Preparing For A Meeting 

Mountain Temple“I like your Christ but not your Christians”.  So is quoted Mahatma Ghandi regarding his encounter with western Christendom.  His encounter with Christianity could be said to be one that was English culture, English customs and English power all in a very imperial and oppressive context.  This was not an encounter with the Christianity of Jesus but his broadest view he had was skewed.  If one uses the ministry of John the Baptist as a lens, one can get a preview of how to perceive all the gospels.  It is no coincidence that Jesus as an adult in all four books is directly preceded then personally hailed by him.  If one get John right, then one has a better chance to get Jesus right.  But if we stay in a premise that puts Jesus as any other reactionary figure, we will only react to the ups and downs of life with a blunted experience of Christianity.

[t]he word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one crying out in the desert:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight his paths.

Every valley shall be filled

and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The winding roads shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth,

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:2b-6).

A voice of one crying out in the desert-  It should not be lost on those who seek something more than what the world offers that the view it takes to convert has to be from outside of ones assumptions of complacency.  To cry out from especially our realization of lack is hard.  But it is harder to be hungry for God if you are full of yourself.

Prepare the way of the Lord- The mystery of what comes next after one repents is moot- – if one does not repent.  Calling out ones failings to the mercy of God is getting out of God’s way to bless you.  The crossing of the Red Sea is also implied.  It was the great Exodus.  In Greek it was the exhoda which is the “way out” of the bondage of Egypt.  However, the “way” of the Lord is hoda meaning “way”.  Jesus identified himself as the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Jesus is more than a way out of physical slavery but of spiritual slavery which is far worse.  The early Church were “followers of the way” because they celebrated the latter freedom in Jesus with each gathering.  It is almost like a scriptural undertone of messianic expectation for then but it applies to those who turn to Jesus now.  We are called in conversion to embrace the meaning of preparation.  Doing such, we might as well have the joy of the Lord along the way between those times of grace one can experience.

Every valley shall be filled- The natural question is on what it would be filled with.  The best filling of this void is not by a thing or event but by God who is the great I AM.  “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in you” (Augustine).  Jesus’ name means God saves and as we see a few verses later salvation is what all will see.

every mountain and hill shall be made low– – My first thought in reflecting on this line is that the elite would be brought down since John had his own dealings with the religious elite of his day.  Mary addressed this in her fiat “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. (Luke 1:52).  But if one sees in the Old Testament how hill and mountain are used, there is a historical interpretation.

Who may go up the mountain of the Lord?Who can stand in his holy place?

“The clean of hand and pure of heart,

who has not given his soul to useless things,

what is vain.

He will receive blessings from the Lord,

and justice from his saving God.

Such is the generation that seeks him,

that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”

Selah (Psalms 24: 4-6)

Who may go up the mountain of the Lord?Who can stand in his holy place?– – It is a psalm of celebration in approaching the temple of God with the Ark of the Covenant.  This reference is shorthand that an encounter with God is a tangible presence that can be sensed from the deepest part of the heart.

For the Old Testament this was the closest way a personal encounter with the divine could be expressed due to the standards of that day. The presumption was formality with a specific focus on ceremony about God but not God directly.  Jesus changed everything because in Him “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God was untouchable but in Jesus the divine is touchable.  John the apostle elaborated on this.

What was from the beginning,

what we have heard,

what we have seen with our eyes,

what we looked upon

and touched with our hands

concerns the Word of life—

for the life was made visible;

we have seen it and testify to it

and proclaim to you the eternal life

that was with the Father and was made visible to us—

what we have seen and heard

we proclaim now to you,

so that you too may have fellowship with us;

for our fellowship is with the Father

and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

So how is this mountain made low?  It is in how Jesus is the eternal Word of the Blessed Trinity and he chose to become flesh in a leveling of the field (John 1:14).

The winding roads shall be made straight- A frustrating thing occurs on a winding road.  One would wish they can go from Point A to Point B like the birds fly.   Such is the role of increasing simplicity in someone who is increasing in their relationship to God.  God does not self-reveal as a calculus equation.  God is beyond our understanding so the straight path is giving up the pretense we can put God in an overcomplicated box.

the rough ways made smooth– -Rough ways is a loaded term.  If someone is walking on ground that is uneven or filled with thorns then such is the stuff that the human body takes in only with endurance to get the walk over with.  A smooth path in relationship is how one can see the other in a way that is against the design of the person.  The smooth path to God is the honest one.

all flesh shall see the salvation of God– John is speaking to both of the comings of Jesus.  Jesus would soon be on the scene and His presence would be on foot, on the cross, in communion and someday in the clouds.  In the last one, Jesus would go from being seen by many to all.

that seeks the face of the God of Jacob- – This is noteworthy in returning to the theme of God’s presence.  Jacob had a tangible wrestling match with God and he was transformed with the new name of Israel.  God transforms the proud to be humble and the humble to those exalted.  Ultimately shown in the end with Jesus with his name being the greatest name, a transformation can happen if we truly seek his face.  “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Do I wish I was a pilgrim that day at the exchange of the life in Christ I have now?  Even the idea of following Jesus in only up to the cross?  No, due to the life in Christ I can have with him now.  There is knowing him after the flesh like then, but receiving him in the greatest reality that can be experienced now is far better.

