How is God near to me today? And that’s what I think the season of Advent is actually for. You know, we say it’s for preparing for the birth of Jesus and it is. But it’s also you know, what is the nearness of God to me right now? How have I perhaps missed the nearness of God? How am I missing it today? How can the nearness of God change me? And I think this is what John is really saying. He’s saying, “Hey, man, if you let this nearness of God stuff sink in, it’ll change your direction.”
Easton: This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright.
Melissa: Welcome to For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m your host Melissa Rau. And this is a conversation inspired by For Faith, a weekly devotion sent out every Friday. You can find a link to this week’s For Faith and a link to subscribe in the episode’s description. Hello, Bishop.
Rob: How you doing?
Melissa: Happy Advents.
Rob: Happy, happy do over with Jesus. Happy do over.
Melissa: Your For Faith devotion this week is based off Matthew Chapter 3, Verses 1 – 12, which is about John the Baptist.
Rob: Yes. One of my favorites.
Melissa: Yeah, well, your reflections stirred a number of feelings in me. But before we get into any of that, I’m wondering if you can kind of channel your inner John the Baptist, and reiterate John’s message of repent, the kingdom of God is near, or at hand and some translations, in your own words. Like, what was he getting at?
Rob: Yeah, I mean, it’s going to sound a bit cheeky. But I mean, we take John as sort of just raging wild man, you know, who’s convicting us and shaming us and guilting us into, you know, a transformation. But I actually hear, you know, John saying, have I got good news for you. You who were burdened, you who were living under a lot of bad ideas about who God is, you who are thinking that you are condemned to always be on the outs, have I got good news for you. A good news that, you know, the truth can actually set you free in your life, there’s a place to take all your garbage and to dump it. And to get a do over. And so, John actually gets a bad rap as far as I’m concerned. John is trying to do us, as they used to say, a long time ago, John is trying to do us a solid. John is trying to do what the doctors recommend. And that is to give the infection some fresh air, to give it some clean water, and clean bandage so that healing can take place.
Melissa: Yeah. Like, to me, that’s not just good news for the people who are kind of the non-religious people. But even the kind of the up and like the the uptight and snooty people, who are– You know what I mean? Like, I guess like the whole freedom in faith thing means that we’re relying on God and don’t have to rely on all the crap that we need to do in order to impress God.
Rob: Well, John sounds harsh, right? John, you know, he calls some people hypocrites, and all that sort of stuff. But if you can just sort of, you know, bring your shoulders down from your ear lobes, you know, he’s trying to free us from performing a life that is inauthentic. So, by calling us hypocrite, which means you’re trying to pull off two things. You’re tearing yourself apart, you’re being inauthentic, you’re bifurcated, right? You don’t have peace, you’re performing, right? John is saying, there is another way to live. And so, what he’s telling the people that he meets at the water, at that sort of muddy Jordan River. He’s saying, “Hey, this is a place where you don’t have to be fake. This is a place that you can actually be true to yourself. God has got some remedies here for you that can touch your real life. So, your duplicity and you’re in-authenticity is inappropriate here. You can lay that down and do something new here.” So, that’s really a gift. I mean, but it’s framed in such a stern way, “Hey, you hypocrites.” Right? And I get that. But if we can sort of dig a little deeper. You know, he’s saying, you don’t have to be a hypocrite.
You know, what I like about this story really, and it got me this year in a new way, John has a one word sermon. And the one-word sermon is repent. In other words, it’s time to make a U-turn. Time to turn back to who you really are in God, time to turn back to God, time to turn back to life, right? So, that’s good news. But you know what’s upstream of John’s one word sermon? Why does John preach this one-word sermon? What happens? Well, what causes it is is that John says, “The nearness of the Kingdom has happened.” So, repent is the response to nearness. So, God has come near, you know, and we don’t see all this in the story but one has to wonder how had God come near to John in new ways that caused him to leave the temple, you know, and all of the religious rites and ceremonies and ended up, you know, by the riverside with all kinds of folks who might not otherwise darken the door of a temple. That’s a word to us right now.
So, somehow nearness happened to John, God’s nearness happened to him. And then John saying, “Since nearness is right here, let’s not miss an opportunity here.” That sounds like good news to me. And so, of course, we have to think forward for ourselves. How is God near to me today? And that’s what I think the season of Advent is actually for. You know, we say it’s for preparing for the birth of Jesus and it is. But it’s also, you know, what is the nearness of God to me right now? How have I perhaps missed the nearness of God? You know, heretofore? How am I missing it today? What do I need to do so that I can be more present to the nearness of God? How can the nearness of God change me? And I think this is what John is really saying. He’s saying, “Hey, man, if you let this nearness of God stuff sink in, it’ll change your direction.”
