“GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS”
Matthew 3: 1-12
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
December 4, 2016
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When Tasha and I lived in Scotland, we used to play a game called, “Spot the American.” We lived in a flat just above the most visited street in Scotland, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Each year tens of thousands of tourists flocked to Edinburgh to see the castle, the Palace of Holyrood and to walk the medieval street which ran between the two of them. As we lived there, the game got pretty easy. We would see them standing on the street corner, dressed in hiking boots, a water resistant North Face jacket, often of a bright color, and wearing a full backpack. Sometimes they would have a water bottle tucked into an outside pocket and when they would open it you could see that they were well supplied. They had food, maps, an umbrella (because even if your entire outer layer is waterproof you can’t be too dry) and extra clothes. While the Scots and visiting Europeans wandered around as if they were in any other major world city, the Americans traveled as if they believed that once the bounds of the USA were left behind, one was entering some sort of no man’s land.
And this pointed out to us a simple truth, most Americans, when we travel, want sort of the Disney experience of travel. I call it this because of my memories of Epcot Center. Have you ever been there? If you haven’t, you should know they have all these miniature countries. Each one has various elements of that nation’s culture for visitors to enjoy. Like in the French one you can get French food and sit near a small replica of the Eifel Tower. This is, I believe, how we Americans want our experience of foreign countries to be. We want to be in a different place in the world, but we want it to function just like America. We want the food, languages, and customs to be like home, except we want them at the foot of the Eifel Tower, or outside Edinburgh Castle.
This is understandable, I believe for us, not that I want to completely excuse the behavior. We understand America. We understand protocol for ordering at a restaurant or standing in line for tickets. Despite the size of our country, we all speak the same language, watch the same TV shows, and enjoy, by and large, the same pastimes. But when we travel to another country, everything we know and understand gets thrown out the window. We don’t know the language or the customs. We don’t know the rules for ordering in a restaurant or standing in a line. We don’t have common interests about which to speak, even if we can understand each other. To leave our country is to voluntarily feel estranged from almost everyone around us. The Americans we saw in Scotland weren’t doing anything wrong, they just didn’t know how to function in Scotland, so they brought as much of America with them as they could. Better that then feeling completely estranged.
But what if we need to feel estranged? What if I told you that the only way you could be truly American was to experience some other nation’s culture and customs first hand? What if I said to you that, in fact, the best way to be an American is to leave America? This would be jarring to many of us, I expect. Our congregation is not the norm. Most of us have left the country, but for the general public, this idea would seem almost unpatriotic. It would feel, perhaps, like a betrayal. Want to be an American, well, you’d best go live someplace else for a while! If that sounds a tad radical, it should, because that was, in essence, what John was saying to the people of Israel.
Most of them, of course, had never left their own home towns, much less seen the world. So when he wandered in from the desert, dressed in a filthy brown robe, wild with the look of the wilderness, he was inviting them away. He beckoned them out into the countryside, away from the familiar town in which they lived, and into something of a new country. The country to which he invited them was quite different than the one in which they lived. Their country was familiar to them. It was well organized by the occupying Romans, and the cultures and customs of their country hand been handed down over generations. They knew exactly what to do. But in the waters of the Jordan, John offered these provincial people passage to a new country, a country which was different than the one in which they had lived their whole lives, and he said to them this: the only way you can truly live in that country is to leave it, and come to this country.
And the common people loved it. They flooded out of the cities and into the wilderness to hear John preached. They knew, you see, that things weren’t right with their country. They knew that the Romans who occupied them were not treating them fairly. They knew their leaders had capitulated to those in power in order to keep their wealth and prestige. And they knew the religious authorities who populated their towns and synagogues would never go far enough in critiquing the system to make much difference. And so when John stood in the wilderness in all his wild eyed glory, they flocked to him. Even those cynical religious authorities came out, but he called them a den of snakes and sent them on their way. And so the way was prepared for Jesus. People knew that if they wanted to change their country, they themselves needed to change. John built the fire and Jesus would light the match.
Now, this is all well and good, and it makes for a nice story, but it also introduces to us a new problem. When Jesus came, he started a new country in the midst of the world. John calls it the Kingdom of Heaven, but you and I might as well call it a country. This country doesn’t have borders or governments, and it exists everywhere. And here is where things get hard, because this is something I believe. Many, many people visit the country that John spoke of and Jesus inaugurated, but not many of us actually live there.
You see I believe most of the time, and I include myself in this, we want the Disney experience of Christianity. We want the worship service, the community, the Christmas and Easter celebrations; we want to feel a part of something and we want to know that the Church will be there when we die; we want all this without really being ready to leave behind the world in which we actually live. We want to take as much of our country with us as we can when we go. So when we enter the Country of Heaven, we are heavy laden with all the stuff from this world that we can’t leave behind. Most of the time we don’t want to ask ourselves hard questions. We don’t want to dig too deeply into our habits. We don’t want to learn a new language or a new culture. We want an ancient middle-eastern religion founded by a divine human to mesh seamlessly with our everyday modern lives. And so if he were here today, John would walk into this sanctuary and look at all of us good Christian people and he would say “repent!” He would tell us to turn around and head out into the wilderness.
To continue our travel image, let me tell you about my best trip to Paris. The last time we went, instead of staying at a hotel, we rented a flat. Instead of eating out, we shopped at the local market and the bakery. Instead of hitting all the tourist stops at break neck speed, we sat at cafes in the afternoon and had coffee. In the evening, when we did go out to dinner, we ate at 9:00 with the locals, rather than 6:00 with the other Americans. We went to a French church on Sunday and afterwards strolled leisurely through the Luxemburg Gardens with the Parisians who were there playing chess, sitting in the sun or watching their children run around. This was the best trip I have taken, because I was able to stop trying to be American.
When you enter the Country of Heaven, stop trying to be a traveling American. Stop bringing everything from out there in here. Repent. Leave it behind. This is why we talked about the Fruit of the Spirit in the run up to the election; those politics of that country are not the same as the politics of this country. If you want to live in this country, don’t be a democrat or a republican, be peaceful, kind, generous, and humble. Do you see? Repent! Turn around! Leave that giant pack full of all your comfort items behind and let the estrangement come and then realize that this Country of Heaven which John named and Jesus inaugurated is better than any other country. Be native here, not out there. That’s what John’s message is about, that’s what repentance means. Repentance is not a ticket into the Kingdom of Heaven, it is about cultivating a way of life that allows us to live there as native children. Each year we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives and into our world; we celebrate the establishment of a country that transcends any nation on this planet and which is offered to us as a true home. Today repent. Repent and enter the country God, and no one else, has created for you. It is here, right here, leave the world behind and come. It is Christ who invites you to meet him here. Amen.