Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The graceful ax of God



Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

So, today’s Gospel’s a little scary. You know it’s never a good sign when the first thing that comes to mind when you read the Gospel you plan to preach on is a scene from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. Because – it’s easy to think that today’s Gospel is claiming that the Advent of Jesus is similar to the Advent of Santa, only a lot more sadistic. I mean is that what John the Baptist is saying? That –

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Jesus Christ is coming to town

And then the verse that I wrote:

He sees you when you're sinning,
So I think it’s time you learned;
The wheat he will be gathering in,
But the bad trees he will burn.

So here’s the first thing I want to say about today’s Gospel – the point is not to scare us into a changed life. Right? Because – how does Luke sum up John’s speech? “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Jesus’ arrival is good news, as is every single word that John speaks in today’s Gospel.

And so what I’d have us consider is that today’s Gospel isn’t a picture of Judgment Day, where the sheep and goats are divided, but rather a spiritual formation text where John gives us a clear picture of what Jesus Christ longs to do in our lives: “The ax,” John says, “is lying at the root of the trees; and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now, what does this mean? Well, in the backdrop of John’s speech is Psalm 1. And when you get home today I’d encourage you to read Psalm 1, where the righteous person is compared to a tree – a tree that’s planted by streams of water so that it yields fruit in its season. And so psalm one’s metaphor for the spiritual live is that each and every one of us is a tree, which makes us ask the question – where it is exactly that we’re planted. In other words, what do the roots of our soul rely on to find nourishment?

Because – when it comes to life there’s a really big difference between being a tree planted by a riverbank and one that depends on the outside rain to find nourishment and life. And what I think psalm 1 is saying is that there’s a difference between a person whose roots descend deep into God to find nourishment in His goodness and grace, and someone that depends on “outside factors” to make them feel like a worthwhile human being.

And that’s why our great spiritual problem isn’t so much that we’re rebels or misfits but, in the tradition of psalm 1, trees – trees that have been planted somewhere East of Eden and therefore trees that bear the wrong kind of fruit. You see, even though God tells us that we are the object of His love – His very own beloved – we still live our lives frantically searching for someone else to tell us we’re beloved. You see like a tree that depends on the outside rain to stay alive we too rely on outside factors – our I.Q., our sense of humor, what other people think, our portfolio, the feedback we’re getting at work, our own piety and religious observance, our religious tradition (you, know the claim that we have Abraham as our ancestor and that’s what makes us special!). And that’s why John reminds the crowds in today’s Gospel that God can make more children of Abraham from a pile of rocks – that it’s not our heritage or anything else that makes us worthy, but rather God’s commitment to save us, and purify us, refine us with the fire of His Holy Spirit, all to make us more like Himself – that is what makes us worthy.

And it’s this acknowledgement, I believe, that captures the nature of true repentance, which is any shift of the mind that moves us a bit closer to finding our worth and significance in Jesus. And that’s why God’s desire isn’t to polish us up or to work out the kinks in our character, but rather to take his graceful ax, chop us down, burn the chaff, safeguard the wheat, and to slowly but surely uproot us so that we might be replanted in His Son Jesus Christ.

And so while today’s Gospel may not be scary, it is unsettling. Because – nothing inside of us wants to be cut down, and replanted. And yet, for those of us who have already drowned in the waters of baptism, I think it’s good to be reminded that Jesus has no intention of leaving us alone until we are completely and utterly transformed. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money … I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, I’ve come to kill it. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. [And so] hand over your whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

And so, let me give you a quick example of how this is playing out in my life. There’s a young man I visit weekly in prison by the name of Gerardo. He’s 15 and already Gerardo’s accrued a handful of felony charges. And even though the state will give him a chance to change his life before he turns 18, after two months of walking alongside him I’m not sure that’ll happen, or if Gerardo even wants it to happen. And I tell you this because I began this ministry thinking my call was to get through to him. And what I’m finding is that the person God’s chiseling away at is me. One of the things I’m learning is how scared I am. Truth be told, at this point in life I would never have Gerardo into my home. I’m also learning I have a hard time “wasting” time. If the guard lets me out at 7:04 and not 7 PM sharp I get angry, and if Gerardo’s not happy to see me I’m the one that feels like the victim. “You little jerk,” I think, “do you not appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?” In other words, what God’s showing me is that there’s still so much chaff in my heart that Jesus wants to burn, weeds he needs to pull, branches He intends to prune – all of which is a part of his plant to chop me down and replant me in the goodness and grace of God.