Melissa: Which, you just said, it is a message for us today. Because sometimes we get caught up in the fact that we think that John was a prophetic preacher who, you know, six months to a year before Jesus revealed himself in his ministry, John was saying, “Prepare, Jesus is coming.” And then, forget the fact that he has very real transcendent advice for even us today.
Rob: Well, we forget that John was that charismatic figure that helped Jesus figure out who he was?
Melissa: Right, right.
Rob: And John, if we read the Scripture, John was Jesus’s big cousin. He was that big, influential cousin. And so, when John is beheaded, Jesus takes up John’s sermon, repent. And then we get the Gospels. So, John has a lot to say to us today. But here’s what John has to say to us right now. And that is, “Don’t participate in lies.” Right? So, John exudes the power of the truth, right?
And, you know, Walter Brueggemann said that one of the most urgent tasks before the church right now is reality, getting reality in the room. Right? It’s telling the truth. And you know, the truth is not some partisan debate. The truth is that the Republican and the Democrat, both Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, are made in the image of God and both have dignity, value, and worth. So, the truth that we’ve got to tell is really upstream of where a lot of us live day to day. The truth that we’ve got to tell is, is that men and women should have healthcare across the board. And the truth is that 68% of our children in elementary school education in Georgia are way behind in their ability to read. We’ve got to tell the truth and stop the foolishness so we can actually get to some of the solutions. We can apply ourselves to some things. And this is why I like John. John refuses to participate in cover up of any kind.
Melissa: Amen for that. We’ll be right back after a short break, friends.
Easton: Hi, listeners, especially to those in the Diocese of Atlanta, you’re invited next Tuesday, December 6, for Imagine Worship with Jason McGee, City Choir Director and our own Bishop Rob Wright. You can find registration in the episode description. We hope to see you there.
Melissa: Welcome back to For People. In your devotion, you said Bishop, that John was pointing to an immense and close good, newly, vividly revealed, deserving awareness, genuine reception, and integration into one’s life. Can you expand upon that in addition to your idea of turning toward a quote, freedom of new life?
Rob: I think I’ll try. I mean, I think what John is saying is the kingdom has come near, another way to live has come near. There is another reality, a better reality then the empire reality, where the big fish eats the little fish. Where the dog eats the dog, dog eat dog world, and all of that. And if you don’t have a house and healthcare, well, too bad for you, I’ve got mine.
So, the kingdom of God is a new reality, another way to live where God is at the center, and neighbor is me, and I am neighbor. And so, when John somehow gets that, when that somehow clicks for John, he leaves the day-to-day temple business, he ends up at the river, and he ends up enlarging the circle of who’s in. And all they have to do is to be sincere. All they have to do is to want to live differently. All they have to do is want to receive. And so, a lot of us get to be aware, right? It doesn’t take all day to recognize sunshine. A lot of us get it.
But then there’s these next movements, which is to deeply receive. In other words, to give, you know, this new reality, this God reality, authority over my life. And that’s an ongoing journey. But it starts right now. You know, do the words we pray on Sunday actually have authority over the choices I make on Monday, right? And see, only after that, and on that journey, do we get the harmony, the peace, the shalom, that God wants for us. So, it’s not just about being some sort of obedient little dog. It’s about aligning ourselves with the Creator of all the worlds who know best, and then enjoying the peace of that, no matter our external circumstances. And so, that’s what gives life meaning. That’s what gives life a sense of momentum and progress. And the Bible says, that’s what gives us joy. Is that I am pleasing my God. And I am knowing what that pleasure feels like as I enjoy the benefits of knowing my God.
John does this in his own life, he can’t help out of that overflowing cup to extend that to others. He’s saying, “Hey, I have met something good. And I want you, who have been shut out of the religious equation, because you have blemishes and sins, and you don’t have the economics to participate in the temple. I’m opening the door for you because the door has been opened up for me.” What I think we don’t talk nearly enough about is, is that while this happened to John and John left, you know, regular Saturday worship. And you know, and I think maybe if we really wanted to go to the deep end of the swimming pool here, I think maybe one of the reasons why the Episcopal Church is struggling and many other denominations are struggling to keep kids is because they see God out in the world a lot more than they see God in the church. And so, that’s why they want to build houses, feed the homeless, and clean up the ocean, plant trees. They want to participate in what God is doing all around them and not sort of relegated, you know, to an hour and a half on Sunday. Now, of course, I believe there’s a benefit for us to be in relationship to one another in worship in my tradition on Sunday morning, or any other morning for that matter. That gives meaning and gives depth to all of those other expressions. So, I’m going to always sort of advocate for that.
