Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Isaiah‘s words — which contrast quite starkly with the apocalyptic tone of last week’s gospel reading — are all about comfort and atonement. The glory of the Lord that is about to be revealed, Isaiah says, will be about reward and recompense. That’s all good, right? Well, if you consider what it takes to level a mountain (“made low”) or to fill up a valley (“lifted up”) — I don’t know. Could be a little less gentle than we might imagine. Whatever else the result of this waiting season of Advent may be, when it is all said and done, we’ll be able to say, “Here is your God!” (v.9)
For the writer of Psalm 85, forgiveness and sin go hand-in-hand. When you have a problem with one (sin) you really need the other (forgiveness.) John the Baptizer will have a little something to say about that in today’s gospel text, as well. One of the images of “sin” is as an obstacle in the path to completing a good and desirable action. Sin blocks us from doing God’s will, from developing meaningful relationships, from loving neighbors as ourselves, and all such as that. Forgiveness is key in removing that sin-obstacle (kind of like lowering a mountain?) With sin removed, righteousness and peace are free to kiss. Faithfulness can spring up all around us; steadfast love strolls about, finding its purpose in lives made whole.
Peter‘s text reminds us of the double nature of Advent; we are glancing backward at the events of Bethlehem’s manger as we await the coming of the Christ Child, but also are keeping an eye on the future and the promised return of that same Child, now turned King of kings. “God’s timing” is oft-discussed in church circles — it being a curious and apparently unknowable sort of thing. Peter says, “Don’t get too worked up about that; God moves on such a different time scale from us, you’d never grasp it in a million years.” What matters is what God is up to: that all may come to repentance, however long that may take. (See Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for more about that totally cool word.)
Mark starts at the very best place for his gospel: the beginning. Immediately, we realize that what he will tell us, and what we will read, and even all that we will experience in this life of faith in following Christ — it’s all only the beginning. Or, since John’s message is about repentance, you might say that it’s only the beginning — again. Fresh starts, change of minds and hearts, reversing field and making better choices — all of that and more is involved in this gospel message. No wonder it takes us an eternity to get it!
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
A few years ago a pastor friend told me of meeting God on the highway. He said that he and his wife were traveling North on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.
My friend’s mind began to whirl with silly questions and ideas: What kind of music does God allow the truckers to play in the cab. Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap or Country? Would God ever break the speed limit? And if God did speed, would the State Trooper give God a ticket? As the truck drew closer and Warren that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, one final question flashed through Warren’s mind: If God is going south, what am I doing going north?
John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed south and everybody else was going north, headed the wrong way.
The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is rather an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way.
Bible Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage it implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.” If God is going south and we are going north; what should we do?
Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like: “God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but – – -I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.”
Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance; being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us, but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.
Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at someone else in the car and say, “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?’ (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple,” “You gave it to me.”) Or, you could blame the map or google or the guy at the gas station.
A modern response is to blame God for going the wrong way. We could spot God in the southbound lane and look over at our passenger and say, “Would you look at that? God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”
People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.
.Once during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?” Lincoln replied, “I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side?”
That is still a very important question: Are we on God’s side? If God is going south, why are we going north? If the Kingdom of God is at hand, what must we do to be ready? God is traveling south on the side of Peace and Justice and the Poor. It is not for us to debate as to whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side.
God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only question for us is “Are YOU ready to follow? Are you ready to repent, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads?
Amen and amen.