"Fan" is a good word to us. When someone says they're a fan of a person, place, thing, or activity, that is a positive thing in our minds, but fanatical is something else. Though the word "fan" comes from the word "fanatical," there is a world of difference between being a fan and being fanatical. Being a fan is good, being fanatical isn't.
I take that back. It is okay to be fanatical about some things. You can be fanatical about sports, can't you? You can be a face painter at a U.T. game and that's okay. Likewise, it's okay to where a hunk of cheese as a hat in Green Bay or be the guy who paints his bare chest in New England and stands there in subfreezing temperatures screaming his head off. You can be fanatical about a particular sport, and most people will admire your zeal.
Sports aren't the only things you can be fanatical about in our society. You can be fanatical about your country, wine, beer, furniture, gardening, cooking, stamp collecting, coin collecting, or baseball card collecting. You can even be a fanatic about your work, and all we'll call you is a workaholic. Fact is our society will respect your dedication to anything with one exception. You can't be fanatical about religion. O you can be fanatical about Christmas. You can wear reindeer antlers, a Santa suit, and have 100,000 lights on your house, and that's okay. You can be fanatical about Christmas; you just can't be fanatical about Christ or Christianity.
You're a nut if you believe that Christian doctrine can be pure; that Jesus is the only way to heaven; that only those who believe the same should commune or hold services together. President Bush stated the mainstream religious position in a recent speech. Twice he said, "I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian or any other religion, prays to the same God." You're a fanatic if you don't agree, and while you can be fanatical about anything from architecture to zoology, you can't be fanatical about the Words of God. If you take Him at His Word making the distinctions and divisions He does in His Word, well then you're taking His Word too seriously, too literally, in a word fanatically.
However, doesn't fanatical describe John? He lives and preaches in the dessert not in a building or even in a city. And look how he dresses! He wears a camel hair garment with a leather belt around his waist. That's the clothing Elijah wore in the Old Testament. What would you think if I started to dress like Martin Luther? And how about his food? Grasshoppers and wild honey. John's whole manner of life, dress, and diet preached fanaticism. Actually, these just mirrored his actual preaching.
John preached absolutes: heaven or hell, being gathered into the barn or being burned up in unquenchable fire. In our day being moderate is valued; not taking your religion too seriously is mainstream. Oh you may hold your beliefs firmly, but never, ever may you question anyone else's. I believe in the resurrection of the dead by Christ, but you can believe in reincarnation. I believe in Christ but that belief is not better than your belief in Allah. I believe I go to church to receive the medicine of immortality, you believe it doesn't matter if a person goes to church at all. "To each his own" is the accepted confession of religious faith today.
John certainly didn't give people such latitude. He called the leaders of the church snakes because they believed they were saved by being children of Abraham. He told them being a child of Abraham was no better than being a rock. Contrast that to President Bush who said in the same speech, "I believe that the God the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham." Such talk isn't fanatical; it's sensible, peaceable, and likeable.
John is fanatical. You can see this in that he's single-mindedly focused on Christ, not God, not a Supreme Being. In John's Gospel, John the Baptist tells us that he came baptizing so that the Christ could be revealed. He talked about Christ, preached about Christ, pointed to Christ as the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the world. That sort of talk is fanatical. You can believe in God in our day. Like our money says, you can say, "In God I trust." Like our pledge says, you can say, "I believe in one nation under God," but if you believe there is no salvation outside of Jesus, you are a nut to the rest of the world, and if you believe that God cannot be known apart from Jesus, you're a nut even to most of Christianity.
It's fanatical to say that the only way God can be worshiped or prayed to is in Jesus. It's fanatical to have weekly communion, to point people to their baptism for salvation, to claim that the pastor's words of absolution are in the stead and by the command of Christ. Go ahead and take your sport's team so seriously that you paint your face. Go ahead and take your hobby so seriously that you have a room in your house dedicated to it. Go ahead and be fanatical about anything or everything but don't you dare be fanatical about Jesus and His Words.
