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 A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian 
on December 16, 2018 - 3rd Sunday of Advent.


PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS: REPENTANCE

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

            We gather today on the Third Sunday in Advent.  This Advent season we are focusing on ways we can prepare our hearts and minds to experience the wonder of God coming to us in a baby born in a manger.  The first week of Advent we focused on the importance of paying attention for the signs of God’s presence.  Last week we explored the ways adoration can lift us into God’s company.

            On this Sunday we will learn that another way to prepare for Jesus’ coming is through repentance. Today we focus on the message of John the Baptist. John is that strange figure in the New Testament who came to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.  In the synoptic gospels John’s message is very clear and can be reduced to a single word, repent.   John came to the people of Israel and told them, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

            I believe that when we hear the word repent we believe we know what it means.  All too often the term repent conjures up an image of a person standing on a street corner in New York City with a sandwich sign that declares repent the end is near.  Often we think the term repent merely calls on us to feel sorry for our sins.  We think the primary meaning of repentance is feeling guilty for our mistakes. 

            I believe that the understanding of repentance as merely feeling sorry for our sins misses the heart of the meaning. Metanoia is the Greek word that we translate as repent. Metanoia denotes movement.  Repentance does not mean just confession. It is not merely a means of getting rid of guilt. Repentance means to turn, to change direction.

            The process that is metanoia might best be understood through a parable or story. 

            After finishing final exams in December of 1974, I climbed into a car full of fellow St. Lawrence students.  We all happened to come from Westchester County and so we headed home for the Christmas recess.  We drove from Canton, New York down through the Adirondack Mountains. We traveled from lake to lake, Tupper, Blue Mountain, Long and Indian before we finally got on the Northway at Warrensburg.  We traveled south towards Albany.  At Albany we decided to come south on the Taconic Parkway.  We drove for about an hour and then got on Route 84.  After being on that road for about ten minutes, one person in our car spotted a sign that said, "Last exit before bridge."  Our first reaction was, “What Bridge?"  We were not supposed to cross any water.

            It soon became apparent that we were going to cross the Hudson River.  We were heading away from home, not towards it.  We had made the mistake of heading west on route 84 instead of east.  We had all been talking so much that we had not paid attention to the direction that we were traveling. We spotted our mistake just in time.  We got off at the last exit before the Newburgh bridge and turned around and headed in the right direction. 

            This story is an illustration of the meaning of repentance. 

            John the Baptist asks us to view sin in a different way. Sin is not understood to be just isolated indiscretions or transgressions. Sin is a force that draws us in a certain direction.  Sin is a path we follow. Sin is like driving down a wrong road. 

            It seems to me that repentance is a process with several steps.

            Repentance begins when we realize that we are going in the wrong direction.  One of the people in our car realized that we were going to end up going over the Hudson River in the wrong direction.  If we had kept on traveling west we never would have arrived at home.

            In the story of the Prodigal Son we are told that after squandering his wealth, the son came to his senses and realized what he had done.  He realized that his whole life was on a trajectory to destruction and so he turned and headed home. 

            John the Baptist tells us that we are headed in the wrong direction.  In many ways we are not following the path towards God.  The first step in repentance is acknowledging that we are moving away from God.  As the old general prayer of confession reminds us-   we have erred and strayed from God's ways like lost sheep. 

            I believe that there are many times that we get so caught up in our daily routines that we become distracted.  You and I may slowly be moving away from God without even being aware of it.  We can easily turn off onto detours that keep us from moving towards God's purpose for us. 

            The process of repentance begins by admitting that we have not allowed our whole life to be molded by God.  We have sinned and fallen short of his intentions for us.  But confessing our sin is not enough.

            The second step is to believe that we can change.   I believe that all too often we think that we cannot change.  When we saw that we were going in the wrong direction on Route 84 we took the next exit and turned around.   Many of us think that we are on a road with no exits and no U-turns allowed.  It has almost become conventional wisdom that human beings are trapped by genes and environment. 

