"Tebow Time, or, On Giving the World the Finger"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Third Sunday of Advent
11 December 2011
Texts: Isaiah 64.1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8, 19-28
"The crux here, the issue driving this whole "Tebow Thing," is the matter of faith. It's the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that's probably true. And with Tebow, that illogical warm feeling keeps working out. It pays off. The upside to secular thinking is that — in theory — your skepticism will prove correct. Your rightness might be emotionally unsatisfying, but it confirms a stable understanding of the universe...But Tebow wrecks all that, because he makes blind faith a viable option. His faith in God, his followers' faith in him — it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don't actually believe." - Chuck Klosterman
-This week, I’ve found it utterly impossible to think about today's Gospel story about John the Baptizer without thinking about Tim Tebow. If like my daughter you wonder: “what’s a Tebow?” let me fill you in: Tim Tebow is the current quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Despite his inability to throw the football at anything resembling a professional level of competency, Tebow has somehow managed to lead the faltering Broncos to five* (updated to six mid-sermon!) straight victories. He’s a national obsession, a living legend, the "Mile High Messiah," and, perhaps most infamously, he is an outspoken evangelical Christian. His trademark move of “Tebowing” after each play to thank Jesus is both replicated and reviled.
-Now, I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a Tebow fanatic myself. I wasn’t against renaming today’s open space “Tebow Time.” And my wife only narrowly persuaded me that making homemade #15 jerseys was not the best use of our craft time after worship. Despite profound theological disagreements, I deeply admire Tebow. He's courageous, unorthodox, and seems to be a genuinely nice, joyful guy. And, actually, Timmy and John the Baptist have more in common than you’d think. Really! Both attract huge numbers of folks from the countryside to participate in their spectacle. Both of them, it seems, are too often mistaken for being the Messiah. And both of them seem to do nothing except point to Jesus.
-As you might imagine, as with John the Baptizer, not everyone is down with Tebow’s public displays of affection for his Savior. But then, I’m not sure people have really ever been down with public displays of faith. I know I’m not. Is there really anything more uncomfortable than when someone comes up to you -NOT in church- and says, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus?” I mean, I guess in theory we’re all supposed to be all about taking the Good News to the world. But if you’re like me, you probably prefer St Francis to Tim Tebow. You know, that whole, “preach the Gospel at all times, and use words only if necessary” thing? Especially because necessary can then easily be changed to “never.”
-I was even starting to feel a bit guilty about the “evangelical” in our denomination’s name, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, when I read this great article by journalist Chuck Klostermann. Reflecting on Tebow’s haters, Klostermann notes, “I'm starting to think it has something to do with the natural human discomfort with faith — and not just faith in Christ, but faith in anything that might (eventually) make us look ridiculous.”
-That nailed it for me. See, when I was in college, was definitely embarrassed by the campus Christian culture. It was hard not to be when, at an ivy league school, the best idea of how to share faith was to hide bible verses and tracts under the free pizza they were giving out in the student union. Maybe equally embarrassing to some is the idea that Jesus cares whether Tebow wins a football game, or whether an angel really held open that parking space at Whole Foods. Or, whether an angel really visited a virgin. Whether she was a virgin at all. Whether any of this is really true at all, or just a nice cover for a Hallmark card.
-The world is tired of Christians and our contradictions. And frankly, so are many of us. And so we let the world teach us how to tell our story, with skepticism and cynicism…or just plain silence.
-In our Gospel today, I wonder if its embarrassment that also leads the Pharisees to confront John the Baptizer. See, as soon as John starts performing unauthorized baptisms out in the desert the religious leaders are forced to deal with the madness of what’s going on. Because people are actually craving what John has to offer! And the leaders want to know why. They want answers. Demand an account.
-Which is, of course, exactly what John doesn’t give them! When the Phraisees ask him who he is, he replies, “I’m not the Messiah, and I’m not really sure who is, but he’s one among you don't know, he's coming, and he’s awesome!” Not exactly a clarifying visit for the Pharisees. Or us, for that matter!
