Text: Luke 3: 1-14
Two Sundays ago (Sun. Dec. 28) when I was with you in worship, an elderly gentleman sat down with me after church. He was plainly upset that so few worshipped together that Sunday. He said “Pastor I want to ask you a question. Is it going to take another major disaster to fill these pews again?” As a pastor I have heard these words often and I answered that I’m not sure even a disaster will fill the pews the next time. I feel that is true because of a church that has not changed but is living in the midst of a world that has changed all around them.
I really believe that the church as we know it must radically change or it will become increasingly irrelevant and be brushed aside even more than it is already, thus increasingly dwindling in numbers. A great and radical change must take place in the structure and practices of proclaiming the gospel that Jesus proclaimed if we are to take a running jump into the 21st century, address its problems and the things that impact people’s lives so we can meet the needs of individuals, communities and nations in this 21st century world. My opinion is that only as we live the gospel each day can we proclaim it to the 21st century. Today’s generations are not interested in words, they are interested in action.
Because, just as Charles Dickens began his novel about the French Revolution with: A Tale of Two Cities, with the words: “These were the best of times, these were the worst of 1times….”, so must we see these as the best of times for the church and yet the worst of times also!
The “Best of Times” for the church because there is so much need for the proclamation of the Kingdom to be lived out to change a world that is spiraling into hopelessness, despair and violence.
The “Worst of Times” because the church feels it has been abandoned—that its message has been stifled—almost a feeling of grief for the “good times of the mid-20th century when the churches were full and Christianity was thriving as never before—-when churches were full and building new ones on the theory if you build they will come and fill the church. That all began to change in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But in these “worst of times” comes the challenge to live the gospel as never before. We cannot depend on the state, or the culture to promote the Christian Way. They no longer do so—-now is the chance for Christians to show by the life they live what life in the Kingdom of God here on earth should be like. And what a need there is to do so!!
Into the “worst of times” in Jesus’ day came John the Baptizer—-preaching a “message of repentance” to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We might ask how a “message of repentance” prepared the way for Jesus? Was it because people were so bad and sinful? No—–it is because we misunderstand the word “repentance” these days. We have come to understand it as “feeling sorry for having disobeyed God” or “regretting the bad things we have done. That was not the meaning of repentance in John’s day. In the Greek the word is metanoia— and it’s meaning is “turning around”. John was urging people to be willing to turn around and go in a different direction—the direction Jesus proclaimed— to turn toward the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God was breaking in on earth—-this Kingdom of God is not “heaven” or “pie in the sky bye and bye”—-the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was a new way of living—-a very different way of living. And it must be a new way of living in the world—right now. The church has really not succeeded well in living the Gospel. Study the Gospels and see what the Kingdom of God is as Jesus proclaimed it throughout those gospels— in the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables of the Kingdom and his healing and compassionate ministry. Jesus proclamation of the Kingdom of God set the business of living in this world in the conventional way on its head in many ways: In God’s Kingdom, Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor”—-not the rich.
“Blessed are the meek”—-not the powerful. The meek will inherit the earth instead of the conventional expectation that the powerful and rich will do so and then pass it on to their heirs.
“Blessed are the peacemakers”—-they, not the army generals as in Jesus time, will be called children of God
“You have heard ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
These descriptions Jesus gives of the way life in the Kingdom of God are very different from the usual way of life. .
The Kingdom of god is what the world would be like if God rule in human hearts —-If God’s love and passion for justice for all ruled our lives
It is because early Christians were living the Way of the Kingdom of God that we read in Acts of the Apostles, “these Christians are turning the world upside down!” The Gospel , the Good News, of the Kingdom of God can do that!
The Kingdom of God was in direct opposition to the way things were in Palestine in the first century C.E. The rulers were taking care of themselves and nobody else. They were greedy and power-hungry rulers and also ruthless: that included everyone from the the Emperor Tiberius, through Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, and Annas and Caiphas the high priests. All were greedy for power and wealth and took it from the peasants who were 93 percent of the population, living a subsistence existence—-just barely enough to live on and survive. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying—–“Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” he was speaking of the two most constant worries of the peasant class—-food and freedom from debt. If you had no food, you starved. If you couldn’t pay your debts, including your high taxes, you were thrown in prison and if yous had land it was seized by your creditor to satisfy the debt. Most peasants lost their land this way. It took only one bad crop.
The entire culture was designed to support the rich and powerful, who lived by different rules and standards than the peasant population at the expense of the peasants.
The culture was a military and violent culture. If you were perceived to be an enemy of Rome you were crucified. The roads leading out of Jerusalem at times were full of crosses where people were slowly dying as an example to the population that you do not challenge the Roman Empire. Thousands were crucified by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator in Judea where he ruled.
Religion was no help as the Jewish high priests were only interested in keeping the power they received by appointment by the Roman Emperor and making themselves wealthy by the business of the temple taxes and sacrifices.
Does it sound familiar?? The similarities to our country today are frighteningly apparent:
We also are a country where the rich and powerful live by different rules and standards than the common people and where those with money and power pass laws to become even more rich and powerful at the hands of a middle class that is turning into a peasant class.
A country where 10% of the people have 60% of the wealth with the other 40% of the wealth divided among the other 90% of the population.