And so here’s the word I’d like to leave you with this morning. As Christmas approaches, when you experience pain – when a relationship breaks down or when a comment breaks your spirit; when your impatience frustrates you or when your anger boils over – stop. Pray. Think about what it is you’re being denied that you’ve been relying on day in and day out to nourish you. Draw an X on that aspect of your soul. And then, invite Jesus to pick up his ax, to bring the baptism of his fire, because something may need to be chopped down and some chaff may need to be burned.

Because – there is no path to spiritual maturity that doesn’t involve pain. Apparently when Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he apparently replied, “Well, I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.” In the same way, Jesus longs to carve away those bits of us that are not really “us” at all. Because – as badly as we want to plant ourselves where our souls can find nourishment in the things of this world, it is good news that Jesus comes to uproot us and replant us in a different world all together, which He calls the Kingdom of God.

And so take heart. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. The ax is lying at the root of the trees; Even now the Master Artist is chiseling, and in His mind, the masterpiece, who you are and who He is fashioning you to be, is finished.

God asks us not to worry,
His wrath we will not face
It’s His goodness that uproots us,
And replants us in His grace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The glory of Jesus



Jesus said, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Well, good morning. My name’s John Newton and I work for the Diocese as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means for the most part that I’m in a new congregation each Sunday. But St. John’s is the church that my beautiful wife Emily and I call home. And because this feels like home whenever I preach here I’m always a little bit more nervous. And in particular, yesterday, I was a panicky because I woke up and didn’t have a sermon. And not for lack of preparation. I made notes. I read commentaries. I even did a group Bible study. But, you know, nothing clicked. So I browsed through old sermons hoping to recycle one. But I decided you deserve better. Plus, I didn’t have any – first time preaching on Luke 21. And so my heart was “weighed down” as Jesus put it today with the cares of this life.

You see, a little secret you might not know about us preachers: we put a lot of weight in your opinion. We want you to think we’re competent, smart and faithful and far too often it’s actually from you and what you think that we derive our sense of worth and significance. And that’s why I panicked. “What if Sunday rolls around and I don’t have anything to say, what they will think? And if they don’t think it’s good, how will I be able to stand up and raise my head?”

You see, all humans are desperate to know we have significance – to stand tall and raise our head – and far too often we spend our lives chasing after something we think can give it to us.

And it can be anything. What someone thinks of our sermon. Our reputation. A relationship. Our achievements. Our spouse. Our kids. Our portfolio. Our I.Q. Our own moral obedience, piety and religious observances. Being independent. But we all put emotional weight on something hoping against hope that it will help us lift our head in this world and quite frankly give us the cosmic significance we all crave. But what eventually happens is that our hearts get weighed down because intuitively we know that we were created for something more significant, something weightier, than the cares of this life.

Now, today’s the 1st Sunday of Advent and Advent is actually about that Something Weightier, that Something More Significant, arriving in our world not for the first time but for the second. In other words, Advent’s about Jesus Christ coming back not just with power but with power and great glory. And so this morning, I want to answer two questions.

First -- What is glory, and what does it mean to say that Jesus will come with glory?

Second -- What can we do to prepare for this reality so that, as Luke says, when Jesus comes, or we meet Him in death, we can “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence?

And so first, what is glory? Well, the Biblical word glory has two similar meanings. It means weight, or heaviness, but it also means significance or value. The word glory, more than anything, alludes to the real presence of God. The real God is weighty. The real God is heavy. The real God has significance. And that’s why when the real God shows up in the Bible there’s often an earthquake. Mount Sinai’s the perfect example. The real God shows up, the mountain shakes. Right? Because – the real God is so much heavier, so much weightier, than a mountain.

For example, if I drop this pen on the ground (drop pen) it will barely make a sound because the ground has a lot more glory, a lot more weight, than a pen – right? But if a meteorite falls from other space the ground will be crushed because the meteorite has more glory or weight than the surface of the ground.

