December 4, 2011
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” Good morning and welcome. The words of the prophet John the Baptist remind us we are all on a journey, the journey of life. The journey of faith starts at baptism, when we are brought before God and baptized into the community of faith.
The journey continues, in our tradition, with Confirmation, often later in life. In many instances, Confirmation students are about 12, but these days we have adults being both baptized and confirmed. At St. James, we are continuing the process of Confirmation on Tuesdays at noon, for example.
In between baptism and Confirmation, of course, we offer both Nursery and Sunday School and it is a joy to have children in our midst. The children learn about their faith and parents take them home to continue the learning. Yesterday, for example, the adults joined with their children for the Rector’s Christmas party.
As a part of the Confirmation process, we ask students to invite someone to act as a sponsor. The sponsor is one who has been a church-goer and who is quite a distance along in his or her journey of faith. This way when the student has questions, the sponsor can answer based on experience and personal knowledge. At Confirmation class, I told the students the only stupid question was the one that is not asked. Questions are at the heart of growth in faith. At any age, we will have questions, such as “Why is there so much suffering?” “Why does God allow storms to come and kill so many?” “Why would a God of love not have prevented that violence from occurring?” “Why doesn’t God intervene in the amount of hunger and poverty that exists?” “Why or how does God answer prayer?”
There are many questions. I am sure if you think about it, you have many more and they cannot all be answered in one sermon. Yet, what I can say is that God reveals God’s self to us individually as we journey through life. Just as your views change on certain subjects as you grow older, that, too happens as you grow in faith, your positions on certain matters of faith may change.
Sticking then to the analogy of a journey, let’s think of journeying as travelling. When you head out on a trip, whether to the local grocer or to a foreign land, I am sure you don’t just decide to go somewhere and just leave. Or do you? If you just headed right away out the door, you might discover it is cold. You need a warm coat, and while you are at it, it may not hurt to have boots and a hat and scarf. Then, when you head out, you decide. If it is not far, maybe I’ll walk. If it is further, maybe I will drive. If I am headed overseas, you can bet I will need to do a bit more advanced thinking on what I might take and where I might stay and what airline and how much cash and other preparations.
Preparing for the journey, in other words, is pretty important. Yes, you can act on impulse and simply go, but that has its consequences. If you simply go to the airport, purchase a ticket at the counter and board the plane for, say, Florida, that’s great. Now where are you to stay once you are there? Will you rent a vehicle? Take a bus? Have someone pick you up? Decisions go on. Preparations must be made for the journey.
Advent is a season of preparation, as we read in the Gospel. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John was the last of the great prophets and lived in the desert wilderness. Scripture says he was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
What is repentance? It is an essential part of the journey of faith. The words "repent" and "repentance" occur 56 times in the New Testament. It is similar in meaning to the word translated "convert" or "turn", which is also common. The main theme of the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, was: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2). The first recorded words of the public ministry of Jesus are also "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17). Jesus declared that the purpose of His coming and ministry was to call "sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). When Jesus sent out His disciples to preach, we read that "they went out and preached that people should repent" It is obvious from the above references, and there are many more, that if Jesus and those He trained knew what they were talking about, none of us will find a meaningful relationship with God unless we do what the Bible calls "repent". That being the case, it is important to find out what it means. (http://www.christianity.co.nz/repent1.htm)
Repentance is not simply feeling sorry for something. To get a proper picture it is important to understand that repentance always takes place in relation to someone — always in relation to God, and sometimes in relation to other people as well. Repentance is never a private affair. God created us to live in relationship — first with himself, and then with others. That is the reason why religions that do not have a personal God of grace with whom we may enjoy a loving relationship, and from whom it is possible to stray, have no proper place for repentance. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking come into this category.
Essentially, repentance is simply that process by which a person who is away from God recognises that situation and goes back to God. As C. S. Lewis explained, repentance is not something God demands of you before He will take you back, and which He could let you off of if He chose; it is simply a description of what going back is like. It is basically a U-turn. Instead of going away from God, or ignoring Him, you turn around, go to Him and choose to give Him His rightful place in your life. Repentance, therefore, has more to do with your will than it has to do with your feelings. You may feel deep sorrow about certain things that you regret, or you may not, but the real issue is whether or not you go back to where you belong. Of course, sorrow may assist that process.
The Greek word translated "repent" in the New Testament has the basic meaning of "changing your mind". However, in the Bible it goes further than just changing one's thinking about something; it means changing one's attitude towards that thing. To truly repent you must make two changes of attitude — towards both God's truth and God Himself. (http://www.christianity.co.nz/repent1.htm)
John then was calling the people of his day to change their hearts, to look inside and examine their relationship to God and others. He knew there was great need of change. People don’t like to be told to change their lives. This came as a hard message but it is also a fitting message for this time of year. When we look at our world, at our society, there is plenty of room for change. To the south, our neighbours are worried about the economy. Profit seems to be the motivator. In Durban, Africa, our country has been called to task on its attitudes toward the environment. Significant changes need to be made to protect the environment. Communities across the north of Canada are suffering with shortages of water, sewage and homes. One community in particular was in the news this past week and the Red Cross had to respond. There are plenty of examples in the air of the need for change. However, even today, we want to avoid change. Greed and jealousy and envy and malice exist and it is easier to point beyond ourselves, to blame gangs, the government, our neighbour, anyone else rather than look inside and begin the change from within. Then, there are a lot of people who believe in God, and who yet miss the good news. For them God is always coming, but never here. God is always promising, but never delivering. God is always near, but never quite in touch... do you know anyone who has that attitude?
Advent is also all about coming...the coming of Christ. God lives. Christ is here. And Christ is coming here. At Christmas, Christ comes and is reborn in our hearts. Christ will also come again as He has promised, and at a time we do not know. In the meantime, Christ is within us and you can see Him daily.
You can see Him in the face of a new born baby,
You can see Him in the gaze of young lovers,
You can see Him in the look of old married couples,
You can see Him within your own hearts,
when you take time to look.
God will accomplish His purpose.
The kingdom will come.
The question for us is - will we get an attitude?
Will we be a part of the fulfilment of God's purpose?
Will we partner in God’s loving purposes for the world, for our neighbourhood?
Or will we journey instead in darkness?
Our journey of spiritual life involves change. Change from within starts with the examination of our lives. Am I in relationship with my God? Is it one of love? Is that relationship causing me to change the way I approach people and stay in relationship with them? Am I forgiving? Am I accepting forgiveness? Am I seeking God’s forgiveness when my relationship has moved far from Him? These are not easy acts. Yet, if we are honest and call upon God, transformation comes as we repent, as we turn our lives around and our faces toward God. Help comes through the Holy Spirit moving within us.
We give thanks for John’s teachings on repentance. May our lives this Advent and Christmas be filled with joy as we turn our faces and our hearts toward Christ, our Lord and our Saviour.