One thing I feel like it’s important for you to know about your pastor is that it would be hard to overstate how much the television show “The Simpsons” has influenced how I understand the world. Like all great satire, the show parodies the most extreme tendencies we all have, and sharply critiques our various hypocrisies, all while maintaining a hopeful vision of humanity, and without being mean-spiritied or cynical.
Contemporary Christians are lampooned in the character of Ned Flanders, who is the Simpson family’s impossibly bright, cheery, good, and honest neighbor. In one episode, when he’s asked about the secret of his youthful spirit and vitality, he says, “clean living, thorough chewing, and a daily dose of vitamin church.” In another episode, we see the shadow side of his cheeriness when we learn just how hard he has worked to repress all of the anger and pain he’s experienced in his life.
The character of Ned Flanders satirizes the widely held perception that Christians are supposed to be happy, nice, clean cut, and well behaved. At some point, being a Christian became respectable, and churches began to give the impression that the Lord we proclaim is tame, well-behaved, saccharine sweet, and primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo.
But that’s not how Jesus was introduced to the world. Jesus’ imminent arrival was announced by John the Baptist, whose wild appearance and even wilder ranting and raving about the kingdom of God more closely resembles the person we cross the street to avoid than the well-groomed televangelist or Ned Flanders.
John the Baptist was wild, and hard to define, and threatening to the status quo. Part of what he preached was that vision of justice and peace and good news for the poor that is described in our reading from Isaiah this morning, and which was not well-received by the respectable folk of his day. He didn’t fit their politics, or preferred economic model, or the religious categories that were supposed to make God understandable. That’s why a delegation from the confused authorities is sent to ask John: “Who are you?” He’s a new type of figure, introducing a new kind of Messiah, and no one quite new how to place him or what to do with him.
The prophet Isaiah announces what both John and Jesus take up:
“the spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . .”
In a world where suffering is the norm, bringing good news, proclaiming liberty, and binding up the brokenhearted means shaking things up. The collect for today is probably one of my favorite of the church year: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. . .” The God we worship isn’t the clean cut God of Ned Flanders, the God we worship is the God who is always stirring things up, shaking us out of our complacency, promising us that things can be different: out in the world, and in our own hearts and lives. The savior whose birth we await isn’t a savior of cheerful platitudes, he’s a savior who is announced by John’s wild ranting, and who grabs us by the collar and shakes us into seeing things differently. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
So our life as Christians isn’t about keeping up a clean and cheerful appearance, our life as Christians is about stirring up justice, shaking up release for those who are in prisons of oppression or sadness, or poverty, binding up those whose heart is broken from grief and loss.
In the early springtime, little shoots of green start springing up all around, as a signs of the new life that will soon overtake the whole neighborhood. While we yet live in a world where good news and justice continue to be more the exception than the rule, we are called to use our lives to be those little green shoots of new life. We’re called to be wildly ranting about God’s coming kingdom of love and peace just like John the Baptist did so long ago.
One of my favorite pieces of art is the Isenheim altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewold in the early 16th century at a church in France. The three-panel piece has at the center a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. It’s a Jesus who knows and has met the very real suffering in the world. It’s not a Ned Flanders Jesus. Another panel depicts John the Baptist, staring straight at the viewer, a eerily elongated finger pointing to Jesus. That’s our life’s purpose and joy: to point to this Jesus wherever we see him at work in the world; this Jesus who comes to us in humility and need, this Jesus who is always stirring up justice, who is always shaking life out of death, who is always shining the light of love to pierce our darkness of sorrow. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. Amen.