your preparation a waste of time?
A sermon on Luke 3:7-18 by Jill Friebel, 17 December 2006
Repentance means a turning back and going towards God. Going home to God and oneself. When we are safe and secure at home we have a longing to bring others home too.
On the day of the ordination service my mum was glowing with pride. For an 87 year who has weathered some nasty accidents in the last few years it was amazing that she made it. I don't know how much she took in but it really didn't matter to me or her the fact that she made it was enough. Now she will deny this, but the truth is that I probably wouldn't have made it without her. For the 12 years I was studying she was the silent angel that would hover through my house dropping off dinners and taking the washing off the line and bringing it back on hangers. She would have us round for granny roasts and generally fill in some of the gaps. I still had 5 children living at home when I began and I was working as receptionist and manager of our medical centre. David was working long hours and on call nights and weekends. So she was my right hand woman. She wasn't quite sure what to make of the changes that were happening to me, but again I was hers and so it was OK.
A few weeks later I was visiting her when my brother and his wife were also there. Mum was trying to ask me a question but was having trouble finding the rights words. Language has been really difficult for her since she had a nasty fall and surgery last year and my sister-in-law was trying to fill in the gaps, which we all do at times. It seemed that she wanted to know if things had changed much for me since my ordination. I told her no; not really, life had gone on much the same as it had before. Then, without missing a beat or a syllable she came back with "Well that was a waste of time wasn't it!".....
What a ghastly scenario to put so much preparation into something and discover it was a waste of time. How much effort do we put into things that end up being just that? –A waste of time.
John the Baptist received a message from God when he was in the desert. Straight away he went up and down Jordan preaching to the people. He called them to be baptised, to completely turn their lives around and return to God. This, he told them, would result in the forgiveness of sins. His task was to prepare the way for the coming of the messiah.
He walked into a political and social climate that was ripe and ready to hear his words. The Israelites had been looking and waiting and longing for God to act on their behalf. So it is not surprising that he caused a stir everywhere he went. He looked like a prophet, he spoke like a prophet and he came with a message from God. He fitted the bill on all aspects.
So Luke tells us that "John's baptism became the 'in thing' and people flocked out to be baptized by him. John was not convinced by them though, and bellowed, "You slippery bunch of snakes! What makes you think that running down here for a quick wash will get you off scot free when the judgment comes?"
And he even uses the same sort of imagery when he speaks about the One coming after him. He describes Jesus'ministry baptising with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will come with a flamethrower and will release an uncontrollable fire into the dry bushland of their lives.
Luke also tells us that The Baptiser got the people's attention, which is not too surprising with such stark and confronting imagery made even more powerful with his stature and authority. It was a strong demand for repentance in view of the coming judgment.
They asked "What then shall we do?" "What shall we do?"
Now the Baptist gives good practical down to earth advice. On the surface it seems that repentance to John is an act of turning away from self toward a life of neighbourly care.
What do we make of this and how does this speak to us today?
It could give the impression that good works will bring us salvation, which is not a new message to us as the social gospel has been preached with great vigour in the past.
But the central theme of Luke's gospel is this, that nothing hinders relationship to God, dehumanizes human beings and ruins life in community more than attachment to wealth and possessions. If we are intent on hanging onto stuff we will be focussed inward.
When we are self-reliant and independent for our needs, we don't need each other and we don't need God. It is not until we detach ourselves from what we have and our own self-sufficiency that we will be able to accept and live within the wonderful gift of God's hospitality. If we can't receive from God we won't know how to truly give. If we don't receive mercy we won't know how to give it. God's job description is to give God away. But we block God from doing this because of sin. This is the sin we need to repent of.
The imagery that the Baptist uses can be both helpful and misleading for us in getting a hold of this. The crowds came flocking for baptism in response to a warning of coming judgment. When he calls them a bunch of snakes fleeing judgment, it is not difficult for us especially for every Australian right now to visualize the raging bush fires sending snakes into a frenzy of fear. They too are desperate to find cool soothing waters that will save their skins from the furnace bearing down around them - that would truly be their baptismal waters.
