Sermon preached at The Church of the Ascension on December 6th, 2015.
When I was little we used to take regular trips up to Georgia to visit the extended family. I can remember once sitting in my Aunt’s kitchen, when my uncle leaned over to me and said: “you know Kevin, this here table is very famous, cause all the world’s problems have been solved over this here table.” What he was referring to, of course, were the many discussions that took place at that table during every family gathering. I use the word discussions somewhat jokingly. Arguments would be more to the point, perhaps even ranging on downright fights. This table had seen them all. Religion or politics were quite often the topic of conversation. You could never be sure if the discussion of the moment would end in any sort of agreement, but you could bet your life on the fact that it would end with a piece of cake.
Most of you know that I grew up in a Southern family, but what you may not know, is that I grew up in a mixed family. No, we were not racially mixed, but some of my family was Republican and some were Democrats. Some voted for Carter and some voted for Regan, but at the end of the day they ended up at the same table, discussing the same news. The table might have seen plenty of heated discussions, but it also saw plenty of meals shared in love. Family members did not agree on all the issues, but they still talked and they still broke bread together.
I used to groan to myself whenever one of those discussions started. I used to think “ why can’t we just avoid talking about these things that we don’t agree on?” Now I realize just how precious those moments were, because they don’t really happen anymore, not just in my own family, but I would venture to say in most others as well. We have all isolated ourselves into like-minded cliques. We all have multiple choices for the news, so whether it is television, print, internet or radio we get our information from sources that support our world-view. We only listen to voices that agree with our own; that don’t challenge us. Our Facebook community becomes more and more homogenous and pretty soon we forget that there are reasonable, rational people in the world that completely disagree with almost everything we believe. But the greatest tragedy in all of this, and I would add, the most dangerous for both the future of humanity and our personal salvation, is that now with tailor-made news feeds and friends that only agree with us, we never have to admit that we are wrong.
We don’t even have to admit that we might be wrong. Why should we? It is so much easier to just decide what we want to believe or what makes us feel good and then go online and find someone that agrees with us. No long heated discussions, no having to say you are sorry or admitting you might be wrong: just a world filled with good smart people that agree with us, and evil stupid people that don’t. That is so much easier than having to examine our own beliefs and our own actions, but living a life in which we are always convinced of our own righteousness is not the life we are called to as followers of Jesus Christ.
Self-righteousness is a barrier to God. It is a barrier to our salvation. If you are over-confident in your own righteousness, then you don’t think you need anyone else and ultimately in truth, you don’t think that you need God. When the prophet John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord his primary task , his primary mission, was tearing down those walls of self-righteousness. John challenged everyone he came across to examine their own lives and he called on them to realize that not everything they did or believed or said was right. He called on people to recognize that they are sinners and ultimately all that really means is recognizing that you are not always right.
You may think that self-righteousness is just about someone being smug and holier than thou, but that is really the most benign example of self-righteousness. These people who plot and plan acts of terrorism and mass murder, these people are utterly convinced that they are right and others are wrong. The idea that they in their thoughts and beliefs and actions might, just might, be wrong is completely outside their worldview. If there is no question in your mind that you are right, then there is likely no limit to what you would do to defend your worldview. Hatred, violence and terrorism are ultimately signs of our inability to question our own beliefs and motives.
We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that this is merely other people’s problem and not our own. That, of course, was the very mentality of the scribes and Pharisees and hypocrites that John the Baptist and Jesus were confronting in their ministry. It starts with each and every one of us hearing the cry of John the Baptist. It starts with us hearing the call to repentance. It starts with the realization, not just paying lip service, but the actual realization and belief that we are sinners. That we sometimes believe the wrong things and sometimes do the wrong things. It doesn’t mean that we are evil to our core, it just means that we need help. It means that we need to look for righteousness outside of ourselves. The message of John the Baptist is that that source of righteousness is coming into the world and we need to prepare for it by getting rid of our own false sense of self-righteousness.
It begins with a very simple action. Recognize that in the past you have been wrong. Listen to what other people have to say, discuss your ideas with them, but always bear in mind that you might, just might, be wrong again. Spend time with people that disagree with you. Listen to people who’s worldview is not your own. Something so simple that I witnessed growing up, but sadly see so little of now. I used to think that those discussions in the kitchen were a disruption of the peace…now I realize that they were the source of it. Maybe my uncle was right after all…maybe the world’s problems can be solved around a dinner table.
But then again…I could be wrong.