One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Story. Set in the years of WWII, it is about a boy named Ralph Parker and his hope of getting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas (with the compass in the stock … and this thing which tells time). While this desire for the Red Ryder BB gun occupies the main story line along with the protestation refrain of “You’ll shoot your eye out,” there are a number of subplots in the overall story. One subplot involves Ralphie awaiting the arrival of his Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring for which he had consumed “gallons of Ovaltine” to get. After sending in those Ovaltine labels and checking the mail every day, Ralphie’s decoder ring finally arrives. That evening, he and his brother Randy tune in the family’s radio to listen to the Little Orphan Annie show. At the end of each show, Pierre Andre (the announcer) would give out the secret message for the members of Annie’s Secret Society to decode. Finally Ralphie would get to be in on the message. He writes down the code and takes it to “the only place an eight year old boy could get any privacy” – namely the bathroom – so that he could decode the message. After feverishly working to crack the code (all the while having his little brother pounding on the door to use the only bathroom in the house), Ralphie uncovers the secret message: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” “A crummy commercial?! Son of …” well … never mind (those of you who've seen the movie know how that quote ends!). What makes us laugh about this vignette is that we’ve all had a Ralphie moment just like this. We've all had a time when we set our expectations of a situation or a person very high only to have it come crashing down around us.
In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist is having a “Ralphie moment.” Last week's reading was "John the Baptist - the Early Years" where we heard John preaching a very fiery message of repentance and casting an image of the one to come as a Messiah who would come with power and judge the world. He would gather the wheat into the granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire! John’s image of this powerful figure who would destroy the wicked and reward the righteous is disquieting on one hand but on the other it’s a rather attractive idea. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we can all look around us and see that the world isn’t right. We see bad things happening – downright evil things happening – all around us. There is something comforting in an image of a Messiah who’s going to come down here, clean up this mess and set things right. This is what John had preached. But now John is in prison and he hears about Jesus’ ministry … and it doesn’t square up with the Messiah image he had been touting.
This Jesus of Nazareth was not acting like the Messiah John expected. He didn't come bursting onto the scene to stick it to the man by confronting the leaders John condemned – the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, Jesus was paying attention to the last, lost, little, least, and lifeless – all the marginalized people who in the eyes of the world were “nobodies.” Children, widows, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the dying and dead – all of these people were getting Jesus’ attention and he was giving them hope and a future where before they had none. This wasn’t what John wanted to see. And so John sends his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In Greek, the statement is a bit more harsh because the word for "another" implies an opposite as in "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for someone totally different from you?" John wants to know if Jesus is the real thing or an empty promise.
Jesus’ response was to quote the signs of the Messiah from Isaiah: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus doesn’t give them a neat “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, Jesus puts the ball back in John’s court and tells his disciples to test the authenticity of his ministry by what had been foretold in Hebrew prophecy and what they see and hear about Jesus. Decide for yourselves whether the man and the message are congruent.
The congruency of the promise and the person meet a deep spiritual longing in all of us. We live in a world full of “crummy commercials” of empty promises and hype over substance. We are now living in a time of transition which sociologists call “post-modern” and ecclesiologists (those who study the Church) label as “post-Christendom.” The post-modern/post-Christendom world view stands in contrast to the modern/Christendom one. There is debate about the definition of post-modernism but there are two characteristics which are emerging. First, the post-modern world view carries a deep distrust of institutions as opposed to a modern view which generally trusts institutions. Institutions have a tendency to fail us; however, the modern person will tend to cut the institution some slack where the post-modern won't be as quick to let the institution off the hook.
The second characteristic is the post-modern experiences truth in this world as conditional rather than absolute as the modern does. A modern person would say truth doesn't change - truth is just that ... truth. The post-modern would argue that truth changes over time. Where the modern would quote the Declaration of Independence saying "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" as an absolute truth, the post-modern would argue that when this was written it only meant white, property owning males and the definition of "all men" has been modified to include more people during our history (a changing face of truth).
I believe much of the polarizing “culture wars” playing out in our country today are a clash between these two fundamental views of modernity and post-modernity: whether one trusts or distrusts institutions and whether one sees truth in this world as absolute or conditional. It's not about liberals versus conservatives as much as it is about moderns and post-moderns. In light of this changing world view between modernity and post-modernity, how does Christianity fit? What does it have to offer? I suggest what Christianity has to offer is something which bridges these two world views by going deeper into the spiritual longing they both have: the longing for something authentic.
Christianity is not about being an institutional religion; it is about a lived relational authenticity: a real relationship with God and with each other. This is precisely the authenticity Jesus offers John and his disciples. It is the authenticity we are to offer the world as the Church – the Body of Christ.
People coming into our church today, this congregation right here, are seeking authenticity and asking a question of us similar to that which John asked of Jesus: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” or perhaps, “Are you the real thing or should I keep my 7AM tee time on Sundays at Hollow Creek Golf Course?” People want to know if this Church is the one they can count on to be real: the Church which walks the talk of faith, the Church which lives the teachings of Jesus and doesn’t just give them lip service, the Church which cares about the same “nobodies” Jesus cared about … the last, the lost, the little, the least, and the lifeless, a Church which believes eternal life starts now and not just when you die.
Authenticity has always been our spiritual hunger. Christ embodied the realness and fullness of God for our sake and we are called to do the same for the world as the Body of Christ. In a hurting world full of empty hype, broken promises and “crummy commercials” do we have the courage to be the real thing for Christ’s sake?