            The words of John the Baptist are words of hope.  They contain within them the belief that real change is possible.  We can take responsibility for our lives.  We can become different people.  We are not trapped by genetics or environment.  Real change is possible. 

            When we have recognized we need to change,

                        and when we come to believe change is possible,

                                    Then we have to want to change.

            When we realized that we were heading in the wrong direction on Route 84, we all were concerned.  We all wanted to get turned around and headed in the right direction.  It was not that we hated where we happened to be.  There is nothing wrong with Fishkill.  It was just that we each had a strong desire to get home for Christmas.  We changed direction because of where we wanted to arrive.            

            John the Baptist came preaching "Repent!”  He tells us to move in a new direction.  John is not primarily telling us to turn away from certain activities and life styles. He is rather asking us to turn towards God.  He tells us to turn to the kingdom of heaven which is coming in Jesus.  John's message is positive.  He is telling us to turn away from our sins in order to move towards Jesus. 

            I believe that we often miss the point of the Gospel.  It seems to me so much of evangelical Christianity has focused on making people feel guilty.   The formula for finding Christian faith in revivalism, which started about two hundred years ago, starts with making people feel as guilty as possible.  Some churches made card playing, dancing and consumption of alcohol into sins in part to make people feel guilty.  So many people participated in these activities that it was easy to hold them up and make a large group of people feel guilty. 

            When Evangelists had people feeling guilty then they offered them the forgiveness of Christ.  Christ was a means to overcoming these sins.  They could feel good about themselves when they had quit their habits. 

            The repentance that we find in the New Testament seems to me quite a different process.  The Gospel focuses on the wonder, glory, and joy found in the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ.  We are to turn from our sins and mistakes in order to receive something better, something more fulfilling which is the love of Christ itself.

            When my friends and I took the wrong turn we were eager to turn around and head in the right direction.  We felt this way not because we hated the thought of crossing the Hudson River. Our motive for changing direction was positive.  We wanted to arrive home for Christmas.  

            So John the Baptist calls on us to turn from our sin in order that we might turn towards Jesus.

            New beginnings are possible when we turn from our sin and towards Jesus.  Listen to these words from a Chaplin who served in Iraq: 

In a service last month I was given the words of invitation to the Lord’s Supper.  I explained that this sacrament is for believers in Jesus Christ and for those who want to know the gracious love of God the Father.  I went on to say that we come to the table not because we are good, but because God is good.  Even if you have done bad things in the past come ask for forgiveness and be made new in Christ.

When the service was over, a young Sergeant came up to me with tears in her eyes.  I knew her from Bible Studies that I had led that she was a new believer.  What I didn’t know served as a powerful reminder of the sacred calling I have as Chaplin.  She told me that this was the first time she had ever taken communion!  She didn’t grow up attending church and she had lived a hard life.  That night, she didn’t feel worthy to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  When I explained that communion is open to all believers who sincerely want to experience Christ’s love, regardless of a sinful past, she felt compelled to come forward.

            This month, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, may we always remember the reason why he came: to deliver us from the bondage of our past life, and to restore us, renew us and give us hope.

            John the Baptist calls on us to turn away from all those things which lead us away from God.  He tells us to turn away from those things of the world that cannot satisfy us to the one who promises to feed us with his love.  He tells us to empty our hands that we might receive the gift of God himself. 

            During this Advent Season may we take a look at our lives and turn away from those things that lead us down dead ends.  You and I have made false turns and taken detours in our lives.  It is possible for us to change direction.  We can turn from our mistakes, sins and oversights and turn to Jesus who promises us forgiveness, acceptance and joy, both in this life and in the world to come.

            On this Third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist asks us this simple question-

             In what direction are you heading?

                        Are you moving towards God?

                                     Or are you drifting away from Him? 

             If you are moving away turn around-

                        change direction and         

                                    discover Christ anew.