-But I think there’s tremendous freedom in the fact that even John himself doesn’t have to understand everything. But he does know something powerful is happening. Something prophets have promised. Something has touched his existence and set it on fire. And as he shares what he is experiencing of God, it seems others are set on fire as well.
-See, I think this humble, bold testimony of John is a word of tremendous freedom to those of us not quite sure about what to do with the whole faith-sharing” thing. Because look: even John, the “man sent from God to testify about the light,” the one Jesus called the greatest prophet of all time, doesn’t have to have everything figured out in order to marvel and wonder at the new thing God is up to in Jesus Christ.
-One reason we named our son Matthias was for a 15th-century painter, Matthias Grunewald, who created this magnificent work called the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was famous both for its grisly depiction of the suffering Christ, and also for its depiction of John the Baptist. See, John’s off to the side, lifting a single, bony finger, which guides the viewer’s gaze away towards the man on the cross. It’s this finger of John’s that inspired theologians like Karl Barth to defy the Nazis by uncompromisingly proclaiming Christ. And it’s this finger, I think, that serves as a perfect icon of what it means to be a witness. It’s that finger John gives to the Pharisees. It’s the original version of “Tebowing.”
-It’s my hope that my son, and all of us, will, like the Baptizer, also be a people who gives the world the finger. This isn’t exactly territory we Lutherans are traditionally comfortable with. We’d rather talk about our churches or our theology than about Christ in our lives. Would rather enjoy the world than testify to it. Knowing that we don’t have to know everything, it doesn’t make witnessing magically easier, more comfortable, or less risky.
-But maybe what the world needs most is for the church to stop trying to appease or answer it. Maybe the greatest gift the church can give to a skeptical world this Advent is simply giving the world the finger! By pointing to those places where, inexplicably, unbelievably, God is with us and for us, fulfilling His promises, shining light in the midst of the world’s darkness.
-See, in declaring, “I am not the Messiah,” John is giving us permission to give the world the finger! We are not the Messiah! So we don’t need to explain away the grisly history of the faltering, failing church. We don’t need to have an answer for the suffering of the world, or to the questions of the cynics and the skeptics. Do not need to untangle every contradiction in the jumbled mess we call sacred Scripture. We do not even need to overcome the darkness of the human heart. After all, since we’re not the Messiah, we’re not responsible for doing Messiah’s work of enlightening, converting, or transforming others. Or ourselves.
-Because rather than converting or changing others to be more like ourselves, maybe being a witness looks more like giving the world the finger, pointing to Christ and Him Crucified. Even and especially when he seems most absurd, mots hidden, most embarrassing, most absent. And maybe it looks less like having answers. Maybe it looks more like the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming freedom for the captives and comfort for the afflicted, imagining ancient ruins rebuilt and about a bridegroom clothing his people in riches and finery, even while his people still are still in Babylonian captivity. Maybe it looks like Mary, a marginalized, impoverished, voiceless peasant woman, who is told that God is coming near, and so bursts out into song - the very Magnificat we sang as today’s psalm - proclaiming, “the Lord has done great things for me!” - even while still living under Roman oppression.
-And maybe, just maybe, it looks like a football player, or a graphic designer, or a social worker, or a disgruntled, cynical vicar, giving the world the finger. By telling the story of how, in spite all odds, God still seems to be in the business of surprising you with Her mystery, Her presence, and Her faithfulness. Maybe it starts, not with convincing others, but by first letting ourselves be convicted by the mystery in our lives. By allowing ourselves to be overjoyed by that which we do not know in our midst. And simply, by sharing the stories about the places in our lives God seems to be active. Places where answers end. Where God is happening. Where God’s promises seem to be alive and dancing.
-Maybe giving the world the finger is less about what WE can muster up about God. Maybe it’s more about us noticing and proclaiming where God IS already showing up. In the midst of confusion, embarrassment and pain. But also, in the midst of surprise, mystery, and joy. Maybe it starts by simply telling our stories to each other. Of how God IS present with us and for us, here and now, binding up the brokenhearted, liberating captives, casting down the mighty, raising up the lowly, fulfilling the promises of the prophets, giving the world the finger. The finger which points to Christ.
-Maybe Tebow's on to something after all. Amen.