12.06.15 Sermon (December 6, 2015) “Crying in the Wilderness”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:59 PM by David Hawkins
Scripture: Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Sermon: “Crying in the Wilderness”

‘Tis the season, to be just a little bit frazzled around the edges. There’s lots of things to take care of: lots of parties, lots of end of year meetings; lots of things to finish before the new year starts: trees to set up, presents to buy, session meetings to go to after church, all kinds of things to think about this time of year. 

On top of all that, we got guests coming over, family members staying for the holidays, we’ve got to clean house. There’s a lot to do this time of year as we get ready for Christmas. It can be overwhelming.

As I said last week, it can seem like the church is a little bit out of step with the rest of the world, sometimes, with Advent season. The world has firmly launched into the Christmas madness, but here we are, with John the Baptist, out in the wilderness. 

The world is singing about candy canes and sugar plum fairies, and we’re camping in the desert with someone who prefers kosher grasshoppers and wild honey. Everywhere we look, we see Santa’s decked out in their plush red velvet bathrobes and black rain boots, but our scripture is asking us to think about a wild-eyed prophet dressed in camel hair. 

It doesn’t seem fair. We’re just not in sync with everybody else. 

And John the Baptist is not singing Christmas carols at us. At least not the kind we’re familiar with. He’s not singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” or “Away in a Manger.” There is no gentle babe, no mother Mary, meek and mild. No, John is singing a different song entirely. 

Thunder in the desert!

“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out, 
All the ruts paved over,
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.” 

This is a completely different tune than what we hear playing over the loudspeakers at the mall, isn’t it? Instead of peace on earth, John is preaching repent of your sins. Instead of angels on high, it’s get ready, something big is about to happen.  Instead of “Silent Night”, it’s thunder in the desert.

And this tune is not as comforting as the Christmas carols we hear playing all around us. This song reminds us that there is more to the arrival of Jesus that good feelings and warm fuzzies. Because if God really is coming into the world, there are things we need to do in order to get our spiritual house in order.  And that’s what this scripture is all about.

I mean, that’s what we would do for anybody else, right? If we’ve got a special guest coming over to our house, we spend some time making sure we’re tidied up some, we’ve at least gotten rid of the dirty dishes in the sink, we’ve swept, vacuumed, mopped, taken out the trash. 

When we receive a guest into our house, we do what we can to make them feel welcome, comfortable. We get rid of those things that get in the way of a good conversation, of creating a homey atmosphere. These are the things that any host does when entertaining a guest. It’s a normal thing, even expected. 

John is telling us that a guest is coming, and it’s time to get ready for him. It’s time to clean up around the house, it’s time to take a look at some of the dark corners of our souls. It’s time to repent.

You know, this whole business of repentance is a difficult thing. We have heard too much from fire and brimstone preachers about how repentance is required for salvation. That if you don’t repent, you’re going to hell. 

 I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that repentance is required for salvation. I believe that God is going to save whomever God is going to save, for God’s own reasons. I don’t believe that we can force God to save us with our words, nor do I believe that God cannot save us if we don’t repent. God is God, he can do what he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. 

Having said that, I do believe that there is something salvific about repentance. In fact, I believe that repentance itself is a result of salvation. There is something graceful about saying, “I’m sorry.” It requires tremendous trust and humility to say I’m sorry. It makes you vulnerable. And true repentance requires a change of heart, a complete reversal of attitude. It’s not an easy thing to repent.  And here’s the thing: it can’t be coerced, it can’t be forced, it can’t be manipulated. Repentance itself is an act of grace, something that is given to us, something beyond our own ability to do. We depend on God for repentance as much as we do for forgiveness. In repentance, we are quite literally, ‘saved’ from sin.

And, more importantly, I believe that if we truly do repent, that if we truly cry out to God with all our heart for forgiveness, that we are forgiven. I absolutely believe with all my heart that God hears our pleas for his love and his acceptance. God will not deny the prayer of penitent heart. 

Now maybe, just maybe, it would be easier for the world to think about repentance if we, as the recipients of God’s grace, would think more about what it means to forgive. It seems that we hear much more about our duty to repent than we do about our duty to forgive. I would go so far as to say that if we forgave more, maybe it would be easier to repent. It’s just a thought.  

 But, let’s come back to John, crying in the wilderness. John knows that God is coming, and he’s trying to get the world ready. He’s trying to get his people to clean house, to repent, to prepare to host the most important guest they will ever know. 

And, if you think about it, he wasn’t completely successful. He didn’t quite get the job done. Sure, there were thousands baptized. Sure, many, many people took the time to think about their lives, and made changes. Many people started looking for the Messiah, and some were ready to hear the things that Jesus would preach. A few of them even become his disciples.

But in the larger scheme of things, the world could care less. Most of the world didn’t blink, it didn’t repent, it didn’t change one bit. Most of the world just kept on trucking the way it always did.

But here’s the thing about God.

He came anyway. 

John was called to do certain thing, and he did it as well as he could. But God’s mission to save the world was not dependent on John. 

Some of the world made changes, most of it didn’t. Some of the people made themselves ready for Jesus, most didn’t. Jesus came for everybody, anyway. 

And this, I think, is the message of Advent. 

Get ready. Do what you can to examine your lives. Prepare your hearts for Jesus. Think about the way your life impacts those around you. Repent. Forgive. 

But ready or not, Jesus is coming. 

Each of us, I think, has had a moment of crying in the wilderness. Each of us has wondered at the state of the world, the fear, the chaos, especially on this day following yet another day of terror in California. Each of us has wondered if God really was listening. Each of us has needed to hear reassurance, forgiveness, love, from friends, from family, from God. 

But I don’t think there is anybody here who really thinks that their hearts are pure enough to see Jesus, should he appear in front of us today. If you do, God bless you, I envy your faith. I mean, I want him to come today, absolutely. But I know that there is some stuff in my life that I would be hard pressed to explain. 

But this is what this scripture is all about. John is advising us to get our spiritual houses ready to receive him as a guest, and recognizing, that regardless of what we do, it can never be enough, and you know what, that’s OK. God will take it the rest of the way.

Because the reality is, this Christmas season, no matter how much we work at it, our house may not be perfect when our guests arrive. There still may be some clutter on the countertops. The hall closet might be a mess. Let’s not even talk about the teenage son’s room upstairs. 

But here’s the deal: no matter how much we do, or don’t do, no matter how much we repent, or don’t repent, no matter how much we pray, or don’t pray, clean or don’t clean, sweep or don’t sweep, whether we are completely ready or not, Jesus is coming anyway. 

And it’s going to be a party when he gets here.