This is a sermon for Advent 2 based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
In this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ We also hear the voice of Isaiah giving us his vision of the Kingdom of heaven: It’s a place where the wolf and the lamb live together and where God’s judgement results in equity for the poor and meek.
John the Baptist is not a cuddly character and his message this morning is not a cuddly message. The ordinary people of Jerusalem and Judea come to him to repent and to be baptised, but when the Pharisees and Sadducees come for baptism, he proclaims: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!’ For those of us who suspect that we may have some Pharisaicial tendencies ourselves, this can make for uncomfortable reading.
The American Christian author Frederick Buechner has this to say about the process of repentance: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'"1
This morning, I want to think about this idea of looking at the future and saying ‘Wow!’ Because I don’t think that repentance is so much about focussing on what it is that we shouldn’t be doing as it is a process of looking at what life can be like under the reign of God.
Especially in Advent, when we are looking forward to God himself coming to live with us, repentance is about catching a vision of what the Kingdom of God might look like. And once we’ve caught this vision, we are called to be contagious and infect others with it.
Prevention is not the Answer
I just want to put forward a brief defence of this process.
There are those who might say ‘Well, that’s all fine and good, but the problem with society today is that it has no morals, no ethics. What we really need to do is to stop people from sinning. We need to stop them drinking and gambling their time and money away. We need to stop them neglecting their children. We need to stop them committing adultery. And now that I’m talking about it, I need to concentrate on stopping my own besetting sins. I really need to make an effort to stop being easily angered, to stop being so selfish….or…you can fill in your own besetting sins.
Now here is a demonstration of why I think that thinking about repentance as focussing on stopping our sins won’t work. Are you ready for the demonstration?
OK. Whatever you do, I want you to not think about the colour blue. OK? Do not, under any circumstances think about the colour blue! And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey. And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey riding a camel. Worse and worse, do not think about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone!
OK, now, be honest. How many people are thinking right this moment about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone? And how many of you were thinking about that when you came to church this morning? ‘Gee, I hope the preacher doesn’t talk about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone! I’m trying to give that up for Advent.’
The human mind doesn’t do very well at the task of not concentrating on something specific and that’s why this technique doesn’t work very well. And it’s for this reason that I believe that trying to promote the Kingdom of God by making a list of sins that we ought not to be committing is a completely ineffective approach to spreading the Gospel.
Methodism and The Kingdom of God
Now, there are many people, particularly outside the church, who think that this is exactly what the church does: that we preach against sin all the time.
But, I don’t actually think that Methodism has a tradition of doing this. Preaching against specific sins isn’t something that I’ve particularly encountered in Methodism. I’m sure that there are exceptions – there always are – but that’s not historically been the way we’ve approached the Gospel.
Historically, I think that the Methodist Church has approached the Gospel message by painting a picture of the Kingdom of God. And, at the beginning, at least, I think we not only painted this picture of the Kingdom, but we lived it out.
Methodism did catch a glimpse of a picture of the Kingdom and it was successful in being contagious with it.
Travelling preachers didn’t preach and then call for people to get down on their knees right there in the street and accept Jesus as their saviour. Early Methodist travelling preachers invited their listeners to join Methodist classes and it was within these classes that people gradually came to Christ in the company of Christian brothers and sisters.
These were often people who were considered to be so poor and so unfit to mingle with polite society that they were not fit to go to church. Suddenly, here come the Methodist societies saying: ‘You are welcome in our classes and you are welcome in our chapels. God is the God of everyone and he’s your God too.’
Illiterate people who were simply considered fodder for the mines and the factories were given the opportunity to learn to read and their children were given the same opportunity. People whose lives were viewed by polite society as expendable were told that they were of as much value to God as anyone else. All of this, I believe, was an acting-out of a vision of the Kingdom of God.
True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'" (Buechner)
The Kingdom of God, 101
So, as I often do, I bring to you this morning a question for which I don’t necessarily have my own answer. That question is ‘How can we look out into the future and say “Wow!”’
Because I don’t really agree with those who say the Church has lost its way because it no longer preaches about sin. I think that the Church has lost its way because it no longer has a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.
Whatever we in the 21st century might think, the authors of Scripture thought that the Kingdom of God was going to be a literal, physical Kingdom. Jesus’ contemporaries thought that Jesus would return in their own lifetime and inaugurate this Kingdom. And ever since that first generation passed away, the Church has had to make sense of the fact that this has not yet happened.
Add to all of the above the baggage of our own generation and all the Second Coming predictions of wacky Christian sects (mostly American, of course) and it’s easy to see why we no longer have a clear vision of the Kingdom. The Kingdom seems rather embarrassing and somewhat superstitious.
But over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, we are told that in the Kingdom there will be two important things: 1) peace (Shalom) – there will be forgiveness and reconciliation, not just between God and humanity but also between people and, indeed peace in all creation; 2) and there will be justice for the poor, the meek and the oppressed. Their lives will be redeemed and seen to be of worth.
This was the vision of the Kingdom that fired John and Charles Wesley. They were worried about their own eternal, spiritual salvation to be sure, but they also had and communicated a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.
What makes you say Wow?
So what is it that makes us say ‘Wow!’? What will help us get a clear vision of The Kingdom? I suggest that this is an important question for every church in this circuit and for the circuit as a whole?
I want to leave you with one concrete example of something that made me say ‘Wow!’ Last week at Foley Park, we had a young woman named G come speak to us from an organisation called ‘Night Stop’.
Night Stop operates within the Wyre Forest District and it finds beds for homeless young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Volunteer hosts offer Night Stop’s clients a bed and meals in their own homes for between one and three nights until Night Stop can find them accommodation elsewhere.
G told us that a great many of these young people are homeless because they have been kicked out of the house by their parents. A good many of them are kicked out because their mother or father gets a new partner who doesn’t want them around and their parent sides with the new partner.
Someone asked about whether it was safe to take such a young person into their home and G told us that the clients are all vetted for suitability before being sent to host families. In fact, she said, many of the young people are suspicious of the hosts simply because they cannot understand the idea that a complete stranger would take them in for a few nights. This sort of kindness is something totally outside their experience.
She read to us a story written by one young woman who was taken in by Night Stop and who now works for them. Night Stop provided that young woman with the opportunity to make a new start and get her feet on the ground and feel like a worthwhile person. In turn, she wanted to help others in the same way.
Night Stop made me say ‘Wow!’ because I think it embodies everything that the Prophets and Jesus had to say about God’s Kingdom. It’s an example of human beings reaching out to other human beings. It provides young people with the possibility of turning their lives around and it is the embodiment of a ‘poor’ person finding some kind of justice and help. I think it is a small glimpse into the Kingdom of God.
As we go from our worship this morning, I want to invite all of us to repent. Or, as Frederick Buechner put it, I want to invite all of us to come to our senses and think about what is really important.
I want to invite us to spend less time being sorry about what has happened in the past and to spend more time thinking about what God is doing in the world that makes us say ‘Wow!’ And I want us to think about what it is that makes us say ‘Wow’! What makes us say ‘Wow’ as a circuit? As individual congregations and even as individual church members?
Is there something someone else in this church is doing that makes you say ‘Wow! I wish I could do that, but I can’t.’? Perhaps you can support that person in their ministry.
My prayer this morning is that each and every one of us will catch a vision of God’s Kingdom. I pray that we will be so enthused by this vision that we will say ‘Wow!’ and communicate our enthusiasm to others.
In the words of John the Baptist, my prayer is that, this Advent, we are all enabled to repent, because I believe that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near. Amen
1 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC; HarperOne, 1993, New York p. 79.