It is early in my ministry and I am leading a mission trip to my hometown in Maine. It is our off-day and we are headed to the beach for a day of rest, relaxation, and fellowship. My wife is there too, with my five-year-old daughter and our baby who is just a few weeks old. My wife is driving our car to the lake and I am guiding the group so I am in the church van. I am riding as a passenger, offering directions to the driver on our way through town and to the lake. We will have a picnic there, we'll play frisbee, we'll swim.
As this is my hometown, I've seen the Farmington roadside go by thousands of times, and I tell our driver to stay straight on Route 4 until we hit the next town. All the familiarity seeps in. I am drifting like any of you would if you drove through your hometown.
I sit back in my seat and chat casually with the other passengers. I look out the window and the town grocery store goes by, we pass a large empty lot that used to be home to a car dealership, and the town credit union goes by.
As we approach the diner my eyes lock on the spinning blue lights of a police car. And there, in front of the diner, I see my wife. She is running with purpose around our car to the backseat where I know our three-week-old baby girl is strapped in. The police car is behind hers and the officer stands, looking helpless, next to the car. An ambulance brackets our vehicle from the front. Panic shoots through me. "That's my wife," I say to nobody in particular.
"We need to turn around. We need to turn around!"
All of the worst scenarios run through my mind in the seconds it takes for us to arrive at the scene. Did the baby choke on something? Was there some sort of accident? She is so fragile. Please let everything be okay.
And I turned around. Anyone would.
More people should - turn around.
When it comes to talking about faith, about how to live this life, everyone likes to talk about choice. "Free will," we call it. We like to talk about this, especially, when it comes to whether or not we are included in God's plan.
But the truth is, we don't get to choose whether God loves us (nobody can tell you that God doesn't love you!) but we do get to choose whether we will turn around from however we are drifting and live into that love. We don't get to decide whether God loves anyone else or how God loves anyone else, but we do get to help the world turn around and live into that love.
That's what John the Baptist is up to. When John the Baptist calls the people to repent for the kingdom of heaven is near, Matthew puts the Greek word metanoia in his mouth. This word gets translated as "repent" - which is, these days, a loaded word, one that sometimes suggests you take on shame or guilt, but metanoia simply means to make the decision to "turn around." Meta means change and nous means mind...change your mind...go in another direction.
It reminds me of the word shuv in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. Shuv is the Hebrew word that gets translated as "repent" but again, it actually means to "turn around." This is why you hear people like Pharaoh and other unsavory Biblical leaders described as stiff-necked - they refused to shuv...they refused to turn around.
Because really, who wants to turn around?
Especially if you are anything like Pharaoh. If you have a plan, you have the power. If you have the stuff, why would you really want to turn around?
Well, I think you want to turn around - and you know this if you have any or all of those things - you want to turn around because you know that none of that will bring you what is really missing in life.
And that is Peace.
Who among us wouldn't turn around on the chance to be Pharaoh, if it meant more peace?
Turn around from temptation and you will have more peace.
Turn around from impatience and you will have more peace.
Turn around from the need to control and you will have more peace.
Turn around from the desire to acquire everything that everyone else supposedly has and you will have more peace.
Who among us wouldn't turn around on all of it, if it meant more peace?
Well, the people of Jerusalem and Judea would.
The scripture reads, "Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him."
And to meet him means traveling the long and dangerous road to the wilderness, it means leaving the comfort of home and risking the welfare of their families.
And then there's John himself. To describe him as "rough around the edges" is to be kind. John is poor and unrefined; the gospel writer wants his largely erudite readers to know that this one was not like one of us. And still, an entire community moves with urgency and interest because they know something life-changing is afoot and they need something more than the drifting they are doing. They just have to get there.
They have to go. They needed to turn around. They needed a turning point moment.
Buechner reminds us that, "The real turning point in our lives is less likely to be the day we win the election or get married than the morning we decide to mail the letter or the afternoon we watch the wood fill up with snow. The real turning point in human history is less apt to be the day the wheel is invented or Rome falls than the day a child is born in a stable."
Imagine if I'd kept going on that day in Maine. Imagine how the questions about my family would have gnawed on me as I kept drifting through my home town. Imagine my restlessness about the state of my wife and the health of my child. It would have felt like I was going to burst.
That's how life is before repentance, metanoia, before we shuv, before we turn around. It is how those that met John in the wilderness were feeling. There is a gnawing. There is a restlessness. There is no peace.
But on that day in Maine, all those years ago, I turned around for that baby. In fact, I insisted that everyone in the van turn around for the baby.
My wife and I lived in New Jersey during our seminary years. It is amazing how three years in New Jersey can change how a person from rural Maine drives and it seems that rural Maine police officers frown upon Jersey-influenced driving in their fair town.
The story goes that our newborn worked herself into such a crying episode that my wife lost concentration on her speed. She was near the diner when the police pulled her over and so she pulled into the parking lot and just happened to pull in behind the ambulance. Evidently the paramedics had stopped for breakfast. She left with a warning and all would be well, but, for a moment, the baby gave me a turning point...drawing me and drawing all of us away from where we were drifting along. And I just had to be there.
I had to be with the baby. But, to be with the baby, I had to turn around.
How many of us are looking forward to gathering around the manger? How many of us are grateful for the commitment of Joseph and Mary? How many of us are fully reliant on the ministry of the tiny one who will one day trade those swaddling clothes for a crown of thorns?
But how many of us are drifting through hometowns with too much on our minds and need to turn around?
God loves you so much - even with all that you hold inside like a knotted ball of jitters in your throat, like a cloud of poisonous restlessness in your lungs, like a sandbag of angst in the bottom of your gut, God loves all of you.
God loves you and wants peace for you. And you can't get there all by yourself, but you do have a part in it - not in making God love, but in turning around to experience how God loves.
Even now it is time, maybe long past time, to stop drifting along with all that gnawing inside as if somehow that is normal - because it is not, at least it is not the normal God created. It is time to turn around. Amen.
Let us pray these words from Henry Nouwen.
"Dear God, I so much want to be in control. I want to be the master of my own destiny. Still, I know that you are saying, 'Let me take you by the hand and lead you. Accept my love and trust that where I will bring you, the deepest desires of your heart will be fulfilled.' Lord, open my hands to receive your gift of love. Amen."