Sunday, December 6th, 2015 – Second Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11, Luke 3:1-6
Hymns: “Sing to the King”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “As With Gladness Men of Old”, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”, “How Great Our Joy”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “Joy to the World”
Born to Be Wild
We drove right past it.
I’m not just saying that, either. We were right next to the Santa Ana River. It’s right on the other side of the river. And we drove right past it. Not once, not twice, but nine times. On the way to Dodger Stadium and back. On the way to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and back. On the way to our exploration day in L.A. and back. On the way to Habitat for Humanity and back. On the way to Disneyland.
And that’s to say nothing of the tens, maybe even hundreds of times I drove past it during the three summers I was a camp counselor in southern California and the three years I lived there, not to mention the time I had to get fingerprinted at the sheriff’s station around the corner. All those times, and I never knew the Inland Regional Center was there.
Of course, that all changed on Wednesday. That afternoon, Syed Farook, an employee of some five years at the center, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, barged into an employee holiday party armed with handguns and Bushmaster .223 rifles, and proceeded to shoot thirty-one of Farook’s co-workers, fourteen of them fatally.
Some of the facts about them are really disturbing. For example, Farook was a U.S. citizen, just as much an American as any one of us, but it seems that his wife, who he met online, had turned him toward radical Islam. She herself had made a pledge to ISIS not long before the attacks. Furthermore, before heading to the center to carry out the attacks, they had left their six month old daughter with Farook’s mother beforehand. As Jerry Jackson said when I went to visit her on Thursday, “How disturbed do you have to be to drop your little girl off with her grandmother and then go and kill all those people?”
It’s all very sobering and horrifying when we stop to consider the season that we’re in. This is the season of Advent. This is the season we’re supposed to prepare for the coming of the Lord. This is when we’re supposed to be making in the wilderness a highway for our God. But just in the last two months, there have been six different incidents in which an individual has opened fire on large groups of innocent people, resulting in the deaths of thirty-eight, with many more injured – and that’s JUST in the United States. Motivations have ranged from religious extremism to sheer psychopathy, with absolutely no discernible hope for stopping such acts.
And yet, even with the horror of these incidents, I have to stop and ask – is this truly the biggest problem as we prepare the highway for our Lord in the wilderness? Yes, the incidents are deplorable and would surely be condemned, one and all, by Jesus, but are they the bigger problem in our society? Or perhaps, is the most significant roadblock to the highway in the wilderness the way our society reacts to these incidents?
When John the Baptist entered our world, he did not come into a perfect Judaic utopia within which to spread the news of the coming of the Messiah. He didn’t start his ministry off by marching into Jerusalem and proclaiming that one was coming whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. Instead, he marched his happy self right on into the wilderness. He was a Nazarene, after all – dedicated from birth to abstain from worldly pleasures. His life was one of self-denial and commitment to his ministry. He lived in the desert, subsisting on a diet of wild honey and grasshoppers.
So he got to watch from the outside as madness occurred within Israel and its occupying power, Rome. Keep in mind, Rome was the country which had, some forty or so years before John’s birth, been wracked by a civil war that was the result of the assassination of its dictator, Julius Caesar. Stabbed to death by his own Senate, it’s safe to say that Julius Caesar experienced Senatorial opposition unknown to even the most legislatively beleaguered of American presidents.
Anyway, this was the wilderness through which John was called to prepare a highway for his cousin, the coming Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. It was a violent, unsettled, rough and tumble place. Less than an ideal environment for the Savior of the world to come and show people the way, it was done nonetheless, and really, in spite of the violence of the nations.
You see, it wasn’t the violence present that made it difficult for John to prepare the way, and subsequently for Jesus to spread the good word. Both were unafraid of the violence of the people, and both would eventually fall victim to it – John beheaded by King Herod, Jesus crucified by Pontius Pilate. They didn’t let it block them, but rather, charged headlong into it, fulfilling their respective calls in a world gone mad.
It wasn’t that violent, unsettled world that created such a stumbling block for the people to hear the message of John and then Jesus. Rather, it was the hearts and minds of the people in the world. Unwilling to hear a new message, one which in many ways contradicted their long-held, safe and secure beliefs, they lashed out in their ignorance, preferring instead to stubbornly cling to their beliefs, even when presented with a demonstrably better way.
All you need to do to see the madness today is look at the responses to the terrorist incident in San Bernardino. Voices on both the left and the right reacted in an unbelievable way. On the far left, the anti-gun crowd lost their darn minds, with voices howling out for the strict regulation, if not outright ban of guns such as the Bushmaster rifles that Farook and Malik carried. And maybe they’re right – I don’t know. Maybe tighter regulations on guns like that ARE the answer. But the truth of the matter is, the overwhelming majority of gun owners that I know, and by extension, the overwhelming majority of gun owners in America, are law-abiding, responsible individuals who would never even THINK about harming another human being with their guns, and when a group of people goes howling mad and demonizes the people who OWN guns, then their voice gets lost in the wilderness, and their concerns get absolutely dismissed as the foolishness of raving lunatics.
