I speak with you today in the name of God the creator, Christ the righteous one, and the sustaining Holy Spirit. Amen!
I would like to talk a bit today about pretentiousness vs. righteousness. Pretentiousness is the characteristic of making exaggerate claims to power, status, or position. Where I come from we use to call it putting on airs. We see pretentiousness when someone puts on the behaviors or claims the privileges of a different status in life. It is related to pretending. Most commonly someone behaves more smug or condescending to those around them when they are pretentious, and there is usually a denial of humble origins behind that behavior. That is where we get the phrase “he/she has forgotten where he/she came from.”
There is rarely much value in being pretentious. As the character “Wheezah” says in that classic motion picture Steal Magnolias, “An Ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.” There is so little value in being pretentious because sooner or later someone will call us back to reality. Sooner or later someone gives us a swift kick of Christian love that reminds us of exactly who and what we are, a stroke that cuts through our illusions and delusions of our own self importance.
Looking at our Gospel for today, John the Baptizer is delivering one of those strokes. John perceived that the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to see him at the Jordan river were not there out of true repentance, not out of a desire to prepare the way of the Lord; rather they were there out of some sense of social obligation. They were religious leaders and there was a new prophet in town; so, they came out to see if they needed to align themselves with this wildly dressed herald in order to maintain their power base. And if they were wrong about him, no matter; they could always fall back on the fact that they were children of Abraham, the chosen ones of God. This attitude we realize was mere pretension. John confronts them and reminds them that God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the side of the road if God wants to. That is to say God can choose whomever and whatever God wishes. Indeed God does not have to choose at all. Being chosen by God is solely out of the graciousness of God not out of any obligation God has.
Now, there is a lesson for us in this, a stark reminder of our own position in God’s creation. If we are chosen it is not out of any merit of our own. It does not matter who our parents are, how much money we make, the color of our skin, the size of our vehicles, how fast we can run, the clothes we wear, the neighborhood we live in, or how many bells and whistles our cell phones have. The fact that we are chosen rises solely from God’s gracious desire to chose us, and it should in spire us to, as the Baptist says today, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That is to say was should live and act in response to the forgiveness and love that is so readily available to us that honors that forgiveness and love.
Now, I don’t normally go around quoting Don Imus. In fact, I do not think I have ever listened to his radio show. I was not even aware of it until his offensive and racist comments of last year. This past week an interview with him by Barbara Walters aired on TV. In it he said that he should never make a comment in the future that would cause the women of the Rutgers basketball team to be embarrassed that they forgave him. This is how John the Baptist is telling us to live in relation to God. God’s forgiveness is readily available. God passionately desires to choose us, but we should live in a way that does not embarrass God for choosing us. That is to say we should live righteously.
Now, here is a tricky thing. We commonly misunderstand righteousness, for indeed we are much better at being pretentious. We commonly think of righteousness as following rules—do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs, as the old song goes. However, we hear the phrase God’s Righteousness a lot especially in the Old Testament. Now to think of God as the ultimate rule follower is a bit well stupid. In the first place, when we follow rules someone else usually makes them, and who is going to make rules for almighty God to follow. We might have an inflated concept of our abilities, but I do not think we go that far. Second following rules is not what righteousness, or being righteous means. Righteousness, especially in reference to God, is the ability and will to give life. Now, creation in the case of God and procreation on our part is part of righteousness, but only a small part. It also means living in a way that allows others to have life. In the case of Christ as we read in John chapter 10 verse 10 and Christ’s followers, that means us by the way, it means living in a way that enables others to have life and have it more abundantly. See righteousness is tied to justice. We hear that in our reading from the Prophet Isaiah today:
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with Righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
This day John the Baptist prepares the way of the lord. John prepares for the true light from true light to enter the darkness of the world. We are called not only to be in this light, but also to be this light for each other and all we meet in time of darkness. My brothers and sisters let us not assume that we are God’s chosen people because of accidents of birth and status in life. We are God’s by God’s choice alone, by grace alone. Let us not pretend to be righteous; rather let us be righteous. Let us live in ways that create life, physical life, economic life, healthy sustainable life, healthy mind, body, and spirit. And let us not be pretentious and selfish and do this for us alone; rather let us be righteous and live so that all may have life and have it more abundantly. Amen!