Word was spreading all over Jerusalem; a great new preacher had arrived on the scene. Out in the wilderness was a man who was sounding like one of the prophets of old--you know, the ones our great, great grandparents talked about. The man was telling it like it is or, as some would say, he was tacking some hides to the smokehouse door. He was preaching straight from the book. Isaiah seemed to be his favorite and he was bringing those ancient words alive. Out there in the wilderness, there were the makings of a great revival. Perhaps they were singing songs like granddaddy did. Down there by the River Jordan they were a having a good time.
Last week I spoke of how choosing to hold our meeting away from the population center was not the smartest thing in the world. In fact, I called it poor marketing. But this doesn't seem to matter when God's spirit gets involved. The crowds were pouring out into the wilderness. Luke tells us that part of those coming were tax collectors. These were far from those you expected to be coming to hear John. They were considered not only less than righteous, but they were seen as traitors to their people. They were a part of the Roman occupation machinery of oppression. There were the soldiers there as well. Again, not the patriots we honor for defending our freedom, but a part of a cruel, oppressive occupation. So this is fertile ground for some to be saved.
But Matthew in his account tells us among those coming to hear John were the religious elite, the Pharisees and the Sadducees--you know, the real high ups of the faith, the ones who knew they were religious and didn't mind telling you so.
So imagine for a moment you have gone out into the wilderness to see what John was all about. You see sinners and saints alike around you. And you lean forward to hear John attack those tax collectors and soldiers and praise those of the religious elite. But you are shocked as John looks at the religious folks, as well as those who were struggling, and without making any distinction he says, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?"
Now, John, if you ever want to serve First Church Jerusalem you have to learn not to call your congregation a bunch of snakes. No wonder this man had to go out into the wilderness to preach. And the Pharisees and Sadducees are thinking, "What do you mean, warned us? Why do we need warning? Are we not God's chosen people? What have we to repent of?" These religious leaders probably expected what we often expect in church, for the afflicted to be made comfortable. And here in John's message we find the comfortable being afflicted.
The voice crying in the wilderness is for all to repent, to turn to where they were headed in their living and to go in a new way. But those of the religious elite would ask what many of us would ask, "How does a saint repent?"
First of all, the call to repentance is a challenge to take a hard look at our faith commitment. Are we producing any fruit from our faith? Does our faith enrich and guide how we relate to others?
Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." We are talking about putting your money where your mouth is, and even more importantly putting your life where your mouth is.
For a saint or believer to repent means to stop relying on false security such as when John's audience protested, "We are Abraham's children, thus we are guaranteed that God will protect us." They were relying on the false security that the faith of their ancestors would be sufficient for them. John rightly replied that if God so chose he could make children of Abraham out of the stones around them. And if you have ever seen the areas around the Jordan near Jerusalem, you know there are many, many stones.
Before we are too quick to judge those who came to hear John, don't we do much of the same? We would use church membership to equate discipleship. Or we might see our culture as being Christian based only to discover that wherever we are in our faith journeys, it takes much more than the culture for any one to be faithful to Christ. In fact, our faith will call for us to go against our culture.
It is true many of us grew up in homes that Christ was shared with us at a very early age, but that in itself is not assurance that we can take our faith for granted. Our heritage is a very fragile gift, one we must treat not only with care, but learn to take responsibility for. We cannot rely on the faith of others who came before us.
Many of us are like the young boy who had one line to say in the church pageant. He had to stand and say, "I am the light of the world." When in front of a live audience, he froze-- couldn't remember his one line. His mother was sitting on the front row trying to mouth the line. He read her lips but it came out, "My mother is the light of the world." She may be that, but that is not enough for the young boy. For us to know the joy of the one who came to Bethlehem, He must be our light.
Two folks from different churches were arguing on which church was the most narrow-minded. One said, "My church thinks they are the only ones going to heaven." The other protested, "Mine is much more narrow-minded than that; they don't even think they will all be in heaven." Of course, the former is wrong for God's standards are not our standards, but the latter is right because all congregations and denominations are a mixture. The challenge for us is not to take our relationships with Christ for granted. Let us repent and go in a new direction.
Henri J. Nouwen wrote in The Wounded Healer, "God needs to guide us out of the closed circuits of our groups into the wider world of humanity."
The call to repent challenges us to grow in our faith so we will not be so self absorbed that we fail to see Christ in our lives or the lives of others. Much of the transforming power of our faith is lost when we have grown too comfortable with it. We must hear again and again the call to be faithful, to correct our course through life to go the way that God would have us to go. A religion void of moral and ethical living is just that--void. Our faith must be connected by our manner of living in the every day world.
