It’s hard to believe that we are halfway through the Advent season! Here is this morning’s sermon on John the Baptist’s inaugural sermon …
Rehoboth Congregational Church
December 6, 2015
Prepare & Repent
I like to decorate for Christmas.
Actually, I really, really, REALLY like to decorate for Christmas.
Even that is an understatement, really. Last year, I was decorating and by the time I walked upstairs with Christmas tree number three, I heard Bruce mutter under his breath, “Lord give me patience.”
Some of it is the time of year; the days are getting shorter and colder and the lights from my Christmas decorations brighten up an otherwise dark month. But I also think that there is real grace and beauty in the ways that we prepare ourselves for this blessed season and for the entrance of Jesus into our lives.
Take a look at this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke: John the Baptist comes onto the scene; John was, as we will recall in the Christmas story in a couple of weeks, the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and Zechariah. This is the beginning of John’s ministry and for his inaugural sermon he recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I am pretty sure that John was not talking about erecting multiple Christmas trees when he said these things, but, whatever; his words do remind us that we cannot just wait for God to come into our midst. We have to prepare ourselves first.
So what was John talking about? How are we supposed to prepare for God to come into our midst?
Well, the scripture says that John was preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The English word, repentance, is translated from the Greek word, metanoia, which means, literally, to change your mind, to turn around and to reorient yourself. In other words, John was not saying that we need to merely confess our sins in order to prepare ourselves for God, but that we need to actually change something in our lives in order to fully prepare ourselves for God’s grace, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Now before I go on, I need to say this: God loves you just the way that you are. Do not mistake what I am saying for the fundamental and never-ending truth that you are a blessed and loved child of God. God loves you if you have got it all together or, if you are like me most days, you are a hot mess. God loves you despite the mistakes you have made in your past and God loves you despite the mistakes you will most likely make in the future. God loves all of you; including your questions, your doubts and your struggles in faith.
But the season of Advent is about preparing ourselves for the birth of Jesus, for the coming of God into our midst. And so I think that it is good for us to use that time of preparation to reflect on our lives and then try to reset ourselves before the calendar turns to a new year.
So how do we do this?
Advent is about waiting for Emmanuel – which means, God with us – to burst forth into the world. John’s words suggest that while we wait, we must prepare; we must prepare for God to come into this world and we must prepare for God to come into our lives. And John’s proclamation of repentance – or metanoia – implies a radical preparation that goes beyond testing the boundaries of your marriage by putting up three Christmas trees; John’s proclamation of repentance implies a preparation that can and will change your life.
John was preaching in a time when political leaders were prominent; in the beginning of this passage, the author of the Gospel lists the rulers, the emperors, the governors and the priests that were active when God sent John out to begin his ministry. And yet despite these strong political and religious systems all around him, John called for change. John called for people to repent, to change their lives in real and tangible ways and to prepare themselves for God to come into their midst.
I have talked about this before, but it is worth mentioning again now: I follow something called the Revised Common Lectionary when I put together my preaching and worship schedule. The lectionary is a three-year cycle that, every week, offers a text from the Old Testament, from the Book of Psalms, from one of the letters of the New Testament and from one of the Gospels. These passages usually relate to one another and always correspond to where we are in the Christian year (if you remember, I talked two weeks ago about how the season of Advent, that we started last week, is the beginning of a new Christian year). Depending on what is going on in the church – I choose anywhere from one to three passages to preach on and then plan worship from there.
Often when I am preparing my sermon, I not only think about how the passage I am preaching on relates to my life and to the world that we are living in, but also about how the passage relates to the time of year that we are celebrating in the Christian year. This week I could not help but wonder why – when we are preparing ourselves for the Christmas story and for the birth of Jesus – the lectionary jumped ahead about 30 years.
But then I thought that perhaps this is a bold reminder to us that our preparations for the coming of Emmanuel – God with us – should not just be about what happens in the Christmas story. Perhaps this means that there is more to the Christmas story than Jesus lying in a manger. Perhaps our Christmas preparations should not just be about preparing ourselves for Jesus’ birth, but also about preparing ourselves for Jesus’ life and about what Jesus’ life meant (and continues to mean) for us. As people of faith, we have to be ready for those moments when God comes into our lives and ignites a spark within us.
The thing is, God is going to come into our lives, whether we want God to or not (God is actually kind of annoying like that). But the depth of our relationship with God, the strength of our faith and what we have the ability to do with our faith really depends on whether or not we are ready – truly ready – to receive God into our lives.
And this is why John’s words are so powerful.
As much as I hate to admit it, John the Baptist was not talking about preparing for Christ to come into the world by putting up decorations and listening to Christmas music, John was talking about a real and challenging preparation that involves looking at the lives we are leading, the priorities we are setting, the people we are and the people we want to become. John was talking about a true repentance – metanoia – that would allow us to freely and unapologetically confess our sins before God without judgment or punishment. John was talking about creating a safe space in our lives where we can talk about the mistakes we have made, the instances where we have fallen short and the times when we have not lived up to our own expectations. John was talking about clearing space in our lives so that God can come in, remind us that we are loved and then help lead us on the right path.
I know that we, as Protestants, do not often like to talk about our sins, but John’s proclamation of preparation and repentance is not a confessional guilt-trip, it is an opportunity to finally let go of the things in our lives that are holding us back from truly submitting to God’s grace in our lives. John’s proclamation of preparation and repentance is a chance for all of us to have a new beginning through this Christmas story. John’s proclamation of preparation and repentance allows us to be who we are, knowing that we are truly and unconditionally loved by God.
The Christmas story is not just about birth that happened at one moment in history, it is also about God’s grace alive in an imperfect world, using flawed human beings to be part of a beautiful story.
And that story is still being written today.
So as you prepare your homes for this holiday season – as you put up decorations, as you make lists, go grocery shopping and fill your kitchen with delicious-smelling foods, as you shop for and wrap gifts and as you prepare your home for guests – remember to prepare yourselves for what happens after the season is over as well. Because when everyone leaves, when the decorations are taken down and when everything is put away, God’s grace will most certainly still be alive in our midst.
And this is a bold truth can and will change our lives.
So let us repent and prepare ourselves for God.
Thanks be to God!