And as much as I can have hope in that, I would like to leave you with the hope of the Christian faith in completely coming to full circle in the future in Jesus. This is the ultimate “way of the Lord” we prepare for in onward growth that is so fitting to those called by his name.

     Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death,

even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that

Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:6-11).

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Charged Forward

wheat barnConversion is often thought as a one time thing.  And thank God, people say, because conversion can cost a lot.  But what if conversion is an ongoing process?  James wrote in his epistle to people who were already Christians that the engrafted word can save their souls (James 1:21).  A theology term used to signify this is ongoing justification.  This is the continual and active surrender to God’s grace.   The heart must be soft for conversion to happen.  Such and approach is then ready for the proposition of change. In the preaching of John the Baptis, he spoke truth to all for change whether they were political  or religious elites or common soldiers in a corrupt system.

I am reminded of a sermon that Abraham Lincoln heard.  The congregation thought it was elegant with lots of flighty words.  When it was over he was asked what he though to which he said it was the worst sermon he had ever heard since it did not challenge him to action.  A call to action was needed for freedom for the slaves but all the more for the world in slavery to sin.  Like Jesus to come, John know that the compassionate thing to do would be to call for hard change or the softness of heart would not be there.   The hope is that among each of those groups were at least some of the soft hearted ready to be challenged.  And maybe, in some cases, the hard of heart become soft.

 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Matthew 3:11-12).

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance-  This could be getting a blank slate but without the understanding of what one is getting next.  A hard part is that those who went to the Jordan River knew the sins and their pleasures yet they acknowledged need for the kingdom of God.  Such humility had to come with a radical trust in God to handle what comes next.  But they had a reference to go by in the baptism of Moses.  “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

What Paul communicates about the experience of covenant in the experience of the Israelites is in part that God grants defining moments in relationship to his people through the senses like in the Red Sea.  It can be inferred that Jesus was inspired in part from this as a Jewish man who taught about how one needs to be “born again to enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) but some translations say, “born from above”.  Therefore if one is baptized through Jesus into His community rather than the symbolism of John the material and the mystery come together as “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). To sum up, the baptism of John or any kind of honesty about ones sins is what you turn away from, which is honorable, but it is in the fulness of turning to Jesus that full salvation exists.   This baptism of John os to stop sin.  What comes in the gospel is that, the forgiveness of sin and having ones lifeline transformed by life that is eternally based.

but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I-  John minimizes his personal power but points to the power in the Messiah instead.  Repentance with Jesus is turning from acts of sin but the freedom in obedience to lift up Jesus.

He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.-  The baptized at the Jordan did not know the theology one can have on the context of those words, but what one could surmise from these words that the Messiah would be a uniter and a purifier. It is interesting the role of the Holy Spirit is described in agricultural terms.  It is because non-life objects like chaff have no seasons but just are.  They are “as is” and not respondent to the ups and downs of seasons. But Jesus indeed gathers his wheat into his barn.  In those days, barns were not seen through an LLC lens but were part of the homestead.  The repentance with John is the blank slate pointing to the need to go home in some manner with this Messiah to come. To convert is to come home.

Not only does the baptized of that day confess sins as a people but confess a hope of belonging in some way and someday with a community. One could imagine that John proclaims the hope of this wheat gathering like an employee of an orphanage helping the children to be ready to be adopted by a good Father.  Wheat grows, consumes and reproduces if gathered in the right place as the living things they are.  Chaff is dead.  The time for repentance from dead works is now so that the wheat, or living works, would be unveiled of God’s sustenance.

This leads me to point to Hebrews 6:2 again on the reference of “repentance from dead works and faith in God”.  The opposite that can hold one back is a false sense of piety and overemphasis on individuality. Furthermore, it would be dependence in ones dead works and faith in self. In other words, ones “chaff”.  The best that could look like would be a form of godliness but not living it and thus denying the fully intended power.

Going forward, much can be attained in living out the knowledge of the difference by leaning on the grace of God as one can also see in Hebrews 6:2 with then “instruction of baptisms and laying on of hands”. These normative steps are the fuller expression of conversion in baptism and being confirmed by the Church in the laying on of hands.   The early Church and the ongoing Church are the wheat barn.  Gathered together  in the Holy Spirit and purified by Christ, we can walk fully in the life of Jesus and know Him by the power of the Holy Spirit in history, mystery and majesty.

Day 1- Humbled Together

The BeginningWhat is the classic conversion story regarding faith?  Is there such a thing?  Can it be run “by the numbers” like a formula?  In Christianity, there are patterns of surrender, but it is best not to see it through a mechanical lens.

An important factor is that Jesus never shamed anyone towards the surrender of conversion.  Shame does not work since it is sort of another flavor for fear and the scriptures teach us that, “perfect love pushes out fear” (1 John 4:12).  Shame and legalism complicate the search for Jesus in ways that take us from simplicity, or in other words, the basics of love.

