The generation right before mine (my parents) was the first TV generation. They grew up watching television, instead of listening to the radio or reading books aloud. I remember my grandparents being scandalized by television: they thought Elvis Presley’s hip-gyrations were obscene (I’m thankful they didn’t live to see Miley Cyrus’ twerking).
The generation after mine (my kids) is the online generation. They don’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist. Their experience of watching TV is totally different from mine as a kid. They never have to look at a TV guide or be home at a certain time to catch their favorite show, but my three-year-old already knows the difference between Netflix and Hulu (and has very strong opinions about which one is better).
My generation, on the other hand, is the Nintendo generation. We grew up slamming plastic cartridges into consoles and sitting almost motionless in front of screens for hours at a time, while our thumbs flew over the controllers at the speed of light. When Mom thought we’d had enough, she would send us outside to play in the fresh air (at which point we would simply run down the street to play Nintendo at a friend’s house).
When you grow up as part of the Nintendo generation, there are certain concepts that you just kind of instinctively understand in the marrow of your bones. Video games have shaped the way we look at reality. One such concept is the idea of ‘leveling up’ or ‘going up to the next level’.
In the Nintendo world, when a player completes a challenge (i.e. solves a puzzle, defeats an enemy, completes an obstacle course, etc.), she or he then moves on to the next challenge/puzzle/enemy, which is inevitably more difficult than all the previous ones. This is what we mean by ‘leveling up’ or ‘going to the next level.’ When you’ve successfully completed all the levels in a given program, then you can say that you ‘beat the game’.
[Notice that I didn’t say ‘win’. Nobody ever really ‘wins’ a video game because there’s no lasting reward. After all that effort: hours of stress and focus, all you really get is the bragging rights to say to your friends, ‘I beat that game.’]
Now, I want you to keep this idea of ‘levels’ and ‘leveling up’ in your mind as we turn to look at our gospel text from this morning…
Once again, we meet John the Baptist, who we previously encountered in our readings during the season of Advent. John is kind of an odd duck. John is a prophet (more like a monk, actually): he lives a simple, celibate life out in the desert, preaches to anyone who will listen, criticizes the culture around him, and invites people to take part in this cleansing ritual called ‘baptism’.
People would come to hear him preach and anyone who felt moved by what he had to say could come forward to be baptized. Their participation in this ritual washing was a sign that they wanted to commit themselves to the kind of ideals that John was talking about.
John represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the civil religion of his culture. For most of the people around him, being Jewish was just part of being an Israelite: it was the religion of their culture. John wanted people to take their faith seriously. He thought faith should be a decision that affected the way they lived.
John called his fellow Jews back to the roots of their faith. He wasn’t impressed by their appeals to cultural pedigree. He said to them:
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
John was a reformer, just like the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah before him (in the Old Testament) and Martin Luther and John Calvin after him (in the Protestant Reformation).
Jesus, on the other hand, represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ that was entirely different from John’s. While John preached a message of conversion (i.e. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”), Jesus preached a gospel of grace and inclusion.
Jesus’ ministry was one of acceptance toward those who were rejected and despised by polite, religious society. It was the “tax collectors and sinners” who Jesus chose to befriend. In the case of Zacchaeus, Matthew Levi, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears: Jesus’ modus operandi seems to be “forgiveness first, then repentance”. Jesus dared to assert that salvation begins, not with human effort toward moral goodness, but with the sovereign grace of God reaching out to embrace sinners.
This message certainly scandalized the Pharisees and Sadducees, who eventually conspired to have Jesus killed, but it also confused John the Baptist himself. Sometime after John was imprisoned and Jesus’ ministry got started, John sent a message to Jesus, wondering whether he really was the promised Messiah they had been waiting for. John had expected a powerful moral leader who would “baptize with fire” and carry “his winnowing fork in his hand… to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
John thought that Jesus’ ministry would look much like his own, but bolder and more effective on a large scale. What he saw instead was a gentle Messiah, a “Prince of Peace” who revealed the heart of God to the world as Love.
Just as John had represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the Jewish civil religion of the first century, so Jesus represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the message of conversion to the gospel of grace. Jesus’ message includes John’s (just as John’s message included the Torah and traditions of the Jewish elders), but went far beyond it. The Gospel of Christ is ‘the next level’ in the religious development of Judaism, which started with God’s covenant with Abraham, continued through Moses and the prophets, and concluded with John the Baptist.
When I look around at our society today, I give thanks for the many preachers like John the Baptist who call the people of our own culture to take their faith more seriously. Like John before them, these fiery preachers rail loudly against immorality and preach a message of conversion. You can hear their message pretty much anytime you tune the TV or radio to some religious programming.
These preachers are obviously having an effect (just like John): their parishioners talk about their conversion like a “line in the sand” that separates their old life from the new. People testify about overcoming various addictions and compulsions, leaving behind lives of crime and vice, rising above challenges and limitations… all thanks to their newfound faith. Make no mistake: this is a good thing and we should thank God for it. These people have ‘leveled up’ in their understanding of God, their commitment to faith, and in their overall quality of life. John’s message makes a difference.
However, I think it would be a mistake to think that the Christian journey ends with conversion. Conversion is only a beginning. There is another kind of ‘leveling up’ for those who continue to journey with Jesus and discover in the Scriptures and the Sacraments just how deep and wide God’s love really is.
Do we dare to believe that the love of God would still embrace us, even if we had never turned ourselves around or listened to John’s message of conversion? Can we picture ourselves as the sinners who Jesus loves unconditionally, before we even have an opportunity to confess or repent? Is it possible that we really are “saved by grace alone” as the Protestant reformers so boldly declared in the 16th century?
These are big questions that have the capacity to shake the Church to its very foundations, just as it shook the religious establishment in the time of John and Jesus.
The most amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus is that you ‘level up’, not by becoming a better Christian, but by being a really bad one. It is not our spiritual success, but our failure that reveals the deepest heart of God to us.
The moment when we truly see the face of God in Jesus is that moment when we collapse at his feet, dressed only in the filthy, tattered rags of our own self-righteousness. Salvation comes to us when the saint within us is finally killed off by our inner sinner’s failure to live up to impossible moral and spiritual standards. Those are the moments when Jesus comes to us, picks us up, and carries us to the next level of spiritual growth.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only system I know where you succeed by failing. I have heard it said that all religion is humanity reaching out to God, but the gospel is God reaching out to humanity. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian from the second century, said it this way: “In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became human so that humanity might become divine.”
This morning, as we welcome several new members into our church community (two of whom are being baptized), I want to invite you to reflect again on the meaning of this sacrament:
God accepts us, claims us, saves us, cleanses us, and washes us clean in the waters of baptism. This happens long before any of us has the capacity to say or do anything to influence God’s opinion of us. The love of God in Christ is absolute, unconditional, and universal. I invite you to meditate on your own baptism today, whether you remember it or not: Imagine the water of grace surrounding you, washing you clean, and hear in your heart the voice from heaven speaking to you, just as it did to Jesus:
“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”