John's call in our Gospel is for us to share what God has blessed us with. Not merely in thoughts. It is so easy in the holiday season to wish everybody a Merry or Blessed Christmas but what if we gave in such a way that it might be for those who are less fortunate as we are. John speaks in practical terms such as food and clothing. To those on the fringe, the tax collectors and the soldiers, he speaks of doing their duties in a fair and just way. For in both of these cases they are necessary roles in the world, but it is how one does one's duty that is the key.
The challenge to repent means for us to stop seeking cheap grace in our lives. Last week's sermon based on the opening words of Luke's third chapter was called "Uncluttering." It was a reminder that our very souls become cluttered when we look for bargains in our commitments. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns in the Cost of Discipleship of cheap grace. In Bonhoeffer's words, "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ." On the other hand, Bonhoeffer would suggest that costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, one would gladly go and sell all that he had. It is the pearl of great price, that in order to buy it the merchant will sell all his goods. Our call to repentance is not to seek bargain basement religion but rather a call to commit our lives to God's will.
Peter Marshall, a noted Presbyterian pastor of the middle of the twentieth century, saw Christianity starting as good news, but we have allowed it to become diluted into merely good advice. H. Richard Niebuhr of the same period observed that God who is primarily a helper toward human wishes is not the being to whom Jesus prayed to in the garden, "Not my will, but thy will be done." When we try to tame God, or make God's call more comfortable to fit our lifestyle, we have cheapened the greatest gift ever given. The call is clear, for all, even those who think they are within the circle, to repent and to allow God to shape our hearts and lead us in God's way.
To repent means to stop refusing to be whom God created us to be. When we hear the word saint, some of us would think of figures we see in stained glass windows. We can tell the saints by the ones who have halos around their heads. The call from the wilderness is not a call to be removed from life but to bring our faith to bear on all of our life. The miracle of incarnation is that Jesus became one of us to show how God's love can shine in our lives. So when we live out our faith in Christ, we are being the person God created us to be.
To repent means one must resist the temptation to gloss over one's shortcomings or failures. The call to go in a new direction is a call to be honest with where we have been headed in our lives. What the crowd got in the wilderness was not some nice pat on the back of assurance but a call to be honest with oneself and with God and to allow God to show a new direction. John is very clear there will be an accounting. The imagery that he used is of the winnowing fork to clear the threshing floor to where that which is of value, the wheat, is saved and the chaff is burned. It does make a difference in how we respond to the call to repent.
The call to repent is like the man who stepped on the scales in the middle of the holidays to see the scales said that he had gained ten pounds. He refused to accept what the scales were saying until he stood before the mirror and thought, "Now I see it." The start of repentance is to see the need and once we see the need to act upon the new reality.
John's call is not only a call to awareness, but it's also a call to live out of that awareness. Think of a young child who is approaching a fireplace. Do we think, "Isn't that cute he is about to discover fire?" No, we reach for the child and tell the child to stop. We don't want the child to be burned. The call is to take action before the damage to our lives is done. In some ways, it is more difficult for the so-called saint to realize the need to repent, to turn, than the one who is already getting "burned" by poor choices. But now is the time for all of us to make the course corrections we need to make.
Before we can fully celebrate Christmas and know the full impact of the joy, the peace, the hope, the love that comes through the one born in Bethlehem, we too must pass through the wilderness. During this season of Advent, let us not be in such a hurry so that we can truly be ready for Christmas
Let us stop hearing the good news as bad news. Too many times when we hear the call to repent we focus on what we turn away from, what we have to give up or let go of, instead of what we gain. We gain the joy of sharing what God has blessed us with. We hear the call to commit our will to God's will thus avoiding cheap grace. We are challenged not to allow our faith to slip into merely good advice but to remain good news for all. We stop relying on a false security and find the power of God in our lives. We grow in our faith. We will no longer gloss over our shortcomings, but we'll deal with them in an open and honest manner.
The crowd down by the Jordan could have a great time and go home and we would not be talking about it today. But when John began to tell of the coming of the Messiah, he was bringing good news to all. He was telling of a new faith shown in the new baptism, not merely of ritual but one of the Holy Spirit. The Good News for us today is the Holy Time of Christmas can be so much more than tradition and memories, but the transforming power of the presence of Christ in our lives. Even a saint will find this worthy of going in a new direction.
Soon we still stand and sing, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come." And that will be true in our lives only when we are willing to seek the way that the Lord would have us to go. It was true for the crowd in the wilderness and it is still true for us. It will not come true in a life until one is willing to pay the price. Then and only then can we hear the Good News!
Let us pray.
O Father, let us not be so comfortable with where we are in our faith that we cannot see the grand new ways you have for us if we are willing to turn and to follow Thee. Amen.