A violent country where people with no conscience kill and rob on a daily basis. Where life is cheap. A country whose children kill and maim their teachers and fellow classmates. A country where multiple murders are committed in movie theaters and at marathons. We live in a country where violence is commonplace.
A country where the greed and gluttony of huge financial institutions in order to enrich their CEO’s and their stockholders,periodically eats up the savings of those most vulnerable who trusted them.
A country where the wealth of a Beverly Hills exists in stark contrast to the filth and poverty of a Watts in the same city of Los Angeles.
A country where the lonely and the aged, the poor and the mentally challenged, the children with no access to health care and not enough to eat, the homeless, and the misfits of society remain largely unseen and uncared about. Programs to help them, such as affordable health care and extension of Medicaid benefits are the first ones cut from government budgets or discarded for political reasons. We reduce food stamps and aid for struggling families in order to shrink the federal deficit—–while huge corporations that contribute to re-election of our legislators continue to receive tax breaks and other benefits they do not need.
We live in Kansas—-also a place where thousands of children go to bed hungry, without health care, and are homeless even though both parents work—-but for indecently low wages that can’t support their families—and we continue to support those who have made the lives of these vulnerable people worse and fail to speak out as a church about the lack of fairness and the injustice of the a system that gives businesses tax breaks on the backs of the poor and Corporate CEO’s 250% higher wages than those who work for them.
A place where religious leaders are too often in close collusion with political and governmental powers in order to get their limited negative agendas on abortion and gay rights taken care of legally.
This is a country ruled more and more by men and women whose only aim is to do whatever is necessary to stay in power, whether right or wrong does not matter, —-like modern day Herod’s and Pilates.
There is a need today for John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness, saying: “Turn around, for there is a better way than this way of greed and suffering that you are walking It is the way of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed!!
For people are wandering around in this wilderness today, having lost their moral, emotional and economic way—–yearning for something better and not quite knowing what that something better is. They are yearning for someone to show them the way of Jesus—-a different way of living that leads to a society where all of God’s people are treated equally, fairly, and lovingly. There are many others wondering in the wilderness of drug abuse, of broken relationships, of too little income, of homelessness. There are those who have given up hope and struggle from day to day to fight down the urge to end their lives. There are those filled with anger who want to strike out at the world that abuses them and uses them. These wanderers in the wilderness are young and old, rich and poor, male and female, all skin colors; but they all feel vulnerable in a world that seems to have gone crazy. They are trying to raise families in this world where even the schools are unsafe for their children. They are not aware of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. They are waiting for someone to show them, not tell them a different way—-a way that will give them and their children hope and happiness and a new beginning. They are waiting for us to show them by our lives how to follow the Great Commandment of Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself. That is the mission of the church—including this church—-To live the Great Commandment in the community that surrounds us. If we do so we will find that filling the pews may not be the important thing, but what is of ultimate importance is transforming people to be servants of God in his Kingdom on earth.
There is a whole generation of people called the Millennial Generation consisting of over 80 million individuals who need to hear this proclamation of the gospel. They are between the ages of 18-33. Polls tell us that 86% of them believe in God. The majority of them are searching earnestly for meaning in their lives. Few of them are in our churches. These are young people that our churches can enlist in our journey towards experiencing more fully the Kingdom of God on this earth. They love challenges. They are searching for a different way of life that has meaning for them and their children. A way of life that makes a difference in this world right now. They crave authenticity. They can spot a fake a mile away! They are some of those “wondering in the wilderness” searching for the Messiah—searching for a better way of living. They distrust institutions, including the church, so we need to show them that better way through the lives we lead as Christians. Jesus proclaimed that Way. He lived that way. Early Christians were known as “People of the Way” And Jesus did not say to his generation—-come to church and find out about this way of life—-he went out into the villages and the countryside where people were and proclaimed it not only through his teaching but through his very life. Early followers of the Way did the same thing as they spread the good news of the Kingdom of God throughout the world. They did not do this by just preaching—-they did it by the way they lived. Even pagans in their writing said: “See how these Christians love one another.”
The Church is Jesus’ body and needs to show that way today, not just with words but by the way they live.
The Mission of the Church, this post-resurrection community living in this pre-Christian world today, must be to proclaim the Kingdom of God through what we do and who who we are as God’s people..
Listen to what one of the Millenial generation wrote to you and me—-post-resurrection Christians…….
Do you know,
Do you understand
That you represent
Jesus to me?
Do you know, do you understand
That when you treat me with gentleness,
It raises the question in mind that maybe Jesus is gentle, too?
Maybe he isn’t someone who laughs when I’m hurt?
Do you know, do you understand
That when you listen to my questions and you don’t laugh,
I think, “What if Jesus is interested in my questions, also?”
Do you know, do you understand,
That when I hear you talk about arguments and conflict
And scars from your past
That I think, “Maybe I am just a regular person
Instead of a bad, no-good person who deserves abuse?
If you care, I think maybe God cares—
And then there’s this flame of hope that burns inside of me,
And for a while, I am afraid to breathe
Because it might go out.
Do you know, do you understand,
That your words are His words?
Your face, His face to someone like me?
Please be who you say you are.
Please, God, don’t let this be another trick.
Please let this be real.
Do you know, do you understand?
That you represent Jesus to me?