Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Preaching a sermon on “repentance” is an uphill climb. Just hearing John the Baptist’s command to Repent! is enough to turn off church-goers and church-abstainers alike.
Why is that? We think of repentance as something that “bad” people need to do, right? We associate “repentance” with judgment, shame, guilt and scolding. So we’re offended by the idea that we might need to repent.
But the biblical word for “repent”—metanoia—is not so much a scold as an invitation. It means a change of direction. It’s as if John–and later Jesus–were asking us this question: If you want to get to Everett, why are you driving toward Tacoma?
Have you done that before? Have you been in your car, confident that you’re going the right direction, and then discover that you’re all turned around? That’s what God’s saying. No matter who we are, there’s some area of our lives in which we’re all turned around. This is true whether we’re young or old. There’s always some “course correction” that needs attention.
One of my favorite newspaper comics is Zits, the saga of a 16 yr.-old boy named Jeremy and his parents. In this past Friday’s strip Jeremy is calling home from his car. He says, “Mom? Problem.” His mom asks, “What’s wrong, Jeremy?” “So—you know how I was having trouble finishing that school reading assignment?” he says. “Wuthering Heights? Yes.” “Well, I decided to get it on CD and drive around until I finished it.” “Good solution,” his mom replies—“what’s the problem?” And Jeremy answers, “I think I’m in Omaha.”
These days it’s easier to find our way around. We have Google Maps, Mapquest and, best of all, GPS. If you have the best technology you’re less likely to get turned around.
God’s Word is pretty good “technology.” It’s a great reason to gather on Sunday. We’re in need of course corrections and need to be reminded of God’s directions because God’s ways are different from the ways of our nation and our world. God’s Word encourages us to live our lives not on the basis of appearances or what we think we know–as the prophet Isaiah teaches: He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge…
It’s easy to get turned around and lose our way; God’s ways often do not follow common sense. Listen again to Isaiah:
6. The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7. The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9. They will not hurt or destroy.
That’s crazy talk, isn’t it? Who’s ever heard of a wolf and a lamb getting along, or a leopard and a goat, or a cow and a bear? True, Isaiah speaks of a future time. But God’s kingdom, John teaches, is near. God’s future will come about with the help of you, and me–and anyone who lives in a way that follows God’s directions.
What does that look like? How does that happen? Well, the kingdom of heaven on earth is built mostly in baby steps. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
It’s a way of asking, Is the kingdom of heaven on earth your goal? Start local. Start simply. Welcome one another. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. Right away he says, “Welcome the Gentiles”—the non-Jews. Which is a way of saying, “Include those that you’re inclined to exclude or ignore.”
Translated into English this means, Build relationships with one another—like those of you who are doing book and Bible studies together. And then, find ways of welcoming the “stranger.” Don’t think shaking somebody’s hand or saying “hi” is enough. Venture out beyond your comfort zone. Remember, the kingdom of heaven is not some place off in the clouds or in outer space or even in the future. John says the kingdom has come near. It’s a place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, where leopards and goats are at peace with one another. The kingdom of heaven is the place where enemies become friends. That’s the goal.
And if that’s what you’re working on, Congratulations! That’s repentance. That’s a “course correction” away from the old familiar ways and ideas that kept you driving toward Tacoma when what you really wanted was Everett.
But maybe that’s not where you are. Maybe following God’s directions leading to the kingdom is just too much work. Or, maybe you’re just not interested: God, that’s not where I am. I’m not even sure I want to be, either. I’d rather go with what’s safe & familiar—ideas & people I already know. Well, that’s okay too. It’s another opportunity for repentance!
God’s love is for all people—each and every one. And God desires for all people the fruits of the spirit, such as peace and joy. Thing is, we shouldn’t expect much from God if we follow our own directions. God’s directions are often hard to follow but they’re not given for the sake of hardship; they’re given for the sake of love. For the love of the world. And yes, for love of each of us, too. Welcoming the stranger & making them part of our life; making peace with those we thought were the enemy—these are ways of following God’s directions to the kingdom of heaven on earth.
The readings of Advent remind us where we’re heading: Not a birthday party for Jesus but the birth of one who told us how the story ends, and showed us by his own teaching & example what the kingdom of heaven on earth looks like—a place of peace and joy. The hymns we sing in the weeks to come remind us of his gifts to those who follow his directions: “Joy to the World” and “Peace on Earth, Goodwill To All.”
“Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” May each of us discover whatever course correction God has in mind for us. And may we find courage to follow God’s directions, that the world–and we ourselves— might know a greater measure of what God desires for all people:
Peace and joy!