Fear is a strong motivator. When we are faced with threat or danger of any sort our inbuilt powerful sense of self-preservation responds instantly with fear. Our spontaneous reaction is to get ready to protect ourselves, and that often means making ourselves stronger and more powerful and resistant and defensive. We get the impression from the Baptiser that he sees Jesus coming as a judge. This could explain why later when he was in prison he sent a messenger to ask if Jesus really was the promised One, because he wasn't carrying out the ministry he expected to see. Unexpectedly Jesus didn't come judging; instead he brought in a new day of acceptance and it was strikingly different. It was so radical and out of left field that it was incomprehensible even to the very religious.
Religion depends on building boundaries and uses black and white language. It is clear about what you have to do and what you can't do to be accepted. About who is and who isn't acceptable to God. It relies heavily on fear and the flip side of it is to become more independent and self-reliant.
Jesus came to do away with religion. Not even John the Baptiser was ready for something this radical. When you are in fear of judgment you will be on the back foot all the time. It is not a restful or peaceful place. I want you to stop a moment and reflect on how much you are driven by fear and guilt.
The worst judge we all have to deal is the one inside us. You know those discussions that go on in your head day and night that go over and over. That is your own beguiling mind it is persistent and cheats you, and it is deceitful in nature and misleads you. It has messages like you are never good enough, you don't get it right, you are not worthy, you are an idiot, you can't do it, you never do enough, you only have yourself to rely on, or you blaming others for how you feel, etc. It causes mental anguish and suffering and pain. It underlies most of the depression we experience.
I know you don't want to hear this but the only safe place to go to when you are in this confusion and pain is to the desert. It is the only place you can sort out the competing voices and just wait and wait and wait. You will feel your own agony, you will notice your pain more, you will feel more helpless, and more lonely. You will hear your own voice more clearly accusing you over and over. That voice is going on in your head all the time whether you like or not and it is only when you are quiet that you will really hear it. When you stop talking and working and justifying and explaining and running from it. Only in the desert of your own heart will you become aware of what is real and what is not. There is no other way so if you haven't ventured there all your other preparations could be a waste of time. John went into the desert and heard from God. Jesus went there often to pray.
Repentance is finally recognizing that this accusing voice is not from God but part of yourself. It is the part of you listening to the accusing voice of Satan reminding you of how much you have failed. Strangely enough most of us don't need Satan to do it because we do a good enough job of it ourselves. If you can bear to stay quiet enough and feel just how bad it makes you feel you are on the way to being well prepared for Jesus. As you wait it will finally dawn upon you, and it will be a gift, not something you can get yourself. The realization will gradually come upon you that God doesn't judge you or condemn you for anything. This is radical acceptance of you just as you are and that you are already God's beloved child and forgiven for everything. You don't have to do anything to pay for your sins – the guilt you feel constantly is your own doing. All you have to do is repent of your determination of being self-reliant and independent of God's mercy and hospitality. Just turn around from going your own way and turn towards God and head home where you came from in the first place.
I wish it was easy to do this just once and that we could always get it and stay there. But the fact is that we are so driven by fear to preserve ourselves that we can be beguiled in flash to do it for ourselves again and then again. We will never be able to do enough or get enough that will satisfy this gnawing fear. Jesus says come home. When we are safe and secure at home with God, we are freer and we have a longing to bring others home too. We will become what we already are. God offers us endless hospitality, grace and mercy. He will provide for our physical and emotional needs if we would only stop the compulsion to provide them for ourselves. Everything we have comes from God. It is all gift in the first place. When we receive freely we can then give to others. You will find you won't be able to stop yourself from acts of mercy, and showing compassion to others, for it won't come from fear but from love. The more you feed on Christ the bread of life the more satisfied and fulfilled you become.
This is the journey of transformation that comes from true repentance. You will find your doing random acts of kindness just because it happens. It will be a way of life that comes from participating in the source of all life – Jesus.