Monday, December 9, 2013

December 8 Sermon: Gifts Christmas Gives: Repentance

(To hear a recorded version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Matthew 3:1-12
 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" 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 all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

(This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
I have told you that this sermon is about “the gift of repentance,” which probably sounds like it ranks right up there with the gift of hold music or the gift of kidney stones on the list of bad sermon titles. Repentance, after all, is not a word we use in everyday conversation, and it’s certainly not a word we think of fondly. I don’t know about you, but the word “repent” places an image in my mind of the Westboro Baptist Church, that contemptible organization that is, of course, neither truly Baptist nor actually anything resembling a church. We do not have such a positive view of repentance, because, it seems, the place we most often encounter the word is on picket signs, or screamed through the megaphone of an angry street preacher.
Of course, I don’t know how much you know about the one we call John the Baptist, but he’s probably as close to an angry street preacher as you’ll find in all the Bible. Here’s a guy who lives out in the wilderness, who wears camel’s hair for clothes, which is about as fashionable and comfortable as you might imagine, and eats wild honey and bugs for lunch: not exactly the kind of person you want the bishop to appoint to your church. And he wandered all over Judea yelling the same kinds of things you’d see from a street preacher with a megaphone. Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near. Prepare the way of the Lord. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourself, ‘I have been in the church all my life. I’m a Methodist, my parents were Methodists, and their parents were Methodists.’ For anyone who does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but I think it is close enough.
It sounds just as weird today as it did back then, this business of repentance. And--I’ve thought about this a lot--do you want to know what I think it is that this rubs us the wrong way? I don’t think it is the Westboro Baptist Church at all. I think it is us. I think we are the reason this sounds weird, because we do not like people telling us to repent, to change. I am the one who is supposed to be in charge of me, and I am supposed to be who I am, not some manufactured version of myself, so when we hear a voice in the wilderness telling us to repent, we thank God he’s wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs so we can write him off as one of those sign-carrying members of the lunatic fringe.
But sometimes, sometimes the unexpected one ends up being the prophetic one. The crackpot in the garage across the street invents some revolutionary gadget. The young coach makes the right call. The recluse writes a masterpiece. And yet, we write them off as lunatics because we don’t like to be told to change.
I got to thinking this week about how we understand ourselves, the things that entertain us and help us better understand the story of all of our lives. And so I started to wonder about my favorite tv shows, particularly about whether the characters change.  I seem to be so resistant to it, we all seem to be so resistant, that I sort of wondered if that resistance is reflected in the things I watch on TV.
I thought about the Walking Dead, which is one of my favorite shows. This is the story of a bunch of people trying to figure out how to survive after something of a zombie apocalypse, and the show is nothing BUT change, full of characters figuring out what life means and how to keep going.
I thought about Mad Men, another one of my favorites, the story of a Madison Avenue advertising executive in the 1960’s whose life changes with the growth of his family and his business and the changing times.
I thought about Downton Abbey and Modern Family. I even thought about Duck Dynasty, the reality show about a bunch of Louisiana rednecks who make millions off a revolutionary duck call, and who have to figure out how to make it as a business and a family with such great success.
We would never take seriously a show about characters that don't change, and yet this is what we expect of our own lives. We go around announcing that we are we are and you should just deal with it, as if this is a badge, something to be proud of that proves that we are strong enough people that we do not need to change
I may be so stubborn that I tell everybody, well, I just am who I am, but for somebody who is so resistant to changing myself, I sure am entertained by stories of change, of people changing, of people saying “my own way is not working. I should prepare a new one.”
There’s something there, of course. There’s something there about how I understand my own story, something about being drawn to stories of change. I may put on a façade of having it all together—we all might do this—or at least a façade of having a sure sense of myself, but there is a part of me, buried perhaps, but there, that continually whispers “change.” There is something there that hears truth when John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Prepare the way of the Lord.”
The hard thing is that it’s not like you just repent of your sin and then move on. That is not how repentance works, and it is not how sin works, for sin is not just about the things we ought not do. I know, for instance, that I should not steal. That is one thing. But sin is much larger than this, for it is my sin that makes me want to steal in the first place. So those feelings of jealousy, of inadequacy—they come from sin as much as they are sin, come to fruition. It is from this sin that we are called to repent.
