Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Between hope and hopelessness

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A sermon for Yr A, Advent 2, given at St Alban's on December 9, 2007.

To listen to the audio version, click here.

What is the difference between hope and hopelessness? I think John the Baptist would answer that it is whether or not you can have a chance at a fresh start. Of course, he’d go on to say that you desperately need one (and he’d be right).

People came out to John at the Jordan river valley for all kinds of reasons. Some were merely curious, wanting to see what the fuss was about. Some might have come as opponents, to denounce what he was doing. But those who waded into the water were looking for a fresh start. They were looking for hope. As John had said, the kingdom is near, the Lord will come soon. Who can stand before the Lord on that day, but those who are pure in heart? And how can you get purity of heart when you’ve been heading down the wrong path for so long? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just begin again?

Some of you might be looking for new beginnings in your own life. Sometimes it’s just a matter of situations that we can’t control—we want a new job, a new neighborhood or new home—but very often we need a new beginning because we’ve put ourselves in an unfixable situation through our own mistakes and blunders, and even sins. You’ve messed things up by your sins, your pride, selfish, greedy, lusting sins. Now your family is messed up, your marriage is messed up, your life is messed up. And you finally realize how desperately you need to begin again. John appeared in the desert at the Jordan river, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The Jewish people had a number of ceremonial washings—life was full of these ritual purifications in and out of the home (remember those six stone jars of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding in Cana? They were for ritual washings). People have speculated, therefore, on exactly what he was up to. Many think that John was holding a ritual which is essentially a proselyte baptism, the ritual washing of a gentile in the process of embracing the Jewish faith. Yet most, if not all, of who came to see him were fellow Jews. If so, it helps us understand that John said, in effect, “You are no better than the heathen, and like a pagan, you must start from scratch. It is time for you to begin again.”

Another insight might come from the place where John ministered in the desert. Remember that when the people of Israel left Egypt, they remained as wanderers in the Sinai desert for forty years. When that generation had passed, including Moses, it was time for his successor Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land. The spot chosen for the invasion is where the Jordan River is easiest to cross at its southern end where it flows into the Dead Sea, near the walled Canaanite city of Jericho. As they are beginning to cross the Jordan, suddenly the water stopped flowing. They cross through on dry ground, just as they did once at the Red Sea. So they pulled twelve stones out of the riverbed and erected a monument representing the twelve tribes, to commemorate God’s mercy.

John the Baptist came on the scene during a time of national humiliation, proclaiming that the time to repent had come and that the one chosen by God to deliver them was ready to appear in response to their repentance. To dramatize his message he called the multitudes down to wash themselves of sinful disobedience in the place at the Jordan River in the same place where Joshua had led them into the Promised Land. Essentially, he had them go out and come in again. He had them begin again. They were acting out their confession that they had squandered their life in the land God had given them. He symbolically collected the nation at the Jordan River, awaiting a new Joshua to lead them in.

That’s what repentance is all about—new beginnings. In Hebrew, the word means to physically turn around or reverse direction. Some of you desperately need to turn around in some area of life, and all of us can easily recall some time when we had to. In Greek, the word is a little more abstract. It means a reorientation of the mind, in stark contrast to old ways of thinking and old ways of seeing the world, and thus, old ways of doing things. At the bottom of this fundamental reorientation is a change from selfishness to selflessness, from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness.

The ritual act of purification was taken up as a way to express that repentance--that desire to remove the stain of past failures and transgressions--and begin again with a clean heart in the land of promise. Our English word repentance has a Latin root, repoenitere, which is the expression for great sorry or intense regret. Ironically, hope for a bright tomorrow, begins with sorrow today. Let’s face it, no one turns his or her life around without first becoming discontented with the way things are and wanting to make a change for the better. In church, the word for it is “repentance.”

The fruit of that repentance is the new and changed way of living that follows. The fruit is the life ahead of you, not the life you left behind you. That means no more cheating on your husband or wife (or even flirting), or no more fornication, no more getting drunk or going to those kinds of parties, no more gambling, no more cheating, no more cussin’, no more unhealthy habits related to diet and exercise, no more gossip, no more back-biting, no more name-calling, etc. Before you start to think, “well that sounds rather boring." Remember that was the stuff that got you into trouble in the first place. Repentance begins with sorrow over our sins, becomes a change in the mind, turns into a new direction in the body, and embraces the hope of a better future.

At some point in our lives, we must all come to the conviction that we do sin—we not only fall short of God’s glory (who wouldn’t), but we willfully rebel against his will and ostracize him from our lives. That has disastrous consequences, because God is the source of life. To cut ourselves off from him is to cut ourselves off from God. That’s why St Paul wrote to the Romans (6:23) “The wages of sin is death.” Thankfully, he went on to say, “the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He’s the Lord who’s coming into the world. He’s the one John the Baptist is getting us ready to receive. Jesus is the one who will be born in Bethlehem, The eternal Word of God made flesh, living as a human being. As God and man he will suffer and die on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem to atone for the sins of the world, to make forgiveness possible. Finally, he will rise from the grave, as a sign of his vindication. He now offers us a share in his risen life, a new beginning and a bright future. John calls upon each of us to be a part of it.

As St Matthew tells the story in his gospel, many people came to him for baptism, but some of those were Pharisees and Saduccees who were unrepentant. John called them out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance.” They had nothing to show for their repentance, because they were not repentant. They had no sorrow over their own sin, no hope for a new tomorrow. They were instead self-righteous. They presumed upon God’s mercy.

These Pharisees and Sadducees trusted in their own heritage of the chosen people to save them from God’s wrath on the day of judgment. They didn’t seem to notice that the people being baptized by John in the river Jordan had the same heritage. We often do the same thing. We say, "That guy really needs to clean up his act." But then we conveniently ignore our own problems. These Pharisees and Sadducees did not see their own need to begin again, while those who came for baptism did recognize their need and turned to God for mercy.

John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Bear fruit that befits repentance. Do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father' (as if that’s all you would ever need to make yourself righteous). God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” What stones, I wonder? Could it be a reference to the stones of the monument built 1400 years earlier by the Hebrews when they entered the Promised Land? It was built as a reminder of God’s mercy, but some had forgotten they needed it.

Do not be like those self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees who thought they had nothing to worry about. Far from it. Sin is so destructive. Turn again and again from your evil ways. That's one of our baptismal promises, "Whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord." Make you confession. Return for living water and fresh grace. This Advent, make a place in your heart to welcome Christ as Lord.

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