And then, on the far right, the anti-Muslim crowd lost their darn minds, with voices howling out for the government-mandated registration of people of the Muslim faith, if not their outright expulsion from the country. Now, it’s very true that Farook and Malik were Muslim, and it is appearing to be more and more likely that they carried out these attacks as a result of radicalized Islam, inspired by the attacks in Paris. However, the vast majority of Muslims despise this corruption of their faith, and would like nothing better than to see people like Farook and Malik burning in hell. Every time people like them carry out such an atrocity, it makes it that much harder for peaceful, law-abiding Muslims to live their lives. And every time people like Farook and Malik carry out such an atrocity, moderate Muslim leaders will once again wearily take to the airwaves and the Internet to condemn the attacks, saying once again that these people do not represent the other 99% of Muslims, but as we discussed last week, that kind of news doesn’t get ratings, and so their voices get lost in the wilderness, the concerns dismissed as the foolishness of terrorist sympathizers.
It’s a remarkable wilderness we find ourselves in, when half of the country condemns an entire group of people based on their religion in spite of the fact that this country’s foundation includes the right to practice whatever religion you want, and the other half of the country condemns an entire group of people based on their choice to own firearms in spite of the fact that this country’s Constitution includes the right to do so in a responsible and law-abiding fashion.
How in heaven’s name are we supposed to prepare the way of the Lord through an unholy mess like that?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like John the Baptist had it easy. On top of the madness of the known civilized world, his ministry was to a people who had been waiting for the Messiah for generations upon generations, eons even, hoping against all hope that he would come before the end of their lives. The people of Israel had been exiled to Babylon, invaded by Greece, seen civil war amongst themselves, and now were occupied by Rome, with an ineffectual, corrupt, and quite frankly evil puppet king installed over them in the person of Herod Antipas. They were tired of waiting and had probably seen charlatans and false prophets come before John, either claiming to come in the name of the Messiah or claiming to be the Messiah himself.
So when John came, plenty of the people of Israel probably had a reaction somewhere along the lines of, “Meh.” Another charlatan, another false prophet, they thought, not realizing that this particular wild man was telling the truth, not realizing that he was actually the earthly cousin of the Messiah. And a lesser man probably would’ve wilted in the face of such opposition, and not even tried to build an on-ramp in the wilderness, let alone a highway.
BUT NOT JOHN! No, this was a man who was born to be WILD! This Nazarene departed the cities, eschewing the civilized lifestyle, and decamped to the very wilderness from which he would proclaim the Lord’s coming, living by the Jordan River, subsisting on a diet of locusts and honey, occasionally baptizing people who came to experience the ritual Jewish cleansing. And when the authorities took issue with his proclaiming the day of the Lord’s favor, why John had the perfect comeback:
YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!
Not something a civilized man could’ve gotten away with. Possibly not something that even Jesus could’ve gotten away with. But John, the Baptist with a reputation for being a wild man – well, when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, people said, “Yep, that’s John being John.” And then they listened.
I have to wonder what John might call a group of religious people today. If he were to walk into a church and hear the discourse on a topic such as San Bernardino, what would he call us? Weak? Indecisive? Hypocrites?
It seems like we the people have become obsessed with labels, labels that we have allowed to define our lives: liberal, conservative, patriot… American. But our preoccupation with those labels has led us to seemingly forget one very important label, one which should trump all others – Christian.
Yes, if we live our lives to be Christians above all else, if our FIRST priorities are to love the Lord our God with all our beings and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then all other considerations come second. We are Christians FIRST, then liberal or conservative. We are Christians FIRST, then American, for the God that we serve and to whom we belong is greater than any power or principality, any leaders or any rulers, any people or nation on this earth.
And so, when something occurs like the shooting in San Bernardino, our immediate instinct should not be to figure out how to prove our liberal or conservative bona fides, or how to demonstrate our commitment to a strong America. Our immediate instinct should be to demonstrate our love for our fellow man, our compassion for those who were involved, our attempt to understand why such an incident occurred, and a vow to help HEAL the country, not just put another band-aid on a festering wound.
If we want there to be a highway in the wilderness upon which the Son of Man travels to live among His people, then we have to do the hard work of constructing it. After all, we’ve been told to PREPARE the highway in the wilderness, not just expect it to appear. It is our calling and our duty as Christians to heed the call of John, to go forth into the unknown, and to prepare the highway for our God, because until we make that path straight, we are not demonstrating that our hearts are open to receive the coming King.
Let us be always vigilant to love our God and love our neighbors, to truly live lives of Christian virtue, that we may be the workers who, in the wilderness, prepare a highway for our God.