Oh Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
I spent the year between graduating from college and entering Yale Divinity School working in a psychiatric hospital for adolescents. I had already been accepted to Yale, but I deferred for a year to give me some time to get college out of my system. I spent that year caring for very ill teenagers who needed around the clock psychiatric care. It was a powerful experience. By the end of the year, I was sure that God was calling me into the ministry. As I gave my notice at the hospital and began to let my co-workers know what I was doing, I was caught off guard by how surprised they were by my decision. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but most of the people at the hospital who had been in my position had gone on to get their Ph.D. in psychology or their medical degree in psychiatry. Here I was, this strange bird who wanted to get a Master’s in divinity. Some of you have heard me share this particular memory, but I will never forget one of the nurses coming over to me and saying – “Why don’t you do something real with your life, something worth while – like going into computers.”
For the folks I was working, going into the ministry wasn’t a very reasonable thing to do. It was foolish, naive, simple minded. In their eyes, I would be wasting my life on an archaic religion. I remember chuckling to myself when I heard that nurse’s response and having a very deep sense that her comment confirmed for me that I was doing exactly the right thing. You see, I like the fact that the ministry and Christianity itself are often unreasonable. Think about it – we have to stretch reason to understand how new life comes through a tragic and painful death on a cross. We have to bend reason to understand how the first are supposed to be last and how the last are supposed to be first. We have to suspend reason to believe that there will ever be a time when, “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.” Further, is it reasonable to proclaim that in order to save our lives we must loose them, for Christ’s sake. Christianity is not reasonable, but it is deeply true.
That is why I like John the Baptist. There is nothing reasonable about John. Mark Twain once said, “Be virtuous and you will be eccentric.” To say that John was eccentric is to be kind. John was probably a member of an ascetic cult of deeply religious Jews who lived as separatists in the dessert at a place called Qumran. You may have heard about Qumran as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. One day, John decided he could no longer stay in the dessert. He believed God was calling him to return to the people of Israel and speak as God’s prophet. He arrived pointing fingers and making accusations – “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . you brood of vipers!” He told the children of God that if they didn’t shape up God would give them the axe like an elm with the blight, or toss them into the incinerator like what’s left over after you’ve picked the wheat. The people wanted John to be reasonable, after all they were all good Jews doing the best they could. But John was unreasonable and he told them that being a Jew wouldn’t guarantee them anything. The only hope, he told them, was to clean up their lives and get right with God. John was not a reasonable man.
Nelson Mandela died this past week. Many saw him as another unreasonable man with preposterous dreams. He too was a prophet, a leader who emerged not from the desert but from a prison to proclaim the possibility of another way of life for his people and his country. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Mandela said, “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born. This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars …and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees. …we undertake to do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the wretched of the earth. …Let a new age dawn!”
Mandela’s faith permeated everything he did. As a follower of Christ he had a vision for a new South Africa, a unified South Africa, a democratic South Africa where forgiveness and equality, not racial hatred and violence, were the norm. This vision was based in no small measure on his understanding of the reign of God’s Kingdom. As a follower of Jesus, who spent more than 25 years in prison, Mandela was just unreasonable enough to forgive his captors and strive for the crazy dream of a free South Africa.
John the Baptist emerged from the desert to proclaim that the Messiah was coming and he was bringing the Kingdom with him. Those in power did not believe John, but 2,000 years of history have shown that the legacy of Jesus’ “unreasonable” ministry has outlasted every other princely power and nation. John the Baptist comes to us this second Sunday of Advent and asks if we are willing to be unreasonable for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Are we prepared to repent of our self-absorption and apathy, our cynicism, and our doubt, so that like Mandela we can see the possibility that our world can be a better place if we are willing to follow the way of Jesus? Christ’s coming calls us to take Advent to the world and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is among us. This Advent, like Nelson and John, may God make us just a little unreasonable for the sake of the Kingdom – to dream of better things for our community and our world; to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice; and to care for those who have no one to care for them. May God use this Advent to connect us, through Christ, to the poverty of our own hearts and the poverty that afflicts the world. Amen.
Oh Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen.