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Prepare the Way of the Lord (continued)

December 13, 2005

If we are going to see the true meaning of the Babe in Bethlehem, we must confront this out of the way messenger, calling us to repentance. And if we respond to his message, we will be a people like planted oaks—strong and graceful for his glory. God’s reign of righteousness will sprout up in our lives. His just reign will come and it will be good news to all nations.

I was moved this last week by the need for this reign of righteousness to take root in our lives and for each of us to respond as God gives us opportunity.

Pakistan- 80,000 people died in the October 8 earthquake. EMM teams responding, people giving.
Bud to Lousiana, Mike to Florida
December 14 prayer vigil in the Rotunda of the capital in Washington to

Confronting the messenger in the wilderness, the preparer of the Way, will help us see the true meaning of Christmas. We too are being called to prepare our hearts for the coming reign of God, the power and presence that came to earth in a little baby, born in Bethlehem.

John calls us to repentance; to turn away from the old world and toward the new thing God is doing down in Bethlehem. Only by being willing to turn away from the old world and toward God’s coming reign of justice, generosity, and joy, are we ready to kneel before the babe in Bethlehem, who is the incarnation of God’s reign.

Repentance is the preparation for Christ’s coming. Repentance is the way in, and the way on. Repentance—the door and the path of salvation. Repentance is much misunderstood. It is seen as negative, a beating our breast in grief and shame. John in Luke portrays repentance negatively; giving up something: wealth, violence, privilege. But it is in anticipation of the new that is coming. Repentance can have the character of excited anticipation, like the joyful turning toward the birth of a new child, with its accompanying change in priorities and lifestyle, or the expectation of receiving an inheritance with new possibilities, or a new job with new challenges.

John’s call to repentance in Luke’s Gospel gets very specific. He calls for us to adopt a new source of identity. Some who heard the call toward the new world assumed their citizenship was secure because of birthright. Their identity was rooted in their ancestors. They saw no need for repentance. After all, “we are children of Abraham.”

Or maybe we would say—“I grew up in a Christian home,” “I was baptized when I was younger,” “I am an ethnic/cultural Mennonite” or “I’m an American.”

But, “God is able to raise children of Abraham from these stones.” You must turn away from trusting your labels and pedigrees, your social standing, or your citizenship in the lone superpower as sources of identity. The babe in Bethlehem is your new source of identity.

New community is coming into being. It is a community in which other’s needs become connected with ours. It is a community in which we give to those who have need. It is a community that seeks to rebuild the ancient ruins, to repair cities long ago destroyed. It is a community caught up in God’s purposes for the world. As John said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” A new ethic is coming into being—no manipulation and coercion, no violence.

On November 29, a well-known nationally syndicated radio host read an Associated Press report about the apparent kidnapping of four Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) activists by an Iraqi insurgent group. The radio host announced that “part of me likes this.” He explained: “Well, here’s why I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.”

Addressing the kidnapped CPT activists, he said, “[Y]ou’ve met the bad guys, and you tried your technique on them, and now you’re blindfolded in a room with guns pointed at you and knives at your throat. I don’t like that.” He then added, “But any time a bunch of people that walk around with the head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I’m kind of happy about it, because I’m eager for people to see reality.”
A new community is coming into being. Violence and cruelty must be shunned. The way of Jesus—loving our enemies, serving the poor, and working for peace and justice for all, may seem idiotic, irresponsible, and out of touch with reality to some, but since when has following Jesus been about conventional wisdom, political expediency and popularity.

For Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, Jim Loney, and Tom Fox. the call of Christ has meant being willing to walk in solidarity with people whose land had been invaded and occupied by our nation’s military.

The question comes to us that kidnapped peacemaker Norman Kember expressed: am I willing to take the same risks for peace that those in the military take for war?

This One whom we worship, born in Bethlehem, is calling into being a new community of justice, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Those committed to hoarding, self-preservation, manipulation and violence will either not recognize who Jesus is or they will outright reject him. If we don’t visit John at the Jordan, we may very well make Jesus into a champion of our greed, a protector of our privileges, and supporter of our violence. We may pay him temporary homage, our hearts warmed by the annual visit to Bethlehem, but continue to perpetuate our exclusiveness, our injustice, our cruelty.

Paying attention to John the Baptist, however, will confront us with the radical new reality coming into the world in Jesus Christ. Nothing less than the realization that a new world is dawning. A world in which identity is based on the one to whom we belong; a world of justice and sharing for the poor, and a world of generosity of spirit and love. This is the new world the Babe in Bethlehem is bringing.

Only by wading out into the Jordan and drowning our sins, our false identity, our injustice and selfishness, our commitment to violence, will we recognize and worship the One who is coming to Bethlehem. As disturbing and inconvenient and disruptive as it may be amid the glitter and gaiety of this season, stopping by the Jordan to hear John the Baptist, wading out into the river between the old and the new, and drowning our sins in the waters of repentance are all necessary if we are to know the identity of the One whose birth we are on the way to celebrate.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

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