There is a story I like about the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi.  His team lost a game once that he felt would not have got away from them if they had stayed rooted in the fundamentals of the game.  He then had the next several days full of drills that a high school foot ball team would do.  The re-rooting had to happen.  One can be refreshed on the mission by renewing their perspective of what started them on mission.  Love is the basics and at the heart of the mission.

Such was the case for Jesus the winter before the Cross.  He had been in Jerusalem twice in the last three months or so.  Shame and legalism were the themes of his adversaries and they rejected his love out of principle.

He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.  Many came to him and said, “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.” And many there began to believe in him (John 10:40-42).

The Jordan River was full of  the meaning of conversion for the Jewish people.  Just as Moses parted the Red Sea in leaving Egypt, Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan as the people of Israel entered the Promised Land.  It had been seen as a place of going from slavery to the full benefits of being children of promise.  Being children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob meant a context of covenant with God as a person.  To go from one level of relationship with God to a higher one is part of what covenant means.  It means more than “What I have is yours” but “I am yours”.  In the thoughts and feelings of Jesus one can imagine in this later stage of his public life something like nostalgia on how he began ministry before at the baptism by John.  That was where a model of Christian conversion began to be lived out and modeled in one fateful week in part by Jesus himself.

Three years before, the soil of John’s ministry was a prime place for Christ and the community he founded and would begin its foundation in an act and sign of repentance.  One could call the people being baptized as going to the “Church of John” in that with his baptism they were saying they loved God more than their sins and were ready for God’s kingdom to come in fulness. This was a hunger for God’s grace that they could come and receive while putting aside the dirt of the weary journey. The baptism of repentance is good in an admitted need for God.  It is like the 12 Step model in admitting that you have become powerless and cannot manage your life alone. It is even admitting your wrongs and their very nature.  Such admission is the beginning of wisdom but not conversion in fulness: a conversion of the heart.

For Christ and his followers, this had other contexts and those contexts were of fulfillment partly in experiencing the beginnings of the Church which Jesus would found.  Jesus was proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God and baptizer in the Holy Spirit.  Some who saw him being baptized heard a voice in the baptism that this was the Son of God.  It was in this scene that some began to believe in him and among them two who would become apostles.

Of the pilgrims mentioned above, it is worth considering what they were thinking.  John said that Jesus must increase and he would decrease.  That was significant but still lacked something.  There were no stumbling blocks in the crowd in Jordan.  They had not heard the harder truths yet.  They also did not know what it would be like to have a continued relationship personally with Jesus in tandem with such hard truths.  Does that make their belief in Jesus meaningless?  Not necessarily.  It just means that they believed with obedience to the point that they could with what they knew.  But the call of the price of discipleship would come soon enough like it does to anyone who takes the daring step of seeing Jesus as more than just a nice guy to believe in a savior like hero.  The core message of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord.

One can look at the epistle to the Hebrews which speaks of the foundations of personal conversion, encountering God in His covenantal nature and eternal view.  Below is a general outline for salvation from ones conversion into eternity within in the context of community.

“Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:2)

So what is it like to do those things in an experience that is ideal and clear?  One can see in other scenes in the gospels how a conversion to Jesus is murky with condemnation and cynicism.  What I will address next are ways Jesus can show up when the heart of the person is ready, the context is ideal and still have healthy skepticism come along for the ride.  With that in mind, I concentrate on the first 7 days  where Jesus sheds the garb of a carpenter and steps up in the public favor of the Father and models conversion for the world to follow.

To be clear on theology, Jesus was not a convert.  But Jesus made a point in these first days of going public to show what conversion looks like.  The unveiling of Jesus as the wisdom and power of God is not an enigma but a mystery that the humble can always at least get the gist of.  One such humble person was John son of Zechariah baptizing people along the Jordan River.  To a great extent, if one gets his lens, one greatly gets who Jesus is and offers.  It is that Jesus atones for the sins of the world.  Even the worst.

  In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea [and] saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” …… At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Matthew 3:1,5).

Repent- A wise man with a dramatic addiction recovery story said that if he meets someone like he used to be that has a history of bad character and cannot describe their own turning point then he hesitates to trust them.  Conversion is a choice and is a turning point.

the kingdom of heaven is at hand!–  Conversion is towards a constant relationship that it rooted in heaven.  It is not about politics, culture or any other schemas that humans conjure up.  God is above the fray and his purest state of kingdom starts and ends in heaven but can be grasped on earth.

baptized by him…. as they acknowledged their sins-  Conversion is a redemption process and is meant for a healthy community context.  The call to Christ, is a call to community.  It is no surprise that in many early Christian communities the norm was for some to stand up to confess sins and receive the grace of the forgiveness in the name of Christ at a church meeting.  Even looking at today in 12 Step meetings there is a confessional quality as someone says “I am…..and I am a(n)…. “  While 12 Step is an honest program, Christianity is more than that.

To know the call of Jesus is to have the norm of knowing that call from honesty into change.  In that, we can all be works in progress. Such is the beauty of the Savior’s work on all who seek him in a community of loved sinners coming out of the shame of our failings.  We are all hungry for that even if we do not know it.