Sermon for January 13, 2019

Scripture Readings
Isa. 43:1-7 • Ps. 29:1-11 • Acts 8:14-17 • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Jesus, the Demolition Artist

(Luke 3:7-17, 21-22)

Note to preacher: For the introduction you may want to show a video of a building being demolished through an explosion.

Demolition—it’s the necessary job of removing the old so that the new can come in. It involves pulling, crushing (and sometimes exploding), then removing, so that old material can make way for the new.

Demolition, particularly when it involves the use of explosives, is a delicate art. You’ve likely seen buildings demolished using explosives. It looks like an ordinary building on an ordinary day, when somewhere, deep inside the structure, there’s a jerk, then a shudder, then another, like the building is having a seizure. Then one corner of it lunges, starts to fall, and in just a moment there is a murky cloud where the building used to be. Demolition experts call this “progressive collapse.” Skillfully handled, it can happen without breaking windows in nearby structures.

A progressive collapse is the safest, fastest, and most cost-effective way to remove an old building. The use of a wrecking ball or bulldozers and other kinds of machinery is time-wasting and potentially more dangerous. The experts managing a progressive collapse use math and physics as they study the structure. They locate the support beams – those that hold the most weight – and that is where they lay the explosives. Then an ordinary button on an ordinary computer is pushed, resulting in millions of tons of concrete, glass and steel becoming a pile of dust.

What has this to do with us today? Last Sunday we entered the season of Epiphany by looking at Matthew’s story of the wise men visiting Jesus. As Epiphany proceeds, we will be reflecting on the manifestations of Jesus during his ministry, spanning the time it first began until his revelation on the mountain of transfiguration.

Reading Jesus’ words in the Gospels, it’s clear that the message he proclaimed was not about comfort or about maintaining the status quo. So radical and unsettling was his teaching, that we might call Jesus a “demolition artist.” In that regard, judgment is a common topic in his teaching as he calls for radical change. Jesus overthrows the old paradigms and ways of understanding—sometimes adjusting them, but most often demolishing them.

The Jews Jesus was addressing had lived for centuries with the Law of Moses—the ethics and practices that marked them out as God’s people. A culture had grown up around this code—sometimes out of faithfulness, sometimes out of sheer routine, sometimes out of having a sense of being an exclusive community that felt that they were better than the nations around them. Based on their reading of Scripture, they had developed a certain picture of what God’s deliverance of them as a nation would look like. They had “figured out” what God’s kingdom would be like—especially what God’s king, their Messiah, would look like when he arrived. As God’s people, they understood that they would be the privileged heirs of a physical kingdom, and would rule over other nations—the nations that had persecuted and even enslaved them throughout their history.

What they expected of the Messiah was one of the first support beams that Jesus put the dynamite under. Another was the expectation of what the kingdom would look like. He blew these expectations apart with small charges we call parables—particularly ones known as the kingdom parables, that tell what the kingdom of God is and where it is.

Jesus declared the kingdom of God to be like a story where a despised Samaritan is the hero—BOOM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the master who pays his servants the same no matter how long they’ve worked—BAM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the younger brother who repents and comes home, not the older brother who stayed loyal and kept all the father’s rules—KABOOM! Another expectation Jesus demolished is that God’s kingdom will come to the rich, powerful and perfect. To do so he picks a group of thieves and roughnecks to be his inner circle—BOOM!

Do you see how these parables are similar to how Jesus came into our lives? He turned our tables, shook our foundations, disrupted our neat little plans and our expectations of how things are “supposed to” go. He demolished what we had built and expected, so that he could build our lives in accordance with his plan.

We should not think that the Jews portrayed in the Gospels were uniquely sinful or full of pride. Most were devoted to God. But there is another side of the story that involved some of the religious leaders of the Jews.

There were the Sadducees who traded obedience to God for political jobs, making nice with the Romans. Some Christians in our day do likewise—compromising Christian ethics and doctrine in order to be comfortable in society and more acceptable to non-Christians.

Then there were the Jewish zealots –fundamentalists – some of whom were quite violent. Some Christians in our day are like that—they blow up abortion clinics and beat up gay people.

Then there were the Essenes—the Jewish mystics who ran away from the world and hid in caves, waiting for the end of days. Some Christians in our day are like that—you might find them in groups that shy away from engaging society at all.

