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Unworthy Obsessives (Welcome to our World #1, 2016-1204)

. 5 min read

12/03-04/2016
Christ Mountain Top, The Lord’s Table
Isaiah
11.1-10, advent wreath
      With Nativity Hymn IV of Charles Wesley, v
2
Matthew
3.1-12, kids
Romans
15.4-13, message
Wow.
I love this story from Matthew’s gospel that we shared with the kids. If you’re
a fan of watching other people get confronted, especially the ones painted by
the story as “the bad guys”, it’s perfect. They self-identify as “children of
Abraham”. Instead, John the firebrand labels them “brood of vipers”. Talk about
a put down! Taking them out at the knees! Good thing we’re not Pharisees,
right?
      I don’t know about you, but I’ve got
plenty in common with those Pharisees. In John’s time, in Jesus’ time, they
were the scrupulously observant Jews. They were widely respected for their
piety and obedience. They were the faithful church-goers, the good tithers, the
Sunday School teachers, the choir members, the Bible study group. They were
obsessive about following God. And somehow unworthy. “Bear fruit worthy of
repentance.”
      Baptism, which was being celebrated by
others, was not for the Pharisees. It was part of the conversion process for
Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. So, why would any self-respecting child of
Abraham, especially one of the good guys, the obsessively religious, need
baptism or repentance?
Here’s
the trouble, and it is addressed in the passage from Romans as well: When you
are confident that you are that good, when you know for sure that you are
worthy, you tend to conclude that your goodness makes you better than…. I know
I’m preaching to myself, but I hope that I’m not the only one who has struggled
with that secret pride.

This
is our world, isn’t it? Whether in moral terms or in practical terms, we
compare ourselves with each other. Those folks who wear their ball caps cocked
to the side. Those folks who sanitize their grocery carts. Those folks who tell
off-color jokes. Those folks who aren’t as committed as I am. Those folks with
a different skin tone or accent. I remember, as a young person, being a bit
judgmental of other young guys who wore their hair parted in the middle. They
were far too fashion conscious and I was above all that. If I’m not as bad as
my neighbor, then I must be pretty good.
Lord
Jesus! Welcome to this crazy mixed up world of ours.
Tears
are falling, hearts are breaking
How
we need to hear from God
You’ve
been promised, we’ve been waiting
Welcome
Holy Child
Welcome
Holy Child
Hope
that you don’t mind our manger
How
I wish we would have known
But
long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make
yourself at home
Please
make yourself at home
Bring
your peace into our violence
Bid
our hungry souls be filled
Word
now breaking Heaven’s silence
Welcome
to our world
Welcome
to our world
            Chris Rice, “Welcome to Our World”
We
compare ourselves with each other and we conclude we are better. It is the
fatal pride of the Pharisees, as John confronted them. It is the call of the
apostle Paul to the Romans: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has
welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15.7). Paul was applying it, in his
particular context, to the church opened to both Jews and Gentiles. And it is
far too easy for us to think of that as only a first-century problem.
Anti-Semitism is alive and well today, and among Christian people as well.
      Interestingly, Paul was a Pharisee. And,
he could boast, in all seriousness, about his obsessive religious practice: “as
to legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless” (Philippians 3.6).
Nevertheless, he also claimed to be “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15).
We
do need to step back a moment when we talk about a world in which our most
obsessive religion is unworthy. Sometimes, the conclusion is, “then, why
bother?” Psalm 37, in Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message, reads, “There’s a future in strenuous wholeness”
(37-38). There is great value in obedience to God – not out of our own
compulsions or obsessions, but because of God’s love for us and our love for
God. However, none of that obedience makes us more or less worthy before God.
And none of that obedience makes us better or worse than our neighbor.
      The problem with our obsessive religion is
that it is so often combined with judgment, and usually judgment that has
nothing to do with what really matters. Did you hear what the prophet declared
about Israel’s coming savior? “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or
decide by what his ears hear” (Isaiah 11.3). But we are really good at judging
a book by its cover.
      One of the ways we judge one another is by
religious labels. Unfortunately, even Christians judge one another by these
labels. The Rwandan genocide was Christians against Christians, under slightly
different labels. Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and ethicist, offers a modest
proposal for peace on earth, “for Christians to stop killing one another.” That’s
nice, but even that modest proposal becomes fairly complicated when we think,
for example, of the numbers of Christians in Iraq and the large numbers of
Palestinians who are followers of Jesus. “Welcome one another, therefore, just
as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
      Another way we judge, or prejudge, one
another is along lines of race and ethnicity. Bob at the convenience store: the Asian cashier, the American
customer with non-standard English.  “Welcome
one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
      If we wish to welcome Jesus to our world –
the great hope of the Advent season – then part of our labor and calling while
we wait is to welcome one another. To welcome strangers as guests. Clinging to
our obsessive religion as a way to make us feel better than or more important
than … that’s not exactly the way to welcome Jesus, or the stranger.
Perhaps
this very welcome is a modest proposal for “peace on earth, good will to all”,
for the kingdom describe by the prophet:
The
wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the
calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead
them.  7 The cow and the bear
shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw
like the ox.  8 The nursing
child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its
hand on the adder’s den.  9
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be
full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11.6-9).

Yes,
Lord Jesus, come. Welcome to our world.