So, there I was, preaching in a local Methodist Church one Sunday morning, giving it my all, when suddenly this lady in the congregation jumps up and starts shouting at me! Well … that woke some of them up, I can tell you! ‘I am a Christian’ she said, ‘but I still feel so sinful. What can I do about it?’ So, I abandoned my sermon and tried to answer her question. We had a very interesting conversation/discussion/debate … whatever you want to call it! It was a bit like being at Wimbledon for the tennis with the congregation turning first to the lady, and then to me, and then back to the lady, and so on. Occasionally, somebody else would contribute as well as we found ourselves discussing the fact that we were all sinners (including all Christians) but that there was a great difference between being ‘a sinner saved by grace’ and ‘a sinner still lost in his or her sin’. None of us will ever forget that Service I am sure! The lady told me afterwards that she was very sorry for disturbing the Service, but she had felt so burdened about her condition, and she thanked me for helping her to find a way through her dilemma.
Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the Third Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, in the birth of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus and the one who was to prepare the way for him, we see The God Who Disturbs!
Luke tells us that when Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with her first child, ‘the baby leaped in her womb’ (Luke 1:41) in recognition that the promised Saviour was soon to be born. The child that Elizabeth was carrying would grow up to be John the Baptist, and that uncomfortable moment Elizabeth experienced as the child leaped in her womb was a forerunner of that which John the Baptist would do throughout his life and ministry – disturb people! Even the events surrounding John the Baptist’s birth made waves for everyone in the vicinity! The fact that Elizabeth got pregnant in the first place given the fact that she ‘was not able to conceive, and [was] well advanced in years’ (Luke 1:7). The fact that Zechariah, a prominent Jewish Priest, was struck dumb during a most prominent religious ritual because he refused to believe what God told him about Elizabeth bearing them a child (Luke 1:8-22). The fact that when Elizabeth did give birth Zechariah was miraculously healed of his muteness and, not only broke with all tradition in naming his son ‘John’ but, immediately spoke powerfully and prophetically to the nation concerning the imminent coming of the promised Saviour (Luke 1:67-79).
John the Baptist continued to make waves as he grew up. Luke again tells us that as he grew up he ‘became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness’ (Luke 1:80) which implies that he had a strong personality coupled with an unorthodox lifestyle. Matthew adds to the overall impression of John the Baptist’s eccentric behaviour by telling us that his ‘clothes were made of camel’s hair, and … his food was locusts and wild honey’ (Matthew 3:4). If his chosen way of life and his behaviour were disturbing for some, that was nothing to the effect he had on the people of Judea when he started preaching publicly, attracting huge crowds, blatantly telling people they were all sinners and needed to repent, and calling on them to be publicly baptised as a sign that they were turning back to God. Matthew tells us that ‘People went out to him from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan’ (Matthew 3:5,6). Even the very religious people responded to John’s message, and he caused such a tremendous disturbance – even declaring his now adult cousin Jesus to be the long-promised Saviour (John 1:29) – that eventually the authorities arrested him and threw him into prison (Matthew 4:12).
Of course, the reality behind the events concerning John the Baptist was that it was not really John doing the disturbing, but it was God doing the disturbing through John! Keith is a good friend of mine who I have known for more than 40 years now. We first met when I was a young Pastor in my first church where Keith was a somewhat reluctant member of the congregation, dragged there by his wife Sunday after Sunday. He really didn’t enjoy my preaching, apparently, and every Sunday he would go home muttering under his breath that it wasn’t worth going because all I did was ‘have a go at him’ sermon after sermon. It disturbed him and made him feel uncomfortable … and it was all my fault!? I was completely unaware of this, and it is certainly not my style to deliberately ‘have a go’ at people. One Sunday, however, Keith suddenly realised that it was not me who was disturbing him … it was God! I was being blamed, but all I was, was ‘God’s ‘messenger boy’. That realisation marked a real turning point in Keith’s life. And John the Baptist was just like that – a vehicle through whom God disturbed people out of their spiritual ignorance, indifference, lethargy, hypocrisy, and so on.
The God of the Bible is the God who disturbs! He is the God who graciously refuses to allow us to walk through life indifferent to him – his claim for our allegiance; his ways, his plans and purposes for us – all that which ultimately would enable us to find our real purpose in life. He is not content to allow us to sleepwalk our way through life. If love’s appeal fails to draw us to himself, then he will shake us up. Like John the Baptist bluntly telling people that on the inside we are all no better than ‘poisonous snakes’ (Matthew 3:7), or like Jesus Christ ‘overturning the materialistic tables’ in the temple of our hearts and minds (John 2:13-16), God will use all kinds of things to disturb us, to shake us out of our spiritual apathy and indifference. And why does he do this? Because he loves us, and does not want any of us to waste the precious gift of life he has given us – to fritter a lifetime away on a 70-80-year journey to an eternal nothingness! Rather, he ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4), which is why he gave us his Son, Jesus, to both the Manger and the Cross! In fact there is nothing so disturbing as God dying on a Cross for people like us. It is, as Paul puts it, a message that is ‘offensive’ to some and ‘foolishness’ to other (1 Corinthians 1:23) but, at the same time, disturbing to all! Nonetheless, it was through this disturbing event that God made ‘peace’ for the whole world possible (if we will but respond), reflecting the Christmas promise of peace (Luke 2:14), albeit that it was ‘peace that came to us through the blood of Christ shed on the cross’ (Colossians 1:20)
May the peace of God thoroughly disturb you!
God of love and truth, you call women and men both to a living relationship with yourself, and to the proclamation of your Gospel and the building up of your Church. We pray that we might respond to all that you have done for us in and through Jesus Christ, and to your gracious loving invitation to commit our lives to you, and to your purposes for us, in Christ. Open our inner eyes to see your great love for us and, if necessary, disturb us from any apathy of indifference that would rob us from finding you and your plans for our lives and for our world.
God of grace, you call us, and you equip us for our calling. Open our ears to hear your call. Open our eyes to read your Word and to see your world as Christ sees it. Open our hands to give what we have and what we are, back to you for your service. Open our hearts to the wonder and the glory of your love, that we might all minister in the way of Christ. In his name we pray. Amen