But most of the Jews in Jesus’ day were strong, middle-of-the-road worshippers of the God of Israel who held onto the faith, even its more difficult truths, remaining a part of their Jewish culture. These were good citizens, solid people, the kind you wanted your daughters to marry. Included in that group were the Pharisees. Though we often view them as self-righteous bigots, the reality is that they were more faithful and observant than any of us will probably ever be. Nevertheless, Jesus reserved some of his strongest warnings for them. It’s as if Jesus gave the toughest coaching to the star athletes. His most devastating words were spoken to the best and brightest.

Jesus did this to the Pharisees to show us that ALL of us need demolition and rebuilding. ALL of us need Jesus’ explosive charges laid at the pillars and supports we’ve built up for ourselves—no matter how well-intentioned they might be.

So, Jesus the demolition artist, comes at the expectations and culture that had built up around the Law and the Prophets, and blows out the supports, piece by piece, until the whole edifice topples under its own weight. True construction, true growth and change, can’t come until the old is demolished.

Here’s a question for each us: Has Jesus ever blown out our supports? Has he ever blown up old things—old habits, old sins, self-protection—the things we’ve relied on instead of him? Has the demolition artist ever gone to work on you? He’s certainly gone to work on me!

Note to preacher: this would be a good place to share an example from your life.

There are times I thought I had it figured out—times I thought I knew how things would go, what shape my life would take, what would happen next. But Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about my thoughts on the matter. He sent in the demolition crew, attached an explosive charge to the foundations of my pride and presumption and BOOM! As the structures of pride, ignorance and even arrogance fell, and the smoke cleared, I could get a glimpse of God’s amazing plan for my life. And what a plan is was, and is!

Let’s go now to our reading in Luke. To get the context, we’ll start in verse 7 where John the Baptist addresses the crowd:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7-14)

“St. John Baptizes the People” (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

If Jesus is the demolition artist, then John the Baptist is his wiry, tough, fast-moving assistant—the one who finds the supports in the structure and marks them with chalk so Jesus can come along with the heavy artillery.

John is addressing everyday people who feel spiritual hunger and thirst, people whose hearts are in some measure tenderized by God. John points out their everyday sins—the ones most everyone commits. He points out that their surplus of food and goods belong to the poor. Sure John, but doesn’t everyone keep a little extra for themselves? John then points out that the “accepted” evils of the tax collector culture, skimming a little off the top, is also unacceptable. He points out that the “accepted” evils of the soldiers’ world—extorting people for extra cash, skimming off the top too—is also unacceptable. He is pointing out that Jesus is here to take sin out by the roots, not to merely remodel the building. Instead, Jesus will demolish it and start over from the ground up.

In our culture (even among Christians) there are “acceptable sins.” How often do we look at what the Bible lists as sin and respond with a helpless shrug—”that’s just the way things are.” Plenty of good moral people find themselves in such circumstances. John is showing us that we don’t need a slight modification of our behavior or a mere refreshing of our perspective. What we need is a new heart and soul. We need Jesus the demolition artist to take down our old concepts of righteousness and goodness and build the real thing in its place.

Luke continues:

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15-17)

Here John uses a couple of metaphors to describe what’s going on with Jesus. There is a belief among the Jews at the time that as descendants of Abraham they will be excluded from God’s judgment. But that is not the case. Everyone (Jews and Christians included) need a full change of heart. They need the re-creation that is theirs in Jesus, the Messiah. To make that point, John uses the illustration of a winnowing fork and a threshing floor.

In Jesus’ day, you had to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat was the kernel that could be made into bread and the chaff was the useless shell that was thrown away or burned. The threshing floor was a flat area of packed dirt where the wheat was laid out to dry. These floors were often on top of hills so the wind could blow across, blowing away the useless chaff.

When the wheat had dried, the farmer would come along with a winnowing fork or fan and throw the wheat up in the air. The remaining chaff would then blow away and the kernels of wheat would fall to the ground. This analogy here is about separating out what is useful from what is useless—the good from the bad.

