“The Glory of U-Turns” December 8, 2019
“The Glory of U-Turns”
Isaiah 11:1-10/ Romans 15:4-13
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” For those of us old enough to remember Andy Williams, this song and his voice are permanently burned into our brains. In so many ways, it is the perfect song for the Christmas season: it’s lively, it’s light, and, for me anyway, is always able to magically transform this, the darkest time of the year, into the “hap-happiest season of all.” The music, the lights, the celebrations – they’re all parts of this wonderful tradition that we call the Christmas season.
Now, in keeping with the traditions of the season, no Advent would be complete without the introduction of John the Baptist. I know, I know – Matthew’s description of John the Baptist – his appearance and his preaching style – these are not the first things that come to mind at this hap-happy time of year. Case in point: how many Christmas cards have you seen with John the Baptist on the front? Not a one, right? I mean, let’s face it – it’s going to be a long time before Hallmark is going to start making those, but that’s OK. That’s OK, because we need the voice that cries out from the wilderness. We need an honest “heads up” about what to expect when God shows up to the world. We need a wake up call that when Jesus comes things are going to change; our understanding of God is going to change, the world is going to change, we are going to change.
It was Fleming Rutledge that once said, “Advent is a season that forbids denial.” (X2) I’ve been stewing on that for a couple of days now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that is what John was driving at in our gospel message today. Matthew tells us of John who “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and preaching the simple message: repentance. If you want to be baptized; if you want to come clean in the waters of the Jordan, you have to come clean with your God. No more denial – time to confess of your sin. So it was that when the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up to be baptized, John rightfully figured out that they were going to skip the repentance part. They were, after all, above reproach. They were chosen by God to lead the nation of Israel in worship and obedience to the law. They were special. But they were missing the point; the point being that even though they may have been special, their sins were not. (Matt 3:7 NIV) When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance.” (CSB) “Produce fruit consistent with repentance,” (CEB) “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” In other words, a baptism doesn’t mean a thing unless you have truly turned away from your sin. No half measures, no shortcuts, no hanging onto the sins that we have grown a little fond of. No, repentance; true repentance; life changing repentance – that’s what John the Baptist was all about. Like I said, this is the voice we need to hear.
We need to hear it because it prepares us for the Christ that is to come. (Matt 3:11 CEB) 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. Now, I would like to think that that these leaders of the temple took this message to heart. I would like to think a lot of things but the truth is, we don’t know. But here’s the thing: all the while that I’m thinking what I’d like to think, I’m also thinking, “What about me? What about us?” Now I am not without sin, but compared to some I am small potatoes. Is John the Baptizer demanding this total repentance from me as well? For a possible answer to this deep metaphysical question, I would like to turn to the brilliant philosopher and TV personality, Red Green. Now for those not familiar with the Red Green Show, it was a Canadian TV program that was basically a spoof of the many handyman and do-it-yourself shows that were popular. Red Green, the main character, was constantly finding shortcuts to his projects, trusting most of his work to duct tape. It took place in the fictitious town of Possum Lake in northern Ontario, Canada. The show was quirky at best. In the words of Red, “The Red Green show is kinda like the flu; not everybody gets it.” But it’s the times that the men of the village would meet at the Possum Lake Lodge that made me pause and consider my own personal attitude on change. At the end of every episode, all the men – and they were an odd bunch, let me tell you- all the men would meet in the lodge to recite the Men’s Prayer. Every show closed with the Men’s Prayer and I have committed it to memory: “I’m a man – but I can change – if I have to – I guess.” It’s kind of catchy, and to hear it spoken by all the misfits in this show, it’s hilarious. But at the same time, it hits kind of close to home. Here we are in the season of Advent: the time when we “watch and wait” for the coming of the Lord. We read the words of John the Baptist announcing “the one who is coming” and telling us to change our hearts and minds. We enjoy the music, we spend time with those we love, and our hearts are warmed by the traditions of this most wonderful time of the year. But change? Not really. Let’s face it – we usually don’t change unless we have to. As Christians, we are satisfied to meet together in worship and to study the scriptures as they speak to us right here and now. As Christians, we mature in our faith as we care for one another; as we care for our community. And as Christians, we know the joy of forgiveness, the joy of salvation; as Christians we know the joy of the unconditional love of our creator. So where’s the sense of urgency? What might be the one thing that might make us “have to” change?
Well, the one thing at the top of my list would be the coming of Christ Jesus. I don’t mean Christ in a nativity scene; I mean Christ coming to me, to you, to the church. Our sins are nothing short of the things that separate us from God. If Advent really is a season that forbids denial, then what have I been doing that denies Christ’s coming? I’m afraid to say that the list is long.
I’m thinking of a time when Red Green was showing off some of newest technology. He said, “You ever see one of these? It’s called a GPS, which stands for – well, who cares? Point is, this thing uses satellites to tell you where you are, which means that every man can have a five-hundred-dollar reason not to ask for directions.” Now, I rely on GPS all the time; it’s a life saver. My one gripe is when it tells me to make a U-Turn. First of all, that’s probably illegal, but mostly I’m aggravated because this machine is telling me that I have failed; that I goofed up and need to start over. It’s easy enough to understand my faith journey the same way. There are missteps that keep me from Christ’s presence – wrong turns, bad roads – but I constantly adjust. I look for shortcuts, different routes even. But nothing changes. My challenge to myself, and therefore to you, is to find the one thing that separates us from Christ and do the unthinkable; take a U-turn and start over. Be it our time in prayer, our need to judge, our sense of self – this can be our changing force this Advent season. And who knows – the fruits of this change could be glorious. Come, Lord Jesus, come
Amen & Shalom