And so on this first Sunday of Advent as we ponder Jesus’ future return in glory, I’m not sure there’s a more crucial question than this – what’s the weightiest thing in our life? In other words, what’s more real or pressing to our heart than anything else? What do we rely on in this world to stand up with our heads raised? Is it a real, deep and personal friendship with Jesus – and a knowledge of His love, mercy and grace – or is it something else?

Now – a warning to those of us who attend church every week, read our Bible and like to debate the finer points of doctrine – Advent isn’t about getting more familiar with God as a concept, but about standing before the Living Christ in all of His glory and being changed.

You see there’s a problem with the concept of God. It has a lot less glory than our ego. The concept of God is like the pen. And if we drop the concept of God into our life or into our church it will leave us unbroken and will barely make a sound. But in the Bible, when people encounter the Living God, their tiny wants, needs and life-pursuits are always crushed and their life is rearranged.

There was a book that came out in 1972 and twice it was made into a movie – The Stepford Wives. In it the men of Stepford engineer a way to turn their wives into robots. And so women who were once real and able to contradict and challenge their husbands are changed into submissive machines that only exist for a single purpose – and that’s to meet the needs and desires of their husbands.

Here’s the problem with only relating to God as a concept. It’s a Stepford God. If God to us is nothing more than a concept it’s inevitable that we’ll make Him into a robot that only exists to meet our needs and desires. You see a Stepford God has no glory. He can’t contradict us or challenge us. And that’s why the concept of God is light. But the real God is so much weightier than us and our idols. And that’s why it’s not the knowledge of God that transforms us. It’s the experience of God that transforms us.

And so when we talk about Jesus returning in glory, what we’re trying to do is capture the reality that when Jesus returns, we who rest in His mercy and grace will finally have that complete and total transforming experience – what Jesus calls “redemption” in today’s Gospel. You see, the transformation we experience in this life, though real, it still pales in comparison to what will be experienced when we stand before our Lord. And if you think about it, that’s both encouraging and challenging, because when we stand before the One for whom and through whom we were created, we will no longer be able to perpetuate any illusion that we have any significance at all apart from our relationship with Him.

And so as we affirm our belief that our life will culminate with an encounter with the real Jesus – not our concept of Jesus, but the real Jesus – there’s always the question of – “what does that mean for our life” – so that when we do meet Him we can as Luke says “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence without zero fear of being crushed?

And so let me first be clear on what the answer is not. The answer is not “roll up your sleeves and get to work.” There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming -- look busy!” Great bumper sticker, bad theology. Because – if we listened carefully to today’s Gospel, there’s only one thing Jesus says that will last, that has ultimate significance, and that won’t pass away.

And that’s His word to us. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says, “but my words will not pass away.”

And Jesus’ word to us isn’t try harder, or shape up, or “I’m so disappointed get your act together.” No, Jesus’ word to us is one of grace. “Come to me all you who are tired and burdened and I will give you rest. “Fear not little flock,” as He says in Luke 12, “For it’s your Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Or from today’s Gospel – “stand up and raise your heads.”

You see the word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice or good works or good luck trying to please God, the word Gospel literally means good news. And Jesus’ word to us, which will not pass away, is good news. And that’s why Advent reminds us that because Jesus alone is significant and Valuable it’s foolish to put too much emotional weight in anything we do and to shift our deepest hope in what He’s done for us. Because – heaven and earth may pass away, but his word – which is the good news that we are so precious to God that we’re worth dying for – that word will never pass away.

And to the extent that we rely on that word, we will be able to stand confidently before Jesus, knowing that His glory won’t be like a meteor that crushes us, nor will it be like a pen that barely makes a sound. But in a way that’s almost too mysterious to comprehend, because of what Jesus did on the cross, the experience of his mercy and grace and love will be so heavy, so weighty, so glorious, that it will crush our sins without crushing us; and that this experience of God will transforms us, once and for all.

Because – the message of Advent is not get busy being more religious and learn to make Jesus your glory. But rather, it’s rest, watch wait and ponder what it means for you to be Jesus’ glory. For we can only make Him significant to us to the extent that we know how significant we are to Him.

And so, don’t let your heart be weighed down with the worries of this life. Jesus doesn’t want this day to catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. But root your life in Jesus’ word to you, which will not pass away. You are so incredibly weighty to Him. Knowing that will make Him weighty to you.

Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. And so when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.