Preparing for His Glory

Scriptures: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Matthew 3:1-12

As we approach the message today from Matthew, I would note that this is what I would call a true prophecy. I’ve always said that prophecy is not so much foretelling the future as it is forthtelling the word of God to the people.

While it is very clear that John the Baptizer is expecting what we would consider to be the second coming of Christ, that is, as the righteous Judge and the conquering King who will be coming, nevertheless the words held deep meaning and impact to the people of his time, as he laid bare, as prophets so often did, the hypocrisy that was there among the religious leaders. So that message was both timely then and now.

Once there was a man who was a bit of a bum. Talented and successful, he neglected his wife and his children, then his work and his friends, his community and his colleagues. He drank too much, lost his temper too often, and was cruel too many times.

Then one day he had a tremendous conversion experience and was transformed totally. He became a good and loving husband, a generous and sympathetic father, a diligent and creative worker, a loyal friend, and a dedicated member of the community. He was sober and kind and patient and gentle.

At first, everyone rejoiced in the change. They said they had known all along that he was a good man. Then they realized that the change was for real, and that, in order to continue their relationship with him, they would have to change too.

He lost his wife, and his family, and his job, and his friends. He went back to being a bum, and got everything back. Then guilt struck, and repentance was given, and his had another conversion experience, and once more became a new man. What do you think happened after that?

This is by Andrew Greeley, and challenges us to recognize the validity of our relationships with one another. No person is by themselves, and everyone interacts with other people. Sometimes, if there is a change that is called upon, and that occurs, we need to change as well. So the message is to all of us.

Today we have John the Baptizer coming out of the wilderness, wearing wild animal skins, smelling badly, most likely, and preaching repentance. He is not genteel or polite, not politically correct, and he offends all those who might be offended. But he cuts right to the chase.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. You have been waiting for the Messiah. Pay attention – he’s coming.” He is saying to the people of his time, and also to us, “Repent. Get ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. Cut through all the distractions. Eliminate the nonsense in your lives and pay attention. Stop turning away from God, and quit running after all that glitters.”

While the paraments are white today because of Communion, the season, as noted in the Advent candle readings, is purple for exactly that reason, as we try to prepare ourselves for the coming of the King.

Following the news of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s death, Today show anchor Anne Curry interviewed Anthony DeCurtis, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. DeCurtis talked at length about Harrison’s search for a meaningful spiritual life. Curry said, “Apparently Harrison was the most spiritual of the group [speaking of the Beatles]; in a recent interview, he said, ‘Everything else in life can wait, but the search for God cannot wait.’”

We must seek God. John the Baptizer said, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” God is coming. Pay attention. Stop running after that which does not matter.

But as we saw in the reading, there is a group of church leaders who have a problem with John, the Pharisees. He doesn’t dress properly. He speaks without proper decorum. He smells. How can they pay any attention to what he says? Obviously, he does not move in the right circles.

Whether we recognize it consciously or not, there are always those circles. On the television show M*A*S*H, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III made it clear what separated him from everybody else. “I am a Winchester,” he was heard to say, more than once.

For him, it was his family name that made him superior to everyone else. Other people carry other burdens. One woman received her education at Harvard, and found a way to work Harvard into every conversation.

This is what John the Baptizer was dealing with in this lesson today. In his assault on the religious people of the day, John the Baptizer was complete unimpressed with the very thing that the Jewish people had built their lives upon. They were the children of Abraham, the people of his promise.

And then comes John the Baptizer, and he says, “If God wanted to, He could make children of Abraham out of these stones that are at your feet.” We hate to hear John the Baptizer because we know how it translates to our own situation, if we just think about it.

We can hear him now. “Just because you’re members of a church, just because you give your weekly offerings, just because your great-grandparents were in this church, just because you’re an officer, just because you’re a minister, doesn’t mean it is time to relax and take it easy, and give in to this temptation of thinking this matter of being Christian is under control.”

In other words, don’t presume your past has taken care of your present. And always be looking to your future. John’s message today, without any frills, is “Repent.” Take a look at your life. See where you have put your priorities, where your treasure really lies, and turn around and see God looking to guide you.”

Repentance is not a once in a lifetime event, but a daily action. We need to die daily to our sin, as Luther reminds us. Richard Jensen says it most powerfully: “The repentant person comes before God saying, ‘I can’t do it myself, God. Kill me, and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.’”

I want to point out the difference between repentance and being sorry. Oftentimes we have regret and we say we’re sorry. As parents and grandparents, we’ve seen this. They do something, a brother hitting a sister, or something like that. You tell them to stop, explain to them why they shouldn’t do that. And they say, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

You tell them they’re forgiven, you turn around and walk off, … and bam! He hits his sister again. You’re disappointed, you go to them again and chastise them again, scolding them. And they say, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

Sometimes I think that’s how God looks upon us, because we don’t have true repentance, just regret. Repentance literally means “to turn around” or “to turn away.” If we have repentance in our hearts, then we are to turn away from that which is leading us into that sin, that which is leading us into that complacency, and turn to God.

It is to stop running after everything else, and to look to God and see where He is leading us. It is to make decisions for God in our daily life that show where our hope lies, where our future lies. It is to recognize that being a child of God needs to determine the decisions we make every day. Clothes, status, fame, the right accent – these mean nothing. Only the fact that God has claimed us, and loves us.

Repent, as John said. Live like it is true. Repentance is the ongoing lifestyle of the people of the Kingdom. Repentance is to bear fruit of the Kingdom. We are a part of the Kingdom of God when we bear good fruit. If we do not, we have decided to move ourselves out of the Kingdom.

The book of Matthew says much about these fruits. We are a part of the Kingdom when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the poor. When we depend upon God for our provision and give Him praise with our very lives.

We are an alternative culture that needs to repent of ways in which we have bought into the values of the culture around us. We need to build and nurture a Christian subculture for our children to live within so that they might continue to have faith, and be made strong enough to withstand the attacks and pressures of the outside world.

We must repent of the attitude of entitlement which suggests we deserve certain perks because we belong to a church. We are a part of the Church, which is the body of Christ, because we recognize Jesus Christ as our Savior and seek to live accordingly.

We need to establish our own identity and allegiance, in contrast to the competing groups within our society and culture. If we bow to the culture, we become part of that “brood of vipers” that John spoke of.

As we seek to live in daily repentance, we discover the hope that is ours. I know that it may seem hard to put the two together, initially. Repentance and regret, hope and joy – how do these two go hand in hand? But that’s what the Advent and Christmas season is all about.

The hope that we have lies only in God. The hope that lies in the kingdom of heaven, which is both coming and which is here in part already. Hope does not lie in all that we might look to for our validation and importance.

After all, we are important. We are important enough that God sent His Son to die for us on the cross, to cleanse us of our sin, to reconcile us with Him, and then raise Him again that we might have new life, be new creatures, find a new way, find true joy and peace in Jesus Christ.

We have hope as we die each day to old ways and have the courage to live according to God’s ways. The kingdom of heaven declares that God, and God’s way, rules from now on. We do good deeds, not to get us into heaven, but because that is how people of the Kingdom live. We bear fruit.

Along with John, we are not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals. But He declares us worthy to share with Him the opportunity to be Christ to all of those around us. He offers us hope that transcends all time and place, that declares us right before God, solely because of God’s grace. And life then becomes a life lived in response to that great gift.

Part of that response that we have is embodied in the practice of Communion, and the sacrament we will celebrate today, as we put our trust in Christ and give Him thanks for His gracious goodness and love.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And it is near to you, and to me. Thanks be to God.

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