/4/16)
Jesus MAFA, John the Baptist Preaching in the Desert
Peace can be difficult to find during Advent. It can be difficult at any time of year. In this sermon we examine the ideas of peace, repentance, and a particular scene from the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Good morning! I was on Facebook the other day and one of my pastor friends posted a clip from the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Now, for those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, Talladega Nights is a spoof about auto racing. It stars the comedian Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, the greatest driver in stock car racing. I have to stress that this is a really dumb movie—it’s not for everyone—and if you have seen Talladega Nights, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.
In that scene, Ricky Bobby and his family are gathered around the dining room table. Every bit of food and drink is provided by Ricky Bobby’s sponsors: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, Taco Bell, Wonder Bread, Mountain Dew, etc. Before eating, Ricky Bobby blesses the meal by saying, “Dear Lord, Baby Jesus.” I probably don’t need to tell you that Ricky Bobby isn’t very bright—or theologically astute. In fact, in the middle of this blessing, Ricky Bobby’s wife suggests that Jesus did grow up and that Ricky Bobby can offer prayers to that Jesus, too. Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace.” When his father-in-law insists that Jesus grew up and it’s more appropriate to pray to the grownup Jesus, Ricky Bobby puts the argument to rest by saying: “Look, I like the baby version the best. Do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money!”
Of course none of them seem to understand that we pray to the risen Christ, but it’s a comedy, and the characters are the butt of the jokes: they’re dumb and they lack self awareness. We all understand that Ricky Bobby is a self-absorbed idiot. That’s why it’s funny. And maybe there’s a little bit of Ricky Bobby in us.
I find that scene interesting—and theologically relevant—because Ricky Bobby chose to pray to a very specific version of Jesus, the baby in the manger. This is the version of Jesus that Ricky Bobby liked best. Too often, I think, we try to control Jesus and the message, we ignore what is uncomfortable. We want the baby in the blanket, not the labor pains, nor the wet, screaming infant. We want the Norman Rockwell picture of a happy Thanksgiving feast, not the arguments over the menu or politics.
The infant Jesus doesn’t ask very much of us. All we need to do is love this version of the Christ. We don’t want the Jesus who calls us to self-sacrifice. We don’t want the Jesus who tells us to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, or the refugee. We don’t want the Jesus who tells us to sell everything we own and follow him. Yes, we want a different world, where people live better lives, but we want to hold on to the things that are comfortable and familiar to us, too. We want the familiar story of the couple who can’t find a room at the inn, so they take refuge in a stable.
In this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, we meet John the Baptist, as he’s wandering through the Judean countryside calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now today is the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. But I have to be honest, John the Baptist never makes me feel peaceful!
John the Baptist isn’t mentioned in either of the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. He just shows up, out of nowhere, telling the people of Judea to repent. Can you imagine how that sounded? It must have been an unsettling experience. Suppose you’re walking down the street and you see a homeless person who cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Are you going to take him seriously? No! Of course not! You’re probably going to walk on by, avoiding eye contact so he doesn’t start up a conversation. That’s what I’d do.
Now imagine that you’re living in Judea in the first century. You’re a faithful Jew. You worship when you’re supposed to and you make all the ritual sacrifices that you’re required to make. You obey the Torah, the Law of Moses, and you are living into God’s covenant with humanity. Then along comes John the Baptist telling you to repent, to turn away from your sins. Of course you wouldn’t give him the time of day! He’s crazy! And besides, you’re a faithful Jew, a descendant of Abraham—you’re part of God’s chosen people! There’s no way that John’s message of repentance could possibly apply to you. But John tells the people that’s not good enough! Being a descendant of Abraham isn’t good enough! Being a part of God’s chosen people is no longer sufficient! The chosen ones must repent; we must repent, too!
I think we’re a lot like those Jews in Judea in the first century. We hear this message of repentance every year, and then we walk on by. John the Baptist is just another crazy homeless person. He can be ignored. He can be dismissed. He can’t possibly be talking to any of us. Repentance is for someone else!
Let’s be honest, this attitude has afflicted the church for many years. We think we’re the faithful ones and we think that all we need to do is come to church on Sundays and everything else will work out—for us! It’s those people outside the church, those people and all their sins that need to worry! It’s not us. No, it’s those people who drink and gamble. It’s those people who use drugs. It’s those people who have affairs. It’s those people who are divorced. It’s… it’s… it’s… it’s us. It’s us, too. We all need to repent, to turn away from our sinfulness.
We get so caught up in the judgment—in our own notion of what God’s judgment ought to be—that we completely miss the hope, peace, joy, and love that are offered to us in the person of the Christ. Let’s face it; it’s easy to focus on the sins of others. And it’s really easy to focus on the cute little baby Jesus in the manger—the Jesus who calls us to feed him and change his diapers. When we do that, we miss the grownup Jesus who calls us to action. We miss the call from John the Baptist to prepare our hearts for the new creation, in and through Jesus Christ. We know how to feed a baby and change diapers. We don’t always know how to follow the call of the grownup Jesus. It’s easier to see John the Baptist as some crazy homeless guy that we can ignore. But on this Sunday, we find little peace when we ignore John’s message.
Peace was in short supply in first-century Judea, just as it’s in short supply in our world today. But God did something new when God sent Jesus into the world. Jesus’ birth was the inbreaking of God’s kingdom here on earth. John the Baptist announced this new creation and called for the people of Judea to repent so that they could hear Christ’s call. And even today, repentance is how we prepare the way for the new thing that God has brought into this world. Repentance can take many different forms; peace means different things to each of us.
Jesus brings peace through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus brings peace through reconciliation with God and with all of humanity. This is God’s peace, and we cannot be redeemed without it. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for the forgiveness of our own sins—we ask God to honor the covenant He established through Jesus. At the same time, we honor that covenant by forgiving those who have sinned against us.
Anger, hurt, and emotional wounds are things that prevent us from living into the peace that Jesus offers. It’s not easy to let go of anger and pain. Maybe you’re still angry at your mother or father, or your brother or sister, for something that happened years and years ago. Maybe it’s something more recent. Many people are still upset over the results of the election—and then there are other folks who are upset that other people are upset. Everybody’s holding on to the anger and the outrage. Now let me be clear about one thing: I’m talking about old wounds. I’m not talking about current insults or abuse. If you are in a situation where you are being abused or hurt, get out of that situation. Forgiveness can only take place after the abuse has stopped.
I know a man named Justin who’s still angry at his ex-wife. They divorced nearly fifteen years ago, but Justin’s still in pain. He was blindsided when he found out that his wife had been having an affair, an affair with his best friend. Justin and his wife were part of a big circle of friends; the affair shattered that network of relationships. Justin and his wife were unable to reconcile and Justin lost so much. His life was changed forever by that affair; the pain was the last reminder of his old life.
During this season of Advent, this season of preparation, we must all look at the pain and anger that we cling to. These are some of the things that prevent us from seeing the peace that Christ offers to us all. We have to forgive those people who have hurt us in order to let go of the pain. When we dwell in hurt and anger, we look toward the past, toward moments that are frozen in time. When we dwell in hurt and anger, we’re not looking forward to God’s new creation; we’re not looking for Jesus. Examine yourself. Look within and figure out what’s holding you back. Then forgive and let go. Cast off the hurts and the anger and anything else that keeps you from being at peace. Only then can you truly experience God’s peace. Only then can you truly be the agents of God’s peace and love and reconciliation! Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, that we must first find peace within ourselves. So find that peace, then go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!