12/8/19 Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
Ready, Set, Repent
In 1996 my wife and I began to remake our lives. We both went back to school. Martha had always wanted to teach, but we had children first. I went to school at nights and weekends, while continuing my work as a supervisor at the LaSalle County Nuclear Power plant near Marseilles Illinois. My intention was to go to seminary when I completed my Bachelor’s degree. We had been married 20 years, and I was 45 years old.
The point of all of the self-help books, diet plans, therapy and coaching is to make a change in the life you are living. The entire intention is to make changes in your life and habits to make a meaningful impact on some portion of your life.
What is the most noteworthy is the fact that once in a while, these systems of actions and habit changes, have real results. We do lose weight, we do become more fit, we do live differently and better than we did before.
John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, making a plea for a lifestyle change. It is the same kind of plea we associate with the Hebrew Bible prophets like Jeremiah and especially Isaiah, the Isaiah who gets a lot of airtime during the season of Advent. The Baptist is notable for his outfit, and his eccentric manner. He is a vegan, before the word was invented in any language. He has adopted an off-the-grid lifestyle, before there was a grid. He is not inviting others to join his eccentric diet or habitat. There is nothing in the message that says, “To be a success you have to be like me.” There is nothing that hints of “be like me” in the prophecy of John the Baptizer, that the scriptures preserve for us. He is calling for folks to live with God in the center of their lives.
This is the same John, the son of Elizabeth, that leapt in the womb when her cousin Mary visited and told the story of her own pregnancy. I would like us to hold the dynamic thought of one leaping in the womb. Women who have had more than one child will often tell you that each child has a personality from very early in the time in the womb. There are pre-born dancers and spinners and kickers. There are infants who are seemingly investigating their surroundings, stretching the limits of the elasticity of the mother’s skin, as well as the location of her internal organs.
The image I want to hold for now is the unborn child leaping in response to the presence of the Christ. This gives us the only biblical tie between John and Jesus before the baptism in the Jordan River. I do not like to use one gospel to support a story from another gospel, but here I am violating my own rules for preaching purposes.
Luke 1: 39 - 41 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
We are in the season of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of God’s love in a convincing physical way. In the wider sense of the liturgical season, we prepare for the infant birth, and also, we prepare for the Second Coming. The Second Coming is when Jesus returns to the created world to announce the new beginning and the new world.
Frequently we ignore the portion of the Advent season set aside to consider the Second Coming. Often the pastor will expend personal energy and emotional capital to try to keep Christmas from coming into church until it is time. I do not want to spend these few moments we have together by being negative, I want to share what I believe will be helpful for you today and tomorrow.
At the core of the ongoing wrestling that I do with God, and the scriptures which direct me towards God, is the sense that the presence of God among us is more than encouraging and exciting, it is at the foundation of my understanding of God. There is a creative power and will that set the Creation spinning, evolving and growing. Among the beauties of creation are you and me, with our peculiarities of nature, culture, and personal idiosyncrasies. We are an odd bunch.
The scriptures recognize that humanity has a distinctive ongoing relationship with the creative power that we call divine. In Jesus of Nazareth, the love of that divine power becomes personal and demonstrates that the action of loving is more critical than the mere acknowledgement of God’s goodness.
The Good News that I proclaim to you today, is that God is with you. You matter to God. What you do matters to God. John proclaims, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
I do not know how you were taught about repentance. I was taught it was all about feeling. You have to be able to name your sins, and then train yourself to feel bad about being a sinner. There was a good deal of emphasis on the negative; name your sins; feel bad about sins; live in fear of sinning again. What a load!
Today I am here like an info-mercial for accepting the presence of God. You can change your life to be more joyous. You can have life, and have it abundantly. The same spirit of God that was a compelling force in Jesus is also in you. You are intended by the creator to be a force for good. You might have to release some of that old baggage that is holding you back, but you can do this!
I want to give credit where credit is due. I have been receiving training as a professional coach in order to support the TPIRC/Lily grant in the Illinois Conference of the UCC. One of my trainers is Jonathan Reitz. Jonathan is a bit more evangelical in his approach to the faith than I am. But he spoke of the feeling you get when you meet people, who are new to you, whose faith and faithfulness make your heart feel alive. In his words, “The Jesus in me leaps to greet the Jesus in you.” This immediately brought John the Baptist ‘in utero’ to mind.
In order to give the presence of God in us the freedom to dance, spin and leap, we need to get out of the negative, and celebrate the confidence that God is with us. The word “Emmanuel” actually means exactly that, God with us.
Like John I am not here to tell you need to “be like me,”, or follow the steps I took, in order to find joy in your life. I am here to say, if you are carrying a load that is not yours to carry, if you are living a life that seems to have been designed for someone else – Repent! Repent actually means “turn around and go another way.” You do not have to do this all on your own, God is with you. Look for the presence of the Christ in those around you. If you look, you will find Jesus in others, and the Jesus in you will leap for joy.
The Coach I am becoming is trained to listen well to where the client’s heart and interest lies. Then with gentle questions, let the client decide to take the actions that draw their lives and focus more closely in line with what is in their hearts. The preacher in me says that when the love of God is in your heart, it must be nurtured by keeping good company, and by making active choices to let that love come alive in the space you inhabit.
I am just a visiting preacher. I know that this congregation has suffered deep losses in this past year. I know that you have come to a realization that the future of the congregation is going to be different from its past in many ways. In this Advent Season, we walk through the familiar scriptures of preparation for the coming of both the infant Christ Child, but equally, the return of the reign of God’s good love.
My Lockport friends, do not lose faith and lose your identity to obsessing over what is lost. The God of faith is beckoning you towards a future that celebrates what God is about to do. You are in a time ripe with possibility. You are in a time of seeking the presence of God in each other, and seeking the presence of God in those you meet. The Jesus in me leaps to greet the Jesus in you!
Since I have you captive, I have a song for you. Several years ago I was gifted with a sabbatical and wrote several songs specifically for the Advent season. This one addresses the meaning of repentance. I hope you find it a useful way to reflect on this time we have just spent together.