+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In my sermon last week–in a sort of throwaway, extemporaneous addition to the text I’d prepared–I used a term of art from contemporary theology and sociology of religion without explaining it. This is one of the many pitfalls I get into when I extemporize, so by way of introducing this morning’s Gospel, let me take a step back and explain what I was driving at.
So, the term I threw out there was “moralistic therapeutic deism” (hereafter referred to as “MTD”) It was coined back in 2005 by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe common religious beliefs among America’s youth. The tenets of MTD are as follows:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
If this seems like an awfully inadequate religious worldview, you’d not be alone. It is what, when I was a youth, we would have called “weak sauce” or what I’ve heard one of our parishioners here refer to as “thin gruel.” Three of these tenets are rather uncontroversial, if lacking in depth, and two (namely, that the main goal of life is to feel happy and good about oneself and that God is not particularly involved except “in the breach”) strike me as deeply problematic.
In all events, I would argue that MTD is not only a popular worldview among American youth, but that it is also prevalent among confessed Christians of riper years throughout the Western World, particularly those who have not been challenged to think theologically. I would further suggest that even among those equipped to make compelling theological arguments, including the clergy, there is sometimes a tendency to revert to the lowest common denominator of MTD for fear of causing offence in our increasingly secular and pluralistic culture.
So, John the Baptist presents just about the polar opposite of this Moralistic Therapeautic Deism. It is not a message to which we are particularly drawn today. We missed something significant this morning in hearing the Gospel according to the Authorized Version, which we’re using this season to sync up with the traditional language of the Rite One liturgy we use here in Advent and Lent. We heard that John “in his exhortation preached” to the people, but the Greek verb here is actually εύηγγελίζετο, which means literally “good news-ized,” and which modern translations render, “he proclaimed the good news.” How is this “good news” when the message he preached seemed so contentious. “O generation of vipers,” he shouted, “who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” How many fiery preachers do you know in our mainline churches who get away with the hellfire and brimstone approach? Not many. The ones that do happen to pop up never seem to draw in the crowds either and they are certainly not those who move up into positions of power in the church. John the Baptist would never have been elected bishop.
And yet the crowds continued to come. They seemed to need what John was offering them. They needed his harsh words. They needed this baptism. They needed to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
You see, the kind of baptism that John offers is not so easy as washing up before dinner. The baptism John offers comes along with certain expectations. “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” We too—or probably for most of us, our parents—made promises somewhat akin to this on the occasion of our own baptisms. Just like John’s baptism was a preparation for the coming kingdom, our baptism is a sacramental preparation for the Christian life, and it comes with some specific directions for how such a life is to be lived.
But why all this preparation? Why did Jesus need a forerunner, a prophet preparing the way for him? Why do we need a whole liturgical season to get us ready for celebrating Christ’s incarnation? Why do we need classes and counseling and so forth before baptism and confirmation? It’s all the same question, really. The answer, I think, is that the world needed then, and we need now, to be very conscious of Jesus’ purpose before meeting him face to face. To put it more plainly, and perhaps in a more theologically contentious manner, one needs to get his act together before it is possible to fully adopt God’s purposes for himself. This isn’t to say that God demands perfection. Rather, it is simply to say that Charles Elliot’s old hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” does not tell the whole story.
This is because the Christian life and the teachings of Jesus are not all sweetness and light. John the Baptist and Jesus alike say some pretty difficult things. Take John’s words “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus, too, said things that we sometimes want to ignore. We want to use the highlight and delete method of biblical exegesis. This is because the Christian life is not always fun or easy. It is hard work and sacrifice. It is about taking up one’s cross.
But neither did Christ come into the world to condemn the world, John’s gospel tells us. He came to save it. He came to fulfill God’s creation in reconciling God to creation. He came that humanity might be justified. Yet accepting this gift of God’s grace takes some work. It takes some preparation. And that is what Advent is all about. It is about preparing to accept the Christ. It is on one level about preparing for Christmas. This is a difficult enough thing to do these days. But it is also a preparation for what we used to talk about as the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Three of these four are things that don’t tend to get us in the Christmas mood, but it’s important to consider them nevertheless. We often forget, or even deny, that Advent is a penitential season and it does demand some effort if we are to observe it. It is a time in which we are called by the church to fast and pray. It is a time to recall those things for which we are penitent and ask forgiveness. It is a time when we are to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation, of God made human in Jesus Christ. We are to contemplate its impact on our lives, adjusting our lifestyles to more fully live in the knowledge of this holy mystery ourselves.
And we get a hint of what a life lived in the light of such knowledge looks like from John the Baptist: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.”
Most of us have a great deal more than two coats. We certainly have more than enough food. And yet, like the soldiers whom the Baptist rebuked, many of us are not satisfied with our wages. Truly living the Christian ideal, truly working towards radical self sacrifice, is a most difficult thing. Not many of us are called to live life as monastics, yet we must strive to devote ourselves fully to the cause of the gospel. This begins with things like giving gifts to the cancer patient families and gloves and scarves and food to the needy, like we already do. But that is only the beginning, and the truly Christian life, the life whose aim is preparing for the Kingdom of God, demands profound self-examination. It requires, as John the Baptist put it, that we bear fruits worthy of repentance.
And in this preparation, when we take up the cross of self sacrifice and adopt an attitude of pure and profound penitence, there is joy. You will notice that today that I’m wearing my rose vestments and that we lit the pink candle on the advent wreath, which color symbolizes the joy we find in the midst of penitence and preparation. This joy comes from hope in the coming of Christ. Today is the day that we no longer merely adore “the Lord who is to come” but rather we worship “the Lord who is now nigh and close at hand.” As Paul’s letter to the Philippians put it “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice… The Lord is at hand.” Let us see this not only as a gift, but as a challenge to redouble our efforts, to work even more earnestly to prepare ourselves to meet Christ at his second advent, knowing that there is profound joy to be found in that work.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.