|"John the Baptist" by Thomas Merton, who died on this day, |
Dec. 10, 1968
December 10, 2017
Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8
+ When I was a kid, my beloved aunt was a member of the First Assemblies of God. The First Assemblies, for those of you who might not know, is very different than the Episcopal Church. It’s very Evangelical.
But occasionally, I would find these terrible little cartoon tracts at her church when I went with her, little booklets put out by an evangelist by the name of Jack Chick. Jack Chick was the perfect example of a Christian hatemonger. He hated everyone who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior. Everyone was going to hell except those who had made one simple confession of faith.
All one had to do to gain heaven and glorious eternity, according to Jack Chick, was make this simple statement: I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. The rest of us, who didn’t make this statement, were in deep trouble.
Catholics, for example, were going to hell because they were being led astray by the Pope, whom Jack Chick saw as the Antichrist on earth.
For example he blamed Catholics even for the Assassinations of Abraham Lincoln (he said that was John Wilkes Booth was a Jesuit priest—I guess he never knew that Booth was in fact an Episcopalian).
Protestants that belonged to churches other than “Bible-believing,” “Holy spirit-inspired” churches—the Episcopal Church was lumped into this group—were going to hell because they were being led stray by liberal Bible Scholars who polluted the scriptures with false interpretations.
The only interpretation to follow, Jack Chick said, was the KJV and none other. It truly was the inspired and unerring Word of God.
Now, as you know, I LOVE the KJV. I think it is one of the most beautiful translations of scripture. But it’s not perfect, and it’s not without error.
He also believed that there were Satanists everywhere, seeking to destroy true Christians. They were in our schools, they were in our seminaries, they were even in the White House.
But for the most part, these awful little books would tell the story of some person or another who led a destitute life and who had died without accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Of course, they ended up in hell—usually pictured as a cavernous place full of fire and disgusting devils.
The moral of these stories revolved around the main character crying out in anguish:
At the time, as a teenager, these stories made sense to me. It was simple. Christ should turn his back on those who didn’t accept him. I would turn my back on those who would not accept me. And there should be a place where we had to pay for the wrongs we did. We simply can’t sin and expect not to pay for it in some way, right?
But as I grew older, as I grew into my relationship with Christ and as I started to look long and hard at everything I had believed up to that point, I realized there was one thing Jack Chick and all those people who believed that way missed. It was one simple little word:
Now, my very simplistic definition of grace is this: Grace is a gift we receive from God that we neither ask for nor necessarily deserve.
In the Gospel we heard this morning, we hear the echoing words of John the Baptist.
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
He is that lone voice calling to us in the wilderness. It is a voice of hope. It is a voice of substance. It is a voice of salvation.
More importantly, John’s message is a message of Grace.
This powerful One is coming! There’s no avoiding it. God is coming to us. This is the ultimate grace in a very real sense. Although we have been hoping for God to come to us and save us, it is not something that we have necessarily asked for or deserve.
God comes to us in God’s own time.
It is this one fact—grace—that makes all the difference in the world. It is what makes the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation.
Jack Chick and those who believe like him are very quick to say that there is an eternal hell. And if you’re not right with God, they say, that’s exactly where you’re going.
The fault in this message is simple: none of us are right with God. As long as we are on this side of the veil, so to speak, we fall short of what God wants for us. We have all sinned and we will all sin again. That’s the fact.
But that’s where grace comes in. Grace is, excuse my language, the trump card. Grace sets us free. Grace involves one simple little fact that so many Christians seem to overlook. And this is the biggest realization for me as a Christian:
Just because one doesn’t accept Christ doesn’t mean that Christ doesn’t accept us.
Christ accepts us. Plain and simple. Even if we turn our backs on Christ. Even if we do everything in our limited powers to separate ourselves from Christ, the fact of the matter is that nothing can separates from Christ. Christ accepts every single person—no matter what we believe, or don’t believe, no matter if Christ is some abstract concept to us or a close, personal friend.
That’s right, I did say “personal.” Because, yes, it’s wonderful and beautiful to have a personal relationship with Christ. Our personal relationship with God is essential to our faith, as you have heard me say many, many times.
But the fact is, Christ isn’t the personal savior to any one of us in this place. He saves all of us, equally.
That is grace. That is how much God loves us.
Now, I have preached this message my entire adult life as a Christian, and certainly as priest. And, as you can imagine, there have been, shall we say, a few critics. And some of these critics—actually quite a few of these critics—have been quite vocal.
In fact, I once preached this very same message one evening not long after I was ordained to the priesthood in a very diverse venue of what I thought were somewhat progressive Lutherans. Later, I learned, I was essentially blackballed from that venue for that sermon.
I also preached it once at another congregation, at which I was a guest. After I preached it, the presider at the service actually got up and “corrected” my sermon in front of everybody.
Critics of this message say that what I am talking about is cheap grace.
No, I counter. And I still counter! Again and again.
No, not cheap grace. It’s actually quite expensive grace. It was grace bought at quite a price.
And no, I’m not being naïve or fluffy here. Trust me, I have known some truly despicable people in my life. I have been hurt by some of these people and I have seen others hurt by these people. The world is full of people who are awful and terrible. Some of them are running for office in Alabama, for example. And sometimes the most awful and terrible person we know is the one staring back at us in our own mirrors.
But the fact is, that even when we can’t love them or ourselves, when we can’t do anything else but feel anger and hatred toward them, Christ does love them.
Christ accepts them, just as Christ accepts each of us. Christ doesn’t necessarily accept their actions. Christ doesn’t accept their sins, or their failings, or their blatant embrace of what is wrong.
But, not even their despicable nature can separate them from Christ’s love.
Nothing can separate us from Christ’s love and from Christ’s promise to eternal life. That is how God works in this world. That is why God sent Christ to us.
I believe in that image we hear from our reading from the prophecies of Isaiah today:
[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
We will be gathered up by our God, and we will be carried into our God’s bosom. I love that image! Because it conveys God’s true and abiding love for us. It’s a hard concept for those us who were taught otherwise. It was a hard concept for me, who read those Jack Chick tracts, to accept.
But I do believe it. I believe it because of the personal relationship I have with Christ. The Christ I have come to know and to love and to serve is simply that full of love.
So, do I believe we’re all going to heaven when we die? I don’t know. It’s not up to me. But I sure hope so. And I lean toward the direction of “yes,” we do all get to go.
Because, the love of Christ is just that big. It is just that wonderful and just that all-encompassing. It is just that powerful. If one person is in some metaphysical, eternal hell for being a despicable person, then, you know what? the love of Christ has failed. Something has, in fact, come between that person and Christ. I do not believe that hell or Satan or sin or anything else is big enough to separate us fully and completely from Christ. Not even we, ourselves, can turn our backs on Christ because wherever we turn, Christ is there for us.
So, listen. In this Advent season of hope, John’s voice is calling to us from the wilderness. He is saying,
Christ is near.
Christ is coming to us.
Let us go out, in grace, to meet him!
Come, Lord Jesus!