Wednesday, 8 December 2010
Repentance Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon preached by Penny Wheble, at St Martin's Church, Walsall on the 5th December 2010.
A man volunteered to paint the church steeple. With great difficulty, he hoisted himself up onto the steeple with a can of paint and a bottle of water.After painting half the steeple, the man realised that he was running out of paint, so he added some of the water to the paint. He was almost at the top when he realised even more paint to complete the job, so he added yet more water to the paint, and mumbled, 'No one will ever know'. When he finished painting, he began to lower himself off the steeple. Just then, the skies darkened, a loud clap of thunder was heard, and a deep voice from above said, 'Repaint, repaint, and thin no more!'
Today, we're thinking about repentance. J.R.Packer, the theologian says, 'The New Testament word for repentance means changing one's mind so that one's views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one's whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgement, will and affections, behaviour and lifestyle, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting a new life.
C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles says, 'We have a strange illusion that time cancels sins, but mere time does nothing either to the fact or the guilt of sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Jesus Christ'.
So let's look at today's passage -
John the Baptist appeared during that time in the wilderness of Judea, with the message, 'Turn from your sinful ways, for the kingdom of heaven is dawning.'
People flocked to him from Jerusalem, Judea and the entire length of the River Jordan, in which he baptised them as they made confession of their sins.
The people had asked John what they should do, they were aware that something was radically wrong and he tells them straight 'You brood of vipers'! – no flattery or feel-good element here.
But people respect him and seek him out. He's been through it, he's emptied himself of privilege, just as Jesus did, dropped out of the temple, and headed for the wilderness to find God. These people want authentic leadership, and he gives it to them.
John the Baptist is all about judgement and truth. Now judgement isn't popular particularly among liberal Christians, and truth is pretty hard to swallow. John the Baptist is clearly in the tradition of the OT prophets, the prophets who were there to tell people where they were going wrong. And we need to listen to John the Baptist, over and over again. We need to know that the world we live in is in a state of sin. We need to know that we must repent. We need to understand that things must be different.
So, what is John's challenge to the people who come to see him? What does he actually say?
To those who have accumulated wealth: 'If you have two coins, give one away.' To the tax collectors, those who are living and working in a corrupt system: 'Stop being corrupt.'
To soldiers, 'Stop bullying.'
Now that's for the people who gathered around John the Baptist in the first century, but how might he speak to us today?
To those who come to John today, knowing their lives are empty, despite their credit cards and all their retail therapy, John says: 'Stop trying to bolster up your own worth by accumulating material goods – give things away.'
What about the tax collectors of our time? - the loan sharks, the rip-off shops offering easy credit, preying on the poor - or the World Trade bureaucrats? We are told that 2/3rds of debt in developing nations has been written off, but in fact only 10% has been written off, and even then, in terms of what governments actually have to pay back, this makes very little difference to the lives of poor people. For every £1 we, in the western world give in aid, we take back £2 through unfair trade.
To the loan sharks and World Trade bureaucrats, who recognise the inequality of the system, but feel powerless to know what to do, John the Baptist says: 'The system is corrupt – get out!
And what does John say about our crazy so-called war on terror and the increasing militarisation of our? What does John say to the young men and women who are caught up in wars, joining the military through lack of alternatives? Surely John speaks to those young soldiers who arrive home with troubled minds and dreadful memories of what they have done? John says, 'Do not torture, do not abuse'.
Moving on, John asks us to step into the River Jordan and be washed clean of our complicity and involvement with empire and exploitation. And then he points to Jesus. 'Behold, the Lamb of God'.
John prepares the way and then Jesus steps in. In Jesus we are given something that's beyond prophetic, that's beyond simple honest judgement and truth-telling. We are given someone who points to models of the Kingdom, not to an end world; who says to all those who feel things are wrong: Look at the poor widow who puts her coin in the box. Look at her. She is the kingdom. Look at this man, a leper, who has such faith despite what he has faced. He is the Kingdom. Look at this child. This child is an image of the Kingdom of God. Look at this woman because she is 'unclean', she has such faith; she is the Kingdom of God'.
Jesus says, 'Look at these people and see and learn and know what God is about. Look at me: Look at me on the cross and understand that we are not talking about a God of power. We are talking about a God of vulnerability and love. Meet me in the resurrection. Meet me despite your violence. I offer you a new relationship – more than just an opportunity to start again. Don't fear condemnation. Hear the judgement, hear truth, hear wisdom – and know my reconciliation, which is the way of love. Be filled with my grace. Stop. Choose. And step into my love and be empowered by grace. I am here to show you a God who turns the world upside down - a world that you can turn upside down too'.
There's no condemnation there. There's certainly judgement, but it's judgement matched with grace. When you hear Jesus' judgement there's no need to shy away in guilt and fear. You are filled with grace in order to live the truth, - to be witnesses to his love.
That's the coming of the Kingdom: living out the love and justice of God as shown in Jesus. The Kingdom, as John said, is nigh. The end of the world, as we know it is only an action away. When we act, filled with God's grace, for love and justice, when we step into changing our world, the end of the world, the Kingdom has come – in our hearts, in our actions.
The end of the world as we know it comes in our acts of compassion and justice and love. It comes when, open to Christ, we are full of the Spirit of the upside-down Kingdom in our hearts and live it out in our lives.
Come and work within me as you will,
Not just today but every day,
Until you have finished your new creation
And my whole being proclaims your glory. Amen.
Is it possible to be sorry about something if you don't attempt to put it right?
Are there things you know to be wrong in your life that you confess but do nothing about? What does this say about your confession? Are you deceiving yourself? Do you imagine God can be deceived?
Do you agree that a genuine desire to amend one's ways is more important than succeeding in doing so? Do you sometimes use this as an excuse not to change, or do you make the opposite mistake of being excessively hard on yourself when you fall short?