But I’m paying attention to a lot of young people who feel like that, you know, maybe like John. Because they didn’t find fulfillment, you know, in the congregation, they went outside and participate with God, outside.
Melissa: Well, yeah, that’s fabulous. Because I think they have a great propensity of being able to cut through the bullshit, right? I just–
Rob: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think they have watched what we have done and who we are more than what we have said. And then, so we have not interrogated young people’s absence in the church nearly enough to learn from it. And so, when I think about John, I think about John as a little boy who was born in the church. I mean, his daddy was Zechariah, as mother was Elizabeth, you know, they were sort of high ups in the religious society. And yet, look, where we find John? John is wearing God only knows what, and John has eaten God only knows what, and John is way away from the temple. But somehow John is participating in his own way, in his own idiom, with his own words in the expansion of God’s kingdom, by inviting regular ole me and regular ole you with all our crap into a more authentic relationship with God. Now, that in my opinion, is what the world needs now. You know, not performance of religiosity. But people who have experienced nearness themselves.
Melissa: And I love the fact that John’s message is pulled directly out of Isaiah. And so, it’s like this timeless thing that transcends time, I think, timeless. That’s what it is. So, I guess my question to you is what are some ways that modern day Jesus followers might continue to prepare the way of the Lord and make his path straight?
Rob: Well, what I want to say, I mean, you made the point. What I want to say is what directs John steps is that as a little boy, he heard Isaiah’s words. And so, those words gave his own actions meaning, right? They shaped his call to go out into the world and be those words. So, I think we have to continue to try and tell these stories, continue to point to these words that give life meaning, so thank God for Isaiah, Jesus also. When Jesus steps forward, and you know, inauguration of his public ministry, he also quotes Isaiah. He’s incarnating words. And so, I want to say to people, for whom Sunday morning and worship is still important, to go there in an embodied way. I think you have to go be the words. So, that goes back too– It is not enough to be aware of the words. You have to go be them. And I think that’s what young people want to see. I think that is what the world still needs, you and I being these words at the office, at the school board, wherever we find ourselves. At the checkout counter, when we are doing big deals in the boardroom, we have to be the words. I think that’s how kingdom is near, kingdom rides in on our back, rides in on our briefcase. So, I think that is what we have to do.
And I think that is why we have to continue, that’s why Advent is good. It gives us a specific piece of time to think about where am I out of alignment. You know, and so it’s not about that we’re bad. And people got to hear me say that. It’s not about are we bad? You know, no, you’re not bad. You’re made for good, by a good God, you are good. The question is, are you doing all the good you can do? That’s the question. And that’s a question that I need to hold over my own life. You know, when I look at how I do my time, and do my money, and how I do my words, and how I do my absences, you know, am I doing as much as I can? And no, this is not spiritualized, permission to spiritually sort of overwork oneself. But it’s to ask oneself, you know, are you aligned with the words that have given authority over your life. Is Jesus the Lord of your life?
Now, I was talking to the Presiding Bishop some time back. And what we realized, together, you know, as we were sort of making together, is that the adaptive challenge, the most difficult challenge facing the church, is not necessarily church growth, or church finances, etc. It is, will we choose to allow Jesus to actually be the Lord of the organization that bears his name. And that’s about you and me submitting our lives to Jesus. And that is not something we can do on a day, or a decade, or even five. But it is something that gets started with people like John, who love us enough to tell us the truth. You know, truth is an expression of love. I think we’ve got to say that too. And sometimes we don’t say that. Sometimes we kind of get wired in our head to not tell people the truth is loving them. And not, okay, I hear that. But Jesus is enough to tell us the truth about life, our self, and death. And John says, “Hey, come on, now’s the time to turn around. Come on. There is nothing down that road but exhaustion, narcissism, and emptiness. Come on now. Turn around. Come home. Come home to yourself. And come home to God.”
Melissa: And we’ve been invited to spread that message and so prepare you the way the Lord Bishop.
Rob: I’m working on it sister, I promise you.
Melissa: Thank you so much for listening to For People. You can keep up with us on Facebook and Instagram @BishopRobWright. Please subscribe, leave a review, and we’ll be back with you next time.