And so repentance is not a one-time action. Yes, it happens when we acknowledge that our salvation comes from somewhere beyond ourselves, when we accept the promises of Christ. This is what repentance is: acknowledging that we screw up, that we sin, and that God’s love is greater than our sin. But repentance is not a one-time event. It is not chained to a moment in time. Repentance is a continual process, a way of living, for we are preparing the way of the Lord who is also unbound by time, who is always coming. So we must always be preparing, always repenting, always making room in our hearts for Christ. It is the moment we stop preparing that the other stuff of life—the greed, the feelings of inadequacy, the jealousy, and especially, the ridiculous notion that we have it all together—it is the moment we stop repenting that these things take over and crowd out the space in your heart that you have prepared for Christmas.
Let me share a very personal example, as I reflect upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. I think we would all agree that racism is a sin. And yet it is not so simple as saying, “I repent and no longer need to worry about racism,” for I have never, not once, encountered someone who was speaking from a perspective tainted by racism who would acknowledge that they were being racist. How many times have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .”
This is how sin works. The sin of racism is something from which we should repent, but it cannot be overcome in a moment. It requires a lifetime of repentance, a lifetime of acknowledging the ways in which we participate in structures that are racist and that racism still colors our hearts.
At least, that has been my experience, for racism is a sin from which I am not immune. You should know some of my history, which is that my parents hired a woman named Rebecca before I was born, and she worked for my family through my time in high school. Rebecca was an African-American woman who was sort of a housekeeper but more of a nanny. I probably spent more time with her growing up than I did my own parents, and I loved her like my own mother. I spent time among her family, in her home, in her church, and so you would think that, as many politicians are fond of saying, I do not have a racist bone in my body. But I do. In fact, I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t, because sin is not simply the conscious doing of bad things. It is broken relationship. It is embedded in the systems that are part of our lives. It taints your heart if you are not on constant guard against it.
You would think, perhaps, that racism is not something I struggle with, something from which I need to repent, even now. But it is. I find myself wanting to lock my car door when driving through certain neighborhoods. I find myself noticing some people and somehow missing others, as if they were invisible, as if they weren’t made in the same image of God that I was made in. I don’t use racist language. I don't hate people. The sin of racism is much more subtle and insidious than that.
I don’t mean to dump. I just mean to say that repentance is not a one-time thing. I’ve repented of my sin many times, and yet if I do not live in a constant state of repentance, I can look into my heart and find that corrosion has started to invade the space I’ve meant to leave for my savior, for love, for Christmas. Maybe this is a scandalous admission from the one wearing the robe and the stole. But to be human is to struggle with racism. To be alive is to struggle with sin. And to be Christian is to be in a state of continual repentance.
And in the midst of all of this, we are giving thanks this week for the life of Nelson Mandela, who famously said this: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
This is how sin works. It imprisons us, it takes up all the available room in our hearts unless we are in a constant state of repentance. And yet, it turns out, that it is not so easy as leaving the bitterness locked up with your past, for while Mandela offered a public face to truth and reconciliation, the truth is that he struggled with bitterness his whole life. He told the journalist who helped him with his autobiography that he stayed angry about having lost the prime years of his life--he never really got over it--and yet his whole life was repentance: his public statements, his presidency, his establishment of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa that led to more racial progress than any other program in our time.
The man that the world remembers this week never did get to a place where his repentance was over and done. He struggled with racism—warranted, perhaps, but racism nonetheless—his entire life. But thank God for his continual repentance, not merely a private act of contrition but public acts of grace and forgiveness. Thank God for his continual repentance, for not only did he work towards healing a broken nation, but he made room in his own heart for love. The bitterness did not take over. The sin did not take up all the room in his heart.
I’ll end with this. I will acknowledge that this kind of example probably isn’t all that helpful. I’m no Mandela. You probably aren’t either. When we die, we’ll be well-remembered, but the President won’t make a statement. There will be no state funeral.
But, thank goodness, this isn’t the standard we’re called to. We’re just called to follow Jesus: to love, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord, to make room. And so this Advent and Christmas season, I can’t get John’s voice out of my head, proclaiming good news through a megaphone, telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. And I can’t get the Gospel writer’s voice out of my head, asking this question: “if the mother of God came knocking at the door of your heart, if she were looking for a place to give birth to the Christ child, would there be room? Would there be room?”

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