Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow!

Catedral Jaca 2We’ve been getting ready for Christmas around here.

We’ve got a new Christmas tree in the education building.

We’ve order and will place poinsettias in the sanctuary next Sunday.

We’ve even got a new crèche for the church.  You’ll notice it in the display case in the education building.  The crèche  (and the new Christmas tree) are my family’s gifts to the church this Christmas.

I’ve got yet another small crèche with me this morning.  Have you ever noticed the characters that make up the traditional crèche or nativity scene? Let’s look at who these folks are.

First you’ve got the shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

Closely associated with the shepherds are the angels who brought them the announcement about the baby’s birth.  When shepherds heard the announcement they high-tailed it over to Bethlehem to see all that was happening.

Next you’ve got Mary, of course.  And then there is Joseph.  And here’s the baby Jesus.  We wouldn’t want to forget Him.  Then there are the animals.  Lots of animals.  The Wise Men are also pictured in many traditional nativity scenes.  Now that’s rather strange because in the Bible they don’t show up until about two years after Jesus birth–and they visit Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at their home in Nazareth, not the manger in Bethlehem.

Well, that about covers it.  Doesn’t appear to be anyone left in the box.  Does anyone seem to be missing to you?  If we are going to include the Wise Men, who really don’t belong, then whom else could we include?

Should we include John the Baptizer?  He’s Jesus second cousin, the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.  He is also the product of a miraculous birth, arriving at the home of two people well beyond their childbearing years.  And in the history of the church, John’s story comes to us each year on the second Sunday of Advent.  So it seems like he ought to be included.

Every year during Advent we hear his story, but he’s not pictured in the crèche.  Nobody has ever made a cute little figurine to honor him. You’ll not see John featured on any Christmas cards or sing about him in any Christmas Carols.

Oh, I know.  John really doesn’t belong in the nativity scene.  Nevertheless, year after year, we allow John’s story to intrude on our Christmas preparations?  There must be something about John’s message that has some special significance during this season of the year?

Now there is little doubt about the fact that John was a strange character.  Wearing a coarse camelhair tunic and a leather loincloth, he came boldly from out of the desert. Those years in the desert had done some strange things to his appearance.  His skin was dark, dry, and shriveled. With a diet of locust and wild honey, you could make out his bones beneath his skin.

There he was–standing along the banks of the Jordan River–bursting onto the scene out of nowhere.  From the water’s edge he shouts his message to the crowds. “Repent. Repent. Come to the water to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!”

His words stirred the people. His message was compelling.  Many replied to his call to baptism.  This wasn’t just some craze religious fervor either.  These people were serious.  In fact, many of the people who were baptized stayed on with John for many years.

So, what was it about this man’s message that found a real serious itch to scratch in people’s spiritual lives?  Listen to what he said!

“Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight. ‘Prepare in the desert a way for Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be leveled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of Lord will be revealed and all humanity will see it together, for the mouth of Lord has spoken.”

John spoke about the need of the people to be prepared for a fresh movement of God’s Spirit.  Sure, we are preparing to celebrate what has happened in the birth of Christ.  That’s why we are decorating our homes with lights and candles. That’s why we are putting up evergreen trees and ornaments. That’s why we listen to Christmas carols and wish each other a “merry Christmas.”  This is part of our preparation.

But we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that has already happened.  The church has understood Advent as a time when it prepares itself for all the other surprising “advents” of God.  You see God is still moving.  God is always doing something new in this world to advance the message of His grace.

The kingdom of heaven is very close, so get ready. Repent. Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. The English word Repent means to feel sorry for what one has done.  That’s not exactly what John was preaching.  The Greek word that we have translated as repent is a cool sounding word: Metanoia.  It means more than feeling sorry for what we’ve done.  It means a complete change of mind, attitudes, and loyalties.   It means changing allegiances.  It means the renunciation of the past and the embrace of the future.  It is a complete reversal.

This word, Metanoia, was the key word in John’s preaching.  Metanoia was an absolute requisite for being ready to see and embrace the new movements of God.  This kind of repentance is necessary if we are to “prepare the way” of the Lord in this church.

The kind of response John received was amazing.  The text says that huge crowds went out to hear him.  These were people who on any normal Sabbath would have been at their institutional church, learning from the properly recognized and authorized Rabbi’s teaching in accordance with the ancient and time-honored traditions.

The people who came to John were people deeply involved in their churches.  Yet the fact that they had come to John indicates that they were a people who sensed that something was missing.  Something was missing in their traditional Sabbath morning rituals.  Their church simply wasn’t doing it for them anymore and they, like a lot of people in our age, went looking elsewhere.

How deep did this sense of dissatisfaction run in that religious community?  In today’s reading, we see that it ran very deep. Among the people flocking to John we might expect some of the “fringe” members of the institutional church and yes, they were there. But notice who also was there! The text speaks of Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John. And not just a few of them church leaders either. The text clearly says that “many” of them came.

What were they doing there?  Were they simply curious?  Or did they come to spy and complain?  The text answers this question, too.  It says they were coming to be baptized!  Imagine that!

Could we ask for any more graphic barometer than this? What a huge testimony this is about the failure of the institutional church of that day. Even its most devout leaders were ready to try something else in their quest to feel close to God.

