Rev. Don Beyers
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Many of you likely suspect, by now at least, that I am an avid reader. I thoroughly enjoy reading. I read not simply to relax — although that often is the case — but to be challenged. Years ago I discovered the virtues of study and reading while in graduate school. While I’ve always been a reader from an early age, I didn’t fully appreciate the the way reading broadens our perspective and keeps us humble until I was a graduate student. The more I read theology, the more I realized how little I knew about God. That continues to be true for me even today.
Reading might just offer us a remedy for our present age. One of the great dangers of our time is that we are often led to believe that we can be experts on all things. Perhaps this is a result of social media. Consider the way so many people speak with authority on Covid-19; despite scientists and medical leaders around the world spending thousands of hours trying to understand the virus, we have countless people at home questioning the scientists’ research because it doesn’t always coincide with their perspective and political position. Whether to wear a mask or not has been endlessly debated by people with little understanding of the science. Yet, they’ve become experts for not just marginal and fringe groups, but in some cases, for many others in our society. The recent blatant disregard of the law by one Torontonian restauranteur is an example of this.
The root cause of this modern danger is pride. It’s the age-old spiritual virus that seems to tempt and lure us into believing that everything is all about us. That we are somehow the centre of the universe and the world must conform to our needs and wants. It’s no wonder we’re now confronted with a looming global climate crisis; we just can’t accept that the rest of the world is suffering under the weight of our use and abuse of nature.
I recently began to read a collection of sermons from the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopalian priest in the United States, entitled And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament. While I’ve read a few of her other works and have referenced her before in my sermons, I find Rutledge challenges me and makes me uncomfortable at times. She will often question some of my long-held theological beliefs or my assumptions about preaching and pastoral ministry. While I may not always agree with Rutledge, I know reading her books and writings is good for me. She gets me out of my box.
In the introduction to her sermon collection, Rutledge notes most sermons today tend to be anthropocentric, in other words, human centred. The Bible is read as if it is from the human perspective of our searching for God. She suggests we tend to see the human person as the one acting in the stories “rather than the God who moves in on human beings whether they have spiritual inclinations or not.” The result of this perspective is that we often treat the stories of the Old Testament as stories of people searching for God in the hope of having their needs, wants, and desires fulfilled by God. As this is the predominate approach to the scriptures, Rutledge suggests we’re more willing to dismiss the stories of old as simply the ancient storytellers’ perspective, a point of view that we can easily dismiss because “our world and age” is different. However, that is not the case; instead, she argues the stories of the scriptures are about “God’s search for us.” Rutledge challenges preachers to remember that as she writes “The subject of the verbs in a sermon, therefore, should largely be God.”
Now I wasn’t entirely surprised by Rutledge’s argument in her book, but her words did get me to think about my previous sermons over these past few years of ordained ministry. With a similar fear and trepidation as I had when I once re-read writings from when I was in university, I looked back on the sermons I’ve written over the years to see who the subject of the verbs were in my sermons. While God certainly was the subject of many of my sermons, I discovered a good number of my sermons had us as the centre. Needless to say, Rutledge got me thinking a lot about the subject of my sermons and the need for me to reconsider the focus of my sermons. If Rutledge’s words weren’t challenging enough for me, I read in one of my commentaries on the Gospel of John a line from one of St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on this text whereby he says “the excellence of a messenger consists in saying nothing of his own.”
I thought of what Rutledge and Chrysostom had to say as I considered our scripture texts this week, particularly the lesson from the Gospel of John. Despite the priests’ and Levites’ demands for John the Baptist to make himself the centre of his prophetic ministry, John repeatedly points to another: God and what God is doing. From what we gather from the Gospel of John, and I’d suggest as well from the Gospel of Mark as we heard last week, John understands his ministry and his mission to be solely guided and directed by God. God has sent him to proclaim the long-awaited message of hope. God is the one who is coming with a mighty arm to save and redeem his people. Despite his strange dress and striking spiritual practise which reminds people of the great Prophet Elijah, John emphatically states he is neither Elijah nor the Messiah. He is simply the one who prepares the way of the Messiah (and in the verses following, the one who points to Jesus.)
This is significant, particularly for the Gospel of John. The gospel-writer John repeatedly uses the terms witness and testimony throughout his gospel. The gospel writer clearly believes that those who follow Jesus — namely you and me — are to be witnesses to Jesus and all our actions must point to him. It is God and God’s grace that is working within us. We are not the main actor of the story, God is. Our vocation as Christians is to point not to ourselves, but to Christ, as Martin Luther once said in a sermon: “Pius, Christian teachers direct the people away form themselves and to Christ, as St. John the Baptist does here with his testimony. For all our sermons tend toward this one goal, that you and we know and believe that Christ is the only saviour and consolation of the world.”
The prophet Isaiah likewise reminds us that God is the one who is at work within and among us. God is the one who will liberate us, and God is the one who make righteousness and justice prevail and flourish over all the earth. This latter point is particularly striking, and I’d suggest, challenging to us today. Although good hearted and well intentioned, there was a movement in the Christian Church in the late 20th century that spoke about us bringing about and building the kingdom of God. You will hear such a refrain sung in contemporary Christian hymns and songs, such as “we will build the kingdom of God.” While the song speaks to a deep yearning within all our hearts for justice and peace to reign, we will not bring about God’s kingdom by our own virtue and power, but rather by the grace of God. Isaiah makes this plain in the last sentence of today’s reading: “so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Is. 61:11) In fact, the Hebrew words for righteousness and justice evoke the sense that they are gifts of God. God even says in the Isaiah reading that those who are liberated and released from captivity will be made righteous by God. So moved by God’s profound work within us and creation, Isaiah can hardly contain his joy and excitement: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” (Is. 61:9) Once again, we return to the our primary call and vocation: to proclaim the goodness of the Lord to all.
As we draw closer to the great Christmas feast, our Advent themes shift from judgement to liberation, sorrow to exaltation. As the final days of our journey unfold, the prayers and scripture lessons will continue to spark within us a desire to proclaim the good news of what God is doing for us in Jesus. Notice I use the present-progressive form of the verb to do. God is still at work within us; Jesus is still among us. This ought to give us hope and perhaps even lift a weight off of our shoulders. Hope in that injustice will not have the final word despite what is going on in our world. While we are still called to work for justice and peace, the weight of that call need not weigh heavy upon us for it is not of our doing, but of God’s doing. God, working in and through us, as he did with the prophets of old, will bring about his kingdom of justice and peace. We simply need to be open to the Lord’s guiding and to go where he will have us go. Amen.