“Repentance, Joy, and What We Stand For”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 13, 2015: Advent Three
Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Luke 3:7-18
Last Sunday we heard the song of Zechariah from the gospel of Luke. Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist and the fact that he sings is a bit of biblical irony. You see, an angel of the Lord came to Zechariah to announce that he and his wife would have a son. Zechariah was amused because he and his wife were well beyond their child-bearing years. The angel was not amused, saying to Zechariah, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to you to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words…you will be mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” So Zechariah lived for nine months completely silent. When Zechariah and Elizabeth presented John in the temple to be circumcised just a few days after his birth, Zechariah was still silent and had to scribble on a tablet that his son’s name would be name John. At that moment, his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to sing, praising God. That’s biblical irony: the one who was unable to speak now praises God and sings.
Zechariah sings to John, “And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of his salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” This is exactly what the angel told Zechariah his son would be and do, and Zechariah sings of his son’s destiny: to prepare the way of the Lord and give knowledge of salvation and forgiveness to his people.
In the gospel lesson today we meet the full-grown John the Baptist who is doing just what the angel and his father said he would do. John is preaching in the wilderness, ranting and raving in front of large crowds, preparing them for the public ministry of Jesus. “You brood of vipers,’ John spits at them, ‘who warned you to flee from he wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John is a jarring figure, there is no candy-coating here. John’s destiny from birth was to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, the judge and savior of the world, and he did not take his responsibilities lightly. Jesus is the very imprint of God who has come to save all people form their sins and deliver them from the powers of hell and darkness: the people must be ready. In John’s estimation of things, this preparation begins with repentance—“Bear fruit worthy of repentance…”.
The meaning of repentance in the Bible is quite different from the widespread understanding of it in modern Christianity. Many Christians think of repentance as primarily contrition, as being sincerely sorry for your sins, confessing your faults, and perhaps performing some act of repayment for the damage done. But the Biblical meaning of repentance is far from that. The Biblical meaning of repentance emphasizes change.
To repent is to turn to God. Or, in the case of confession, repentance is to return to God. In the Old Testament, the meaning of repentance is shaped by the Jewish experience of exile. The Jewish people were exiled twice in their early life with God: first in the wilderness after their harrowing escape from Egypt and again in captivity in Babylon. Repentance for the Israelites was to return from a place of exile to a place of God’s presence. During Advent we hear the prophets call out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and this about repentance, about returning to God from exile. To repent is to turn away from the lords of this world and turn, return, to God. To repent, to return, means to follow the way that leads out of our exile, separation, alienation, and estrangement to reconnection with God. And God is always there to welcome us back.
The New Testament meaning of repentance continues the Old Testament meaning and adds an additional nuance. In the New Testament, the root of the Greek word translated as “repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have,” to enter into a new mind-set, a new way of seeing. Repentance in the New Testament is the act of turning or returning to God, but it is also a call to see things in a new and different way—our lives, our faith, the world we live in.
Think about it like this. The wise men and the shepherds that went to see the baby Jesus came to Bethlehem one way and left a completely different way. The wise men followed the star to the place where the baby was born, and there they adored him and gave him gifts fit for a king. The shepherds followed the songs of angels to the child wrapped in bands of cloth, and they too adored him and gave him the gift of their love. But when it came time for everyone to go home, each went a different way than they came. The wise men were warned in a dream to not return to Herod because if they told him where Jesus was, he would have killed him. The wise men took a different way home and they saw the world in a much different way. When the shepherds leave and go back to the fields, Luke says that they sang praises to God all the way back. Here are these dirty shepherds, the outcast and low-class, singing on their way back to work because they were the first to see the salvation of the world. There is no way for anyone to return the same way that they came after seeing Jesus—that is repentance.
Every time we approach God with a confession, of sin or fault, we are repenting of the things that have separated us from God, exiled us from God’s presence, and estranged us from our neighbors. When we repent, our faith assures us that God is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Taking God’s forgiveness into ourselves, we become like the shepherds and the wise men who came in one way and leave a totally different way—we come in as sinful and leave as forgiven. But that is where repentance and forgiveness gets sticky: we don’t always chose to go back a different way, we don’t always chose to live into that forgiveness. Its just so easy to fall back into doing things the old way, the skeptical or nasty way, the unforgiving or unloving way. It is hard work, especially today, to have faith, to love the unlovable, to forgive, and to show kindness in all things. Maybe if we had something like a star to guide us, going back a different way would be much easier.
The folks in John the Baptist’s congregation knew that going back a different way would be hard. They ask him, “What then should we do?”. What a timeless questions! What then should we do now that we have heard the call to repentance? What then should we do now that we have seen the baby Jesus? What then should we do now that we have received God’s forgiveness?
There was a brief segment on the Today Show back in November that surveyed parents as to what values they most want to teach to and see in their children. Honesty topped the charts at 43%, followed by kindness at 29%, and a strong work ethic at 11%. Other values like courage, leadership, and toughness scored lower than 5%. I found this survey to be interesting because it’s results line up pretty closely with what John the Baptist tells them to do when they ask him, “What then should we do?”.
