The podium stood front and center. It was an imposing structure and had been transported from the Motor City to a southern university to accommodate the request of the Lee Iaococa. After successfully turning around Chrysler, Iaococa was invited to deliver a commencement address. He strolled to the platform with his usual flair of fixed determination. Looking out upon the sea of faces he paused for a moment to savor the moment. He then said, “Now, the only thing standing between you and your diploma is me!”
Those words are also a fitting description of the season of Advent because the season stands in our way. We want to get to Christmas and the Christ-child. We want to join the commercialized holiday celebrations but Advent just seems to prevent it. We are told it is a season of preparing and waiting. We do not want to wait. We want to drink our eggnog and unwrap our presents now. We want to sing our Christmas carols and smooch under the mistletoe now but Advent is designed to make us wait. And today we are to use our time of waiting to listen to the message of John the Baptist.
Now there's a holiday kind of guy. John the Baptist is probably the only person with lower approval ratings than President Bush. It could either be his clothing or his diet. Camel skinned outer garments seem a little harsh and wild locust just do not compliment the holiday cookies. Then there is his message. I could just see Hallmark putting that on a holiday greeting card—REPENT.
While the Baptist may seem a bit abrupt and abrasive, his message is the message of Advent. His message is the message that is standing in our way. Unless we are willing to deal with the message of the Baptist, we really cannot get to the Christ-child. We may celebrate a secularized version of the holidays complete with our manger scene and the little baby. We may hang our wreaths and decorate our tree. We may sing our carols and read the story but the traditional rituals are poor substitutes for an authentic celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world. Unless we are willing to deal with repentance, God is nothing more than a poorly shaped figurine.
The word repentance seems so out of place for some. They consider it archaic because it conjures up images of Medieval monks lacerating their bodies to rid themselves of a petty little impious thought. Others think that it should be reserved for those hardened criminals who have broken the law through a series of violent crimes. The word just does not appear to fit us good church folk. We are hard working people. We are good citizens, decent neighbors who occasionally volunteer our time. Why do we need with this message of repentance?
John the Baptist would have replied that without repentance, there can be no forgiveness. The psalmist captured the thought, While I kept silent, my bones wasted away. The author painfully discovered that his sin created a barrier of separation between God and himself. He could not know the reassurance of God presence so long as he refused to acknowledge his own disobedience. By turning a blind eye to his sin, he was also turning a deaf ear to God's voice of love.
God had another reason for sending his son other than adorning a Hallmark greeting card. One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Holy Night.” The first verse opens with some lovely lyrics that capture that beauty of Christmas Eve night:
O holy night
Those are the images that we like to think about. A quiet tranquil evening. The night sky adorned with stars. A mother cradling her child in her arms. But the song goes on to explain why that dear Savior had to be born
Long lay the world
In his sci-fi fantasies, C.S. Lewis called earth the bent planet. Something is wrong with the inhabitants of planet earth. The Scriptures call it sin and because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, before we can celebrate that savior's birth, we must be willing to come to grips with our need for repentance.
Repentance first requires acknowledging that we have made a mistake. We have done something wrong. We have committed an offense. This is not an easy assignment. Mark Galli, editor for Christianity Today noticed this resistance when he compared President Bush's Thanksgiving Proclamation to that of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The first presidential proclamation encouraged the nation “'...to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, 'to render to God' our sincere and humble thanks." Then he exhorted the citizens of the newly formed nation to call upon "the great Lord and Ruler of Nations" that he might "pardon our national and other transgressions."
President Lincoln echoed this theme of repentance in his proclamation of 1863. He wrote that the people should remember the gracious gifts of the Most High God who seemed also to be dealing with us in anger for our sins. He also asked the nation to pray for "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers," doing so "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."
In his presidential proclamation following 911, President Bush followed the model of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. He called upon the nation to give thanks for the blessings of God. He mentioned the sacrifices, leadership, and faith shown by many during the most recent national crisis. He also reminded the people of our dependency upon God and encouraged us to pray with thanksgiving and humility. Noticeably absent from this speech was any “...sense that our national crisis was part of God's inscrutable judgment, no talk of repentance, no plea for contrition for national sin.”
The president's proclamation was reflective of our national sentiment. We do not want to admit that we have done wrong. We do not want to consider that we deserve God's judgment. We prefer to singing our lovely carols, play our little toy drum, and admire our cute nativity scenes without thinking about the consequences. But John the Baptist gets in our way and he will not let us get to Bethlehem until we first journey into the desert to hear is call to repentance.
The Baptist's message challenges us first to examine are lives and thereby identify attitudes and actions that are contradictions and denials of the Gospel. Self examination is not an easy task. When we consider our behavior, we are first inclined to avoid admitting that we have done wrong. We make excuse. We defend our actions. However, God cannot heal the pain of our heart that produced the sin until we are willing to admit our wrong doing.
If repentance begins with acknowledging our sin, it is not completed until we have produced a change in our behavior. Repentance requires more than just changing one's mind. It also involves changing one's heart. Once again we come to a delicate subject in Protestant theology. Since the Reformation we have been careful to avoid assigning too much responsibility for holy living with the person to avoid legalism and a works righteous mentality. God is both the author and finisher of faith. However, without an active participant, God cannot bring to completion the God work that he has begun in us. Repentance requires human participation in the activity of God.
Repentance is difficult work. Maybe that is why John called people into the desert. He knew that they would be distracted by the normal routines. He knew that they would be tempted by the activities of live to abandon their good intentions. Maybe that's why the secular culture wants to remove Christ from Christmas. Unconsciously the world knows that before it can get to Christ, it must go through the desert to listen to John's message of repentance.
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