The story opens in the wilderness, a metaphorical and real place that is barren, dangerous and uninhabitable. Out of that place, a man comes, looking wild and unwieldly. His presence was as comfortable as the wilderness he came from. His clothing, hygiene and appearance would make even the most tolerant person uncomfortable, maybe even queasy. He was a self-proclaimed prophet and he had one sermon – one script – one message and he said it everywhere he went and people would come in droves to hear him preach this one message, that has two verbs or actions for the listeners and one promise. The actions he wants from his listeners are two-fold. First, he wants his listeners to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the savior of the world and the way to prepare for the Prince of Peace is through the self-reflective work of repentance.
There is no Christianity unless first there is repentance. And it is not just, “Well, I am guilty.” It is not just a conviction. It is a conviction plus a desire to turn away from those things.
The thing about preaching on repentance, is that one realizes to preach on repentance, one must repent oneself. You cannot preach on repentance and compel others to be think about one’s own sin, and by sin, I mean, ways that we have turned from God, without owning up to one’s own sin. It’s easier to point out the sins of others than it is to identify and own up to one’s own sin. But to sit in judgment of another person’s sin, without facing your own sin, is indeed a sin, so then you’re double in trouble.
I was reading an article written by a pastor of a large church and he warned of preachers of preaching on anything too negative. He said, “People want you to be positive, so don’t get too ominous.” I don’t think he would have liked John’s preaching. The last thing John the Baptist was interested in was making people comfortable. If people left his presence thinking about rainbows and unicorns he either wasn’t doing his job, or they weren’t listening. Rather, if they left thinking the thing that was distancing themselves from God and a desire to change than he had been successful. There is nothing comfortable about holding someone accountable for their actions. John was interested in being liked or respected, he was interested in preparing them to experience and know Jesus Christ. It is by holding ourselves accountable to our sin and changing behavior that we come to have a greater peace and ultimately Jesus Christ.
It’s what we tell our kids when we catch them in a lie. The lie makes the thing that they were lying about worse. It’s better to tell the truth and face the consequences, than it is to lie to yourself and to others and then be guilty of both the lie and whatever is you are lying about. – Telling the truth, while not always easy, provides more peace within yourself and those you love. Lying and the lying on top of lying only distances yourself from the people you love.
Preparing for Jesus requires us to have the same kind of truth telling conversation with him. We simply, or not so simply, must come clean.
Earlier this week, writer Annie Proulx received the life time achievement award, and gave one of the best speeches ever given. She said,
We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.
She goes on to say:
To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. …Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.
All of us are sinners. All of us have been afraid to tell the truth about how we live, or what we think, or how we behave. It’s human behavior to look at the actions of others and think, “wow they really messed up,” and it’s far more humbling and faithful to examine one’s own self and say, wow, “I really messed up.”
If you heard John preach this morning, he would have been here in his wild ways and he would have drawn you in and said, prepare the way of the Lord, be baptized and cleansed of all your sins. John tells the people what to do, but now how to do it. For those of us who need some guidance, here are the steps I think one takes to experience true repentance.
First, Name it. You know yourself better than anyone. What’s your story? Where in your life are you judgmental, addicted, hateful, vengeful, gluttonous, lustful, jealous, envious? Where have you been a poor steward of your resources, your body, and the earth? Where have you kept silent when you should have spoken up? When have you been a less than faithful spouse or friend? Own up to it. Name it.
Second, Accept. Accept the consequences of your behavior. Who or what have you hurt because of your sin? Who or what has suffered? Including yourself. Accept that your actions impact the lives of others.
Third, Ask. Ask for forgiveness. This may be the hardest step because it requires vulnerability on your part and grace on the part of the one you have offended. – Including God, Himself. Now here’s the thing about forgiveness. Sometimes it’s easier to ask God for forgiveness than it is to forgive yourself. CS Lewis made an observation to that affect and said, “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
Fourth. Rejoice. To be forgiven is the greatest gift God gives us, we can give others and give ourselves. Rejoice in the gift of forgiveness. It’s the catch in our throat when we sing the words, “Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound to Save a Wretch Like me.” We want that catch in our throat. We want to spiritually alive. To be spiritually alive is to live in repentance. Spiritually dead are those Christians who never weep over their sins or who have long ceased to do so. Dead - in God's eyes - are those Christians who can no longer rejoice over God's forgiveness. Whenever this joy is missing, even if we may call ourselves committed Christians, there is something wrong in our lives.”
Fifth, Change. The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is what are we going to do now that we are sorry?” CS Lewis wrote in his book The Screwtape Letters, “As long as [man] does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance... Wallow in it... Write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which [Heavenly Father] plants in a human soul... Do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm [the cause of evil] if [it is kept] out of his will... The more often he feels without acting, the less he will ever be able to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
Name. Accept. Ask. Rejoice. Change. And you will be prepared to know Christ more fully.
A man came out of the wilderness, preaching the call to prepare for coming of Jesus Christ by living a life of repentance. His desire was not to put people to shame, but to direct people to being spiritually alive.
Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is near.