What Are You Waiting For? Tough Talk

[audio http://opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/fail/02.mp3](the service didn't get recorded this week. sorry. so i had a little fun with my own little recording)

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-18

In the view of the Christian church, John the Baptist is the last in the line of Hebrew prophets, speaking truth to power. After him comes Jesus, ushering in this Messianic age. And so John, in our lesson today, is railing against the corruption of the day: the crowd is a "brood of vipers"; they're not getting their inheritance; they've failed miserably in simple acts of mercy and kindness; and if you think what he says is bad, wait until Jesus comes along with unquenchable fire.

But here's the funny thing: all of this is presented as "good news." Now I don't know about ya'll, but being scolded to me doesn't feel much like "good news." And yet, it really is. The prophetic tradition is part of what we have inherited. Yes, God comforts the afflicted; but God also afflicts the comfortable. And we ought to do likewise. Do we prefer, instead, to water down the good news?

It's that time of year again, and we're starting to get the annual "here's what we've been up to" letters. For the most part, I like these because it gives me a chance to reconnect with friends with whom I've lost touch. But every now and then, you get that letter that either seems to good to be true or is just out and out bragging.

Ann Landers is not a source I quote often, but when this copy of an article on Christmas letters came across my desk, I had to share it. It starts with an example of the kind of over-the-top letter that we get some times:

Dear Friends,

What a great year. Jim was named vice president of the bank. We celebrated by buying a Mercedes and flying to the Orient. In addition to Boy Scout work, Jim was co-chairman of the United Fund drive. He continues on the board of Grace Hospital and is Treasurer of Kiwanis. His first love is still conservation, and he’s heading the Committee to Fight Dutch Elm Disease.

After completing my term as Junior League president, I swore I’d take life easy, but I’m more involved than ever. I accepted the vice presidency of the Garden Club and am active in the D.A.R. I ran the bake sale for the Eastern Star, and we made $680. I also squeezed in a flower arranging class offered by a Japanese exchange student. All this with my leg in a cast. Dumb me fell off a ladder while hanging curtains at the USO.

Jim Jr. was elected class president and won his letters in football and basketball. He is on the all-state debate team and placed third in the national oratory contest. We were surprised to read in the paper that he had won a $100 prize in the American Legion Essay Contest. We never even knew he entered. Junior has been accepted by Harvard and Yale and can’t make up his mind. Linda was elected vice president of her class, homecoming queen and sweetheart of the Phi Delts and was a finalist in the regional swimming meet.

And so on. You get the idea. Then the article goes on to suggest that perhaps this might be a better letter to send this year:

Dear Friends,

We’ve had a rotten year. Bill was passed over for promotion again so he quit. He hasn’t lined up anything yet but he’s listed with the employment agencies and looks in the want ads every day. In the meantime, he is drinking like a fish.

Bill Jr. was defeated for home-room monitor. He flunked French and will have to go to summer school to graduate. College is out. Bob hasn’t had a haircut since August and had to hock his guitar to pay for repairing his Honda. (Thank God he didn’t lose his leg. We were plenty worried.) Mary is protesting something and shaved her head two weeks ago. My mother-in-law’s May visit lasted ‘til August, and I am back in therapy. As I write this, the whole family is down with the flu and I’m exhausted. We hope next year is better. It couldn’t be much worse.

Does one of those feel more "real"? Probably the second one. The truth is that there's something compelling about honesty. And it's that fact, that unfiltered honesty, that makes John's sermon here good news. It is truth-telling in a pure, unvarnished sense.

As we've spent the past few weeks on this topic of "What Are You Waiting For," we've talked a lot about how maybe it's time to recognize that where we are is where we're supposed to be, and that God is at work with us in the here and now. And if we're going to jump into that here and now, a healthy dose of honesty would be helpful. Honesty to others, yes. But also honesty to ourselves. We can get so caught up in the busy-ness of life, especially this time of year, that we can easily drown out those interior voices with sheer white noise. Do you doubt? Are you angry? Do you carry shame around with you? Don't put it aside; let it out into the bright light of mercy. God works best out in the open.

Or do you have a truth-teller? Is there someone in your life that is your John the Baptist, a trusted friend who can tell you the honest truth, even if it stings a little bit, because you know that they really have your best interests at heart?

One of the things I've appreciated about OPC is people's frankness. So far, no one has called me a brood of vipers (at least not to my face). And I know this community as a good church; I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so. I simply want to return a little bit of frankness, albeit in my own way. So I'm offering four questions for my peeps here. If you're not part of OPC, I trust that they can apply in your life, too:

  1. Do you pray for this church? I don't mean pray for each other - that I know you do. And I know so very personally. But do you pray for the leaders, staff, elders, deacons of this church? Do you pray for growth? (I always feel like I have to deconstruct this term "growth" when I use it. Yes, I mean numerical growth - but not exclusively. I don't think God wants OPC to be a mega-church. But I do think there is something particular in this congregation that can mean something to people who are really aching for meaning in their lives. The reality is that our current building is an unsustainable facility with our current membership level; the leadership has a set a responsible course financially, but that's the bald truth there. Enough sidebar). If you have trouble finding room for that kind of prayer in your life, every Sunday morning at 10:30 staff and elders gather for prayer in the parlor. All are welcome. Just come 30 minutes early.
  2. Have you ever invited anyone to church? And not just worship; I think one of the places that OPC can do the most good is for folks who have been wounded by church in the past. And for folks like that, worship is probably not the best place to start. We are always having events that have a much broader appeal: a Parents' Christmas Break, a College Choir Concert. Do you look at our ongoing events with an eye toward whom you might include that isn't already here?
  3. Do you say hello to people you don't know? We are a warm community, yes. And after worship, it's like being at a family gathering. But what about those who come here looking for community and suddenly find themselves in a room full of strangers?
  4. Do you inhale and exhale? In other words, do you both draw spiritual energy from this place and give back to this community? You've got to do both; otherwise, you're not breathing.

The bottom line is that we need to truly embrace what it was that John the Baptist knew deep down: what we have here isn't ours to begin with. We are, at our best, vessels of God's grace. And this is the same good news John preached. We don't seek relationships with others for our own sake. We don't point to ourselves, but to Jesus. And like John, we should call others into close relationship with God as we call others to acts of mercy and kindness. As we raise that call, may our voices be part of a growing chorus.