Don't you dare point out that Jesus says, "I am THE way (not A way) THE truth (not A truth) and THE life (not A life)." Don't you dare believe that Jesus meant it when He said, "No one can come to the Father, pray to the Father, reach the Father, except through ME." Be fanatical about any water sport, but don't you dare be fanatical about the waters of Baptism believing what First Peter says: that they save you. And you can be a foody, a total fanatic about cooking and eating any food except the Food on this altar: the Body and Blood of Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
You can be fanatical about anything but Christianity. Yet isn't that what John the Baptist calls us to? More importantly doesn't fanatical describe the Christ he points us to? Our word fanatic comes from the Latin fanaticus whish means inspired by divinity. But Jesus isn't merely inspired by divinity; He is divinity. "All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ," says St. Paul in Colossians. And this flesh and blood God is fanatical about saving us.
You want to know how fanatical? Fanatical sports fans paint their bodies, tattoo their bodies, cover their bodies with their team's clothing. The Second Person of the Trinity was so fanatical about saving you that He took on a body just like yours. Green Bay Packer fans are so fanatical that they will humble themselves by wearing a block of cheese for a hat. The eternal Son of God humbled Himself not by becoming man but by the way He did it: being conceived by the Holy Ghost and being born of the Virgin Mary.
Zeal for us and our salvation consumed Him. Jesus had to be about His heavenly Father's business already at the tender age of 12. His Father's business was saving sinners. To save sinners, all the laws that God had given to us had to be kept. God couldn't simply ignore them. His Laws were promises too. If God ignored His laws, He would be breaking His promises. But His Laws accused us, killed us, damned us. Who could fulfill them perfectly? Who but God? Who could fulfill them in place of mankind? Who but a man? Who could fulfill these Laws and remove them from hanging over our heads as undone? Who but the God/Man Jesus Christ? He was fanatical about fulfilling every jot and tittle. Every duty, every obligation, every ought, should, must, and shalt Jesus fulfilled in your place. Not one is left for you to do before you can claim heaven as your own.
Of course, the obligations of the Law weren't the only things that needed to be kept, so did the punishments. God had promised that He would punish sin. A promise is a promise. Failing to keep one promise is failing to keep them all. But the Laws were given to mankind, so it had to be a man who was punished. But the holy God was the one offended, so who but God could satisfy God's wrath? Who but the God/Man Jesus Christ? He was fanatical about bearing the punishment God owes your for each of your sins. He took the cup of God's wrath and drained it completely. What is left for you to drink? Jesus said, "I did it," to every accusation against you. He accepted the guilt, the shame, and the pain owed to you for your sins. There is no more left for you to bear, drink, or even feel.
Jesus was fanatical about His work of saving you. By fulfilling all God's laws in your place and by suffering, dying, bleeding and sighing in your place under the Law's punishments, Jesus won the right to pour out the Holy Spirit on sinners and the right to judge them. Having completed His work of saving us, Jesus ascended into heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit on His Church. Through the Church He sends His Word and Sacraments into all the world to save it from the fires of judgment that He will pour out on the last day.
This Word and Sacraments do fanatical things. You don't think so? Isaiah did. What's more fanatical than the wolf living with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the goat? What's more over the top than a calf and a lion feeding together rather than the lion feeding on the calf? What's more bizarre than a cow feeding with a bear and a lion feeding on straw? What is more fantastic than an infant playing near the hole of the cobra and a young child putting his hand into a nest of snakes?
Aren't these miracles to get fanatical about? Actually you have seen and will see greater things than these today. You saw a baby rescued from sin, death and the devil by three little handfuls of baptismal water. You saw old people with years of sins on their accounts, redeemed, restored, and forgiven by words of absolution from the mouth of a man. And you will see angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven gathered around the Body and Blood of their God and Savior on this very altar. Finally, you will see sinners come away from this altar with forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation.
These are things to be fanatical about! If you can be fanatical over sports teams, hobbies, or things, I can be fanatical about the Man who is God, sinners who are saints, and earthly things bringing heavenly realties. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20071209); Matthew 3: 1-12