Is change every comfortable?
Advent 2 December 4, 2011
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Change is difficult. Even small change can be uncomfortable. At our annual Thanksgiving feast with my in-laws, someone had the temerity to suggest we distribute the food differently. Rather than each person holding their plate and asking others around the table to dish out the dressing and corn and sweet potatoes, turkey, gravy and oh yes, cranberry – this year, we would pass each plate one by one. You must keep your eye on it as it passes around. Well, that was the suggestion anyway. We got started with the new way. I kept my eyes on my plate, politely requesting more dressing, and yes I want gravy with my smashed potatoes. But the new way didn’t go over very well. Rebellion and grumbling quickly ensued. Randomness returned. We all laughed. Change!? Who wants it?
The happy couple discovers that one likes to sleep with the windows open, while the other doesn’t like the sounds of the neighborhood commuters driving away at 4 in the morning. Something is going to change and someone is going to be uncomfortable.
You’ll remember the cartoon of the two people facing one another. One says to the other, “I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship and I’ve come to the conclusion that things will be much better if you would only change.” Right.
In the few years I’ve been here I’ve discovered a consistent pattern among politicians. Brash and often loud leaders frequently come to Washington DC declaring themselves bold agents of change. Within days the smarter ones realize that change doesn’t come easy, if it comes at all. A great deal of the talk about change is mostly about what others must do. It’s much more comfortable that way. But real change which effects one down to the core? That’s difficult. Social change is every more demanding and difficult. It’s not clear that we really want it if it means actually changing how we live in some fundamental way.
That, of course, is what makes this story of John the Baptizer alarming. He is more than a little disturbing. It’s not just that he is so odd standing there in the Judean desert eating strange food and dressing weirdly. We could handle that – after all, some of the Occupiers camped at McPherson Square are fruitarians that look like John the Baptist at Woodstock. John the Baptist was the original fruitarian. Seriously. I’m just saying – it’s not the clothes or the food that disturbs us, it’s something else that makes us uncomfortable. Standing in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets who came before him, John the Baptizer rudely interrupts our lives in this festive season with this annual reminder that the Advent of God is close at hand. On the one hand, it’s a joyous message coming from a strange but familiar voice. Glad tidings of the Christ who makes all things news and whose coming we eagerly celebrate. What’s not to like?
Well if this were merely a history lesson at Christmas time about an odd prophet – sorta like your weird uncle Bob – down by the Jordan River screaming Repent! we could all relax and join the fun. It’s part of the holiday season, like watching Peanuts, or It’s a Wonderful Life.
Only this is not just history nor is it an exercise in religious nostalgia. It’s what we might call history that is alive, joyfully alive. Thank God! Yet, it’s also history that is terrifying alive because it means John the Baptist is still pointing our hearts to the Advent of Jesus Christ who comes to make all things new. What’s so terrifying about that? [pause]
In word: change. Serious change is in order and not just for all the others. That makes us uncomfortable.
But, I suspect what makes us most uncomfortable is the haunting fear that the change John calls for is actually impossible. We know ourselves enough to know the habits that are entrenched, the comforts that we will not relinquish and the sins that hold us captive against our own will. These are the things we will not say to one another but our hearts say them to us, when we actually listen to our hearts long enough for our secret sins to be known in the light of God. There in that radiant light, we see ourselves as we are. Often that is not comfortable.
But notice again what the prophet in the wilderness says – “I am not worthy to squat down and fasten his sandals. He who is coming will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” John the Baptizer is pointing away from himself toward the One who is coming, who is able to make all things new by his own Spirit. Jesus Christ to whom John points is the Good News. He is the one upon whom we fix our hopes. He is the One in whom the world discovers salvation – the healing of the human heart. As long as we focus solely on our meager capacity to remedy our condition, we are paralyzed by our failures. Advent becomes an exercise in futility.
John’s cry repent! is not a summons to futility nor is it a call to grit your moral teeth so you can change all your naughty habits to nice ones before Santa arrives. No. That way leads to spiritual paralysis. The call of John the Baptizer is a call to turn our attention from ourselves toward the Good News – the One who makes all things new.
So is there any change that actually brings comfort and joy, not just disturbance?
Yes! True repentance – turning our attention away from our futility toward God – is our true comfort. Here we find Joy! not in abilities, but in God who is merciful and mighty to save.