He tells them to be honest: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” He tells them to be kind: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells them to have a strong work ethic: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” John is implying here that the coming of Jesus, which we are preparing for, affects every dimension of our lives, including how we regard each other and our ethical obligations to one another and the world. When we share what we have, live honestly with each other, and work hard to resist the urge to be bullies, we are repenting and coming back to God. This helps to usher in the peaceful, loving, and eternal kingdom that Jesus is bringing into the world. These things propel us to live out the very essence of the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
I want to add to John’s list of answers. I want to add joy, being joyful, as something we must do as we repent and turn to God and go back into the world a different way.
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion: shout, O Israel!…The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies.” I want to be friends with Zephaniah because they really get it, they have joy! The prophet is calling Zion and Jerusalem to rejoice, to have joy, because the Lord has forgiven their sins and shown mercy in judgement. Where the Lord could have brought down a mighty hand of punishment, the Lord has used that hand to wipe away the enemies of his people. This isn’t a “Don’t worry, be happy” type of thing; this is a “feel it deep in your bones because you’ve been saved” type of thing. This isn’t just about being positive, this is about being confident and sure because God is way bigger than the mess. This is joy because God has saved the lame, gathered the outcast, turned shame in praise, and brought the wayward home.
In Jesus Christ, these very things have touched our broken world. In him we see that God judges us with mercy, not according to what we deserve, but according to his deep love for us. In him we see that God has wiped away our most persistent enemies: sin and death and fear. In Jesus, God touches our lives and our very bodies with a hand of healing and power, knowing our pains and struggles, lifting us to a place of peace and security. With Jesus we don’t just have to be positive, we can be confident and sure because the very powers of hell were trampled beneath his wounded feet. With Jesus there is healing for the lame, embrace for the outcast, praise for those who have been shamed, and an earthly and an eternal home for all who have faith in him. It is this one, this Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating at this very moment. He is our joy! We have been saved. We have been brought back home. We have a God to turn and return to who is so in love with us that God took on flesh and was born into our world. If we take on a posture of joy, and practice rejoicing, we will indeed go back in a new way and see everything—our lives, our faith, the world we live in—in a different way. Joy is a fruit worth bearing as we wait for the coming of Christ!
This good news of God—Zephaniah’s joy and John’s call to repentance—is a call to a radically new way of life for Jesus’ followers, but it is something, if we have the courage to take it up, that could very much change the world we live in. Consider this.
We’re not even close to crunch-time in the election cycle, but it doesn't seem that the rhetoric and debate could get any hotter than it is right now. It is uncanny how divisive and vitriolic our nation’s political climate has become. I expect and respect that there will always be a certain amount of ‘smearing’ when it comes to jockeying for public office, but right now its all-consuming and just plain mean, and I, we, can’t respect that. Every news channel, every newspaper, even 90% of activity on social media, is all about what this candidate has done wrong, why they are un-American, how they are a terrorist themselves, or how they are the incarnation of evil from the past. It is just school-yard bullying using words that most school-aged children don’t know yet. The scariest part of it is that it has spilled over into every area of life, inciting fear, entrenching extremism, and tearing at the fabric that makes God’s world so beautiful. And Christians are in the thick of it.
What if, starting right now, followers of Jesus committed to the act of repentance, returned to God, and practiced joy in every area of life? What if we were to not just say sorry for things we have done wrong—even though that is so severely important—but really changed how we live, how we act toward each other, how we show the gospel in our words and actions? What if we really turned back to God, not the image of God we have fashioned to our liking, but the God who came to life for us in Jesus Christ? What if we were joyful, even in the face of the complexities of human life, because God is still on the throne?
The name calling would end and the bullying would stop, because when we return to God from this great sin, we are confronted with that reality that God is the creator of all. As much and as lovingly as you are created in God’s image, so too is the person on the receiving end of your hatred.
The fear would we be washed away, soothed, comforted. The God of our faith, the one who was wrapped in bands of cloth, is still living and still acting. This almighty God of ours promises that light will always shine in the darkness, and darkness will never overcome it.
With joy, Christians would stop being these people who always sulk around looking for a fight, always convinced that someone is trying to take their God or their faith or their sacred spaces away. God is so much bigger than that.
With joy, we will start talking about what we stand for, what gives us joy, what gives us life, and end the long practice of talking about what we hate or despise, what we have to get rid of or end. Jesus gathered a group of followers by telling them what he was all about, by showing them his great love for the poor, by giving them hope, by offering to them a new and good way of life. Imagine if we did the same. Imagine if we stopped saying we can’t, we won’t, we don’t, and starting talking that God can, God will, God does.
I call you today, and I say this to myself first, to consider the quality of the fruit you are bearing for the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is coming into the world and he will be looking to see how and what we are doing with this thing called ‘church’ that he gave to us so many centuries ago. Now is the time to repent and return to God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of everyone and all things. Now is the time to take up joy, to wrap ourselves in it like a coat, to show to the world the beautiful Savior who gave us life. Now is the time to speak up, to proclaim what we as followers of Jesus stand for: life for all things, love that is unconditional, and hope in abundant and eternal quantities. The transformation will not only be on us and all that we do, it will be on the world and everything in it.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are so close to Bethlehem. Repent and believe in the good news of gospel, because the shepherds and angels have begun to gather, and Mary and Joseph are ready; they are waiting for you and me to join in the celebration! Amen.