Isaiah 11:1-10

Matthew 3:1-12

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

Difficult words to hear, to process, to apply to our lives.

They are calls to action that may seem misplaced in the preparations for Christmas and the birth of a grace-filled Savior.  Calls which can feel abrasive as we work to create experiences of hope, peace, and joy for our families and friends.

Yet, front and center on this Second Sunday of Advent is John the Baptizer: unconventionally dressed, counter-cultural nutritionist, living and preaching in the wilderness shouting these calls to “TURN toward God” loud enough to be heard by all who come out from the populated areas.  Baptizing all who seek to live a new life.  A life that follows a path which welcomes the Kingdom of God and acknowledges the “One to come” above all else.

The call to Repent, to Turn from ways that don’t put God in the center of their lives, is not filled with flowery words and world based incentives.  There is no “Free Get out of Jail” card or “Buy one get the second one for only shipping and handling” offer.  It is abrupt, direct, and urgent.  The Kingdom is near, don’t wait to change your ways.

Some of us remember vividly the evangelists who came to our churches when we were younger.  These evangelists had dramatic stories of being addicted to drugs and of involvements in other illegal activities, which negatively impacted their lives and the lives of people around them.  Their stories climaxed with their finding Jesus, accepting Him as Savior, and the dramatic change in their lives.  Then came their plea for all those who hadn’t accepted Christ as their personal Savior to come forward, to kneel at the altar and repeat the prayer they provided in order to begin a new life.

As a teen, those altar calls weighed heavy on my heart.  I loved God, had followed all the prescribed “Steps to Salvation,” became physically ill if I even thought I had misrepresented the truth or was doing something wrong.  I was in Sunday School and Church every Sunday unless too sick to get out of bed.  I didn’t have that kind of turn-a-round, that 180 degree experience of a dramatic change in how I lived my life.  Altar calls made me question my faith because I just couldn’t figure out what I was repenting from and changing to.

One night the heaviness of one of those Altar call meetings kept me awake and I ended up wrestling with what it meant through much of the night.  I ended up sitting outside of my parents’ bedroom talking about my concern that somehow I wasn’t truly saved because I hadn’t experienced a completely turned around life.

Two things came out of that middle of the night conversation.

First I realized that corrections in how we live are always necessary, whether they are considered to be ten degree turns or 180 degree turns.  We have all sinned and all do sin whenever we let our choices move us from loving God with all our hearts, fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we allow other priorities to emerge.

In addition that night, I had what John Wesley described as a heart-warming experience and came to the assurance it is Christ alone who saved me, not anything I did or didn’t do.

The Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John knew the Law and, through rules and regulations, worked to follow it.  But the set of laws became the focus for their faith, and not the God they said they followed.  John knew that to be true, and as they came to be baptized, he challenged them on their motives.  The Message paraphrase shares that challenge with these words:

“When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”[1]

John didn’t have any worldly distractions or alliances.  He dressed and ate simply and in a manner that kept him visibly dependent on God.  People may have been drawn to hear his message because it came with no personal agenda, no request for favors or privileges, and with the clear understanding he wasn’t God and the One who would issue in the Kingdom of God was far greater than he would ever be.  The way he lived and his message were authentic.

Later, when John was jailed and sent messengers to Jesus to double check his understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said this about John:   “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”[2]  Affirming the message John had shared.

Jesus also affirmed John’s call to repent as we find in Matthew 11.

“16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;  we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.

Repentance is often difficult.  Recognizing that we have let our priorities take us off of a Kingdom course, finding ways to say we are sorry, not really knowing how to repent, can keep us from answering John’s call this Advent season.

We may recognize there are things we say, judgments we make, activities in which we participate, financial decisions we make, allocations of our time, and other things that do not reflect a changed life.  They may only require 10 degree adjustments, but they require repentance.  If we fail to make those changes we will drift further and further from God’s will and being a part of God’s Kingdom.

Some of you are actively and prayerfully doing that depth of self-evaluation.  Looking to scripture, prayer, and conversation with others seeking to do better at living a life of faith in order to make God directed adjustments.  You are asking yourselves tough questions.  Others of you may not have considered it is necessary.

In a BOOMING VOICE John calls us to repent as we prepare to welcome Christ into our lives in new ways.  Calls us to check out our motivations.  Calls us to recognize the decisions we make and the priorities we set which crowd out God’s priorities in our lives, and then consciously set them aside and do things differently.

Most of us are not called to wear camel skin, or to eat locusts and honey.  Few of us are called to live in the wilderness.  But I believe all of us are called to live in such a way that our actions, words, and priorities are as counter to our culture as John’s apparel and eating habits.

Many in our community will make an extra effort to take food to the food pantry, bring gifts for children who have few resources, stop in to visit someone at the nursing home, donate to worthy causes as we approach Christmas.  They will be extra careful to be nice to one another, open doors, leave adequate tips, make visits and phone calls, say “Please and Thank You,” catch at least one worship service.  While good things to do, they are part of the cultural norm during December.

Once December 25 has come and gone, the decorations removed, and the day to day responsibilities of a new year greet us, the fruit of true repentance will emerge as increasingly our actions reflect the work of the Kingdom of God.   It is an ongoing process, just as we continually adjust the steering wheel as conditions of the road warrant.  We need to keep changing our direction to continually turn toward the ways of God’s kingdom.  It will mean our actions are motivated by love, mercy, justice, and peace and that they reflect the Christ-child we welcome, to all with whom we come in contact and with all who are impacted by our choices in our homes and around the world.

As we were called to “Watch for God” breaking into all areas of our lives last week, we are called to also “Turn toward God,” in all areas of our lives, this week

John the Baptister offered baptism as preparation for the kingdom of God drawing near, an outward sign of an inward change in direction.   This morning, as you come to share in Holy Communion, the baptismal font is filled and open to any who would like to pause and remember your baptism and the vows made by you, or for you, to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves;  To confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, you’re your promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

If you have never been baptized you are invited to pause to pray at the font and let me know if you are interested in being baptized in the future.

Let us pray

Gracious God you call us to turn toward you but we feel powerless to affect any changes. So we withdraw into ourselves, quick to criticize and slow to change our own behavior. You remind us that your son is the one who will bring messages of peace. He will help us to become faithful disciples and servants. But we have much work to do. Our preparation needs to focus on our own attitudes and actions. We need to clean our spiritual houses of the cobwebs of hate, greed, apathy, suspicion. We need to focus more on your absolute love and forgiveness. As we turn our lives to you, enable us to be strong and confident workers for you in this world. AMEN[3]

[1] The Message

[2] Matthew 11 (NRSV)

[3] Board of Discipleship Advent 2

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