For us, Jesus is the separator, the judge, the demolition artist. He has the winnowing fork in hand. I know—he’s thrown me in the air before to knock the chaff off. This was usually painful, but God used those experiences to transform me—to pull away the chaff and let the wheat—the good stuff—remain. Though painful, most of those experiences were not  dramatic—just everyday stuff. Indeed, everyday life is typically the threshing floor where Jesus meets us. I hope someday to get to the place where I recognize him in those moments as they are occurring, though even when I can’t see them, his threshing still accomplishes its goal—to cleanse and heal me.

Luke’s account continues:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus, the thresher, the demolition artist, comes to John for baptism. Here’s another expectation held by many of the Jews of that day being demolished. After all, the Messiah they longed for was supposed to be a conqueror, an other-worldly figure of great strength. But here comes Jesus, asking to be baptized in a river with everyone else.

Though he did not need to repent or be cleansed, by being baptized Jesus aligned himself with all humanity—joining us in our greatest need. Everything we endure, he endured; all we fail at, he completed. He was baptized with us and for us so that we could be baptized into him. And that represents the greatest demolition of all.

Jesus took all our sins upon himself, he assumed our fallen nature, and bearing that, he destroyed sin and brought us healing. Along the way, he endured all our temptations, yet never sinned. By going to the cross he destroyed the power of death. He is, indeed, the great demolition artist and everything he destroys is so he can build it up again in him. He became one with us in order to transform us, making us his beloved brothers and sisters. Through his representative, substitute humanity, we are adopted as God’s beloved children, who, with Jesus, call God Abba, our Father.

Jesus came, lived, suffered, died and rose again to demolish all that is wrong in us and to make of us a new creation. Through the word of God and the indwelling Spirit he shows us who he really is, and thus who we really are, in him.

Conclusion

Here are some concluding thoughts about what we’ve learned about Jesus today and what that means for each of us.

Jesus is the demolition artist

Though he doesn’t use the term, C.S. Lewis talks beautifully about Jesus as the demolition artist, who says to us:

I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. … Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours. (Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 4)

Jesus is the threshing artist

What if we saw the pain and irritation in our lives as tools in Jesus’ hands to break away that chaff so that the best in us (who we are in Christ) remains? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove the chaff, no matter the cost, I want to be all I can be in you.”

Jesus is sometimes not the Messiah we want

Jesus spent a lot of time correcting false expectations of what the Messiah would look like. Where are our expectations? Do we want Jesus to be our comfort blanket (when we see in Scripture that he is the judge and thresher)? Do we want Jesus to be the conqueror, annihilating all our enemies (when we see in Scripture that he hung out with sinners)? Do we want Jesus to always be on our side, justifying our causes (when we see in Scripture that he had the sharpest rebuke for the most “righteous” of people)? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove all my false expectations about who you are and let me see you.”

During the week ahead, I invite you to pray these prayers:

  • Lord, help me fully surrender.
  • Lord, remove the chaff.
  • Lord, remove my false expectations.
  • Lord, let me see you and what you are doing.
Note to preacher: you might end by praying these prayers on behalf of the congregation.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever witnessed the demolition of a building in person? What was it like?
  • Has Jesus ever “demolished” your expectations of him in your life? Has Jesus ever “demolished” sins, selfish attitudes, life-draining habits in your life that you didn’t even know were sins at the time? How has he rebuilt you?
  • In Luke 3:7-14, John takes aim at some of the “acceptable” sins in their society—tax-collectors skimming of the top, soldiers extorting people, not giving to the poor. What are some of the “acceptable” sins in our lives and our society that need to go? How can we remain aware of these things when the temptation is to always “let it slide”?
  • John uses the metaphor of Jesus on the threshing floor, removing the useless chaff from the precious grain. What if we reframed the stress and irritation in our lives to see it as the chaff being removed? To see these trials as Jesus removing the old, the useless, so that only the best remains? How would that change our daily lives?
  • The book of Hebrews says we have a high priest who sympathizes with our frail human existence. What does it mean that Jesus has gone before us through all these things—that he has walked before us, and still walks with us, through every trial we face? How does that change our perspective or attitude?
  • Isaiah 43:1-17 talks about the various trials we have. Who is always the redeemer? How has he redeemed you through a trial?
  • Discuss Psalm 29:1-11. Is there anything this God can’t and won’t demolish for you?
  • Acts 8:14-17 talks about receiving the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit in you help you see the things that need to be demolished?

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