It’s happened over and over again throughout the history of the church.  Folks feel a sense of discontent.  At times it seems like the institutional church becomes so steeped in its traditions that it somehow looses the reality of God’s presence.  Even Jesus noticed this.  That’s why he was so extremely critical of the institutional church of his day.  He actually began to flaunt his disregard for their traditions, their legalism, their exclusivity, their pride, and their love of the status quo. He challenged their interpretation of the law. He questioned their teachings. He made the leaders of the church really mad.

We can look on, through the lens of history and also see the next chapter of the story. The discontent that the people sensed–the discontent that brought them to John and to Jesus–eventually led to the destruction of the temple by the year 70 AD.  The church, sick in John’s day, eventually died because they were unable to accept the new movements of God’s Spirit.  Judaism would continue, but the Temple was destroyed.

John went around shouting out “Repent!”  He went around preaching: “Change… Get ready… Be prepared. Something big is about to happen.  God is coming.”

John told a people aching for new connection with God, yearning for spiritual revival, that God would hear their deepest cry. He told the people that God would send a new leader, a Savior, a true Messiah, who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire! Though you may despair about the church do not despair of God. God is coming!

Now notice that the religious leaders who came to John in our story in the end were not baptized. In fact, John refused to baptize them.  Instead he insulted them.  Why did John rebuff them so harshly?

I think we are left to assume that these folks wanted it both ways.  They wanted renewal without genuine change.  They wanted salvation without repentance.  They wanted to experience new life, but were unwilling to died to their old ways of living.

Can I ask you a really challenging question?  Do we ever think or act like these religious leaders?  Do we ever find ourselves wanting everything to be new, and fresh, and alive, and growing–and yet at the same time we are unwilling to let go of what is old, stale, dead, and decaying?

Sure we are like that!  We want to maintain our old structures and traditions.  We don’t want anyone to change our style of worship or order of service.  We want the old shapes and structures to remain.  We don’t want anyone to introduce anything new or different.

These folks knew that something was missing, but whatever it was, as far as the religious leaders were concerned, it was not about to be filled at their expense. They didn’t want anything to change. What they wanted was that they go on doing and saying everything exactly the way they’d always said and done it before.  They could run out to the evangelistic rally in the wilderness and collect another religious experience, but when they went back to the church they wanted everything to be the way it had always been.

“Impossible!” said John. “You can’t be yesterday’s church today and expect to be here tomorrow.”

You already know that’s true.  Do you remember our Celebration Weekend several months ago?  One of the consultants asked the question:  “If things don’t change, what will The Red Bank Baptist Church look like in 20 years.”  Do you remember your answer: The church (this church) won’t exist. 

You were right.  You can’t be yesterday’s church today and expect to be here tomorrow.  That’s not just theory.  This is established fact and biblical truth.  I can take you to the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem.  When they refused to accept the new thing that god was doing in Christ, they died.  If we do not change to communicate gospel in this New World then this church will DIE.

The gospel message never changes.  But listen!  The structures of church, its styles of worship, the type and speed and volume of the music sing, the ways we do ministry, the expectations we have for those who are our pastors and leaders–all these things must change.  If they don’t change, we die.

“You can’t be yesterday’s church today and expect to be here tomorrow.”

There are some THINGS must be changed about our style and organizational structures.  But before we all run out and start changing STUFF, there is something that must change on a much deeper level.  What must change is US!

We must be willing to recognize that something is missing.  We must be willing to Metanoia–to REPENT, to be open to God.  We must allow God to change our way of thinking and feeling.  We must be willing to renounce our control and submit to the Spirit.  We must renounce the past and embrace the future that God is creating.  Till that happens, all the innovation in the world will get us nowhere.

Something wasn’t right in the church of John’s day.  The people knew it.  The leaders knew it.  There was something missing!  That’s why they were out into the wilderness seeking another religious experience.

What’s missing?  In some respects it seems to me that what is missing is passion.  It is not that we don’t have the ability to be passionate.  If we are in a conversation about Yankees baseball we can be passionate people.  If we are in a conversation about lowering Bay Bridge Tunnel toll we can become very passionate people.  Are we equally as passionate about missions, evangelism, ministry, worship, and making disciples?

In 1986 Tony Campolo preached in the pristine chapel of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I’ll never forget what he said.  He had a three-point sermon.

First point: Each day thousands of people will die without even hearing the gospel.

Second point: Most of you really don’t give a dam that hundreds of thousands of people will die today without ever hearing the gospel message.

Third point: Most of you are probably more unset that I would use the word dam in this pulpit then you are that hundreds of thousands of people will die today without ever hearing the gospel message.

Do you get the point?  It is not that we have no passion.  It is that our passion so often seems misplaced.

John announced a tomorrow, a tomorrow so important to God that He would even send his Son to make it happen. THIS is THAT tomorrow.  God keeps moving.  God keeps coming to us in new and exciting ways.  God wants us to be ready for whatever He might do next.

This year at Advent we are invited to repent.  We are called to be open to change. We are invited to leave the old temple to become a new church.   We are invited to eagerly look forward to a work of the Savior who burns off the chaff that clutters up the church inaugurating whatever change is needful in order that we reach the lost with the gospel and make disciples of the Saints.

God will make it work.  God will ensure a future for the church. Whether we turn away with the Pharisees or plunge into the water with the true believers, that’s our choice.  But in either case–God’s church will continue.

“You can’t be yesterday’s church today and expect to be here tomorrow.”

That’s the truth.

So, do you want to remain yesterday’s church?





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