I departed a bit from my prepared text as I preached it yesterday. I have included some of my ad-lib remarks, and though those inclusions might not be my exact word - they represent well what I was trying to day.
Sermon for 6th December 2009. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea Church, Longboat Key,FL
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
“Go to hell!” I’ve often wanted to yell that at some person who has wronged, annoyed or hurt me. In fact, I have yelled it, usually from the safety of my car, when some idiot or other has cut me off, or forced me in to another lane. If the car that has cut me off has one of those “Jesus” symbols, then I want to call out “repent you hypocrite"
“Go to hell” is a fairly safe imprecation, for after all, we no longer believe in hell. Perhaps we believe that there is some dark corner of the universe reserved for serial murderers and rapists, or for monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and their many acolytes.
But on the whole we are optimistic universalists about what happens after death. We believe in a God of love who will welcome everyone into heaven.
Earlier generation of Christians were less starry eyed than we; less sentimental than we. For you see, they saw Advent simply not as the Christian way of getting ready for the birth of the baby Jesus, but as a Christian call to be prepared for what they called the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
So it is that advent scriptures call us to a way of life which anticipates both judgement and death. That way of life has to do with repentance. Luke tells us that John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance. We must be clear that repentance has little to do with remorse or guilt, or feeling sorry. Repentance in John the Baptist’s preaching is a call to a new way of living.
Repentance is all about the way we are walking through life. To live as if repentance did not matter is to be always walking away from God. The unrepentant state is to turn our backs on God.
But to live in a repentant way is to have a desire and intention to walk towards God.
But because of our understandable busyness; or because of our diversions through triviality; or because of the hubris which whispers that “it all depends on us”; or because of our wilful sin we sometimes find ourselves to be walking backwards.
That is why Christian living is filled with necessary course corrections. These course corrections are rooted in our deep conviction that walking towards God is walking towards life. We call them repentance.
We are not always present to the need for these course corrections because we have convinced ourselves that everything is “fine”. Have you noticed that “I am fine” is now the preferred response when we ask another person “how are you?” That person may well be in the deepest turmoil, confusion or sadness, yet she or he will insist that “I’m fine”.
Truth to tell it is often some catastrophic event, or the threat of such an event, which force us to think about why we are not fine.
Just over a year ago our national economy and the world economic system seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Can you remember how it felt? Most of us were filled with anxiety and with foreboding. That crisis brought death and judgement to many of our lives.
There was, and still is, the death of many of our cherished dreams and hopes which utterly depended on a buoyant and growing economy.
Maybe there was also judgement. This judgement was not forced upon us from outside. Rather it was our own self judgment - perhaps better understood as “self critique”.
That self judgment made us ask “who will I be and how will I act if the whole system goes belly-up?” It also raised the question “were the dreams which died worth having in the first place?”
That 2008 crisis is by no means resolved. It is still with us. Matters could yet get worse. We could have a field day were we to argue about the most desirable political and economic ways forward. I would argue with the best of us!
Yet that debate, however necessary, might deafen us to the call of scripture to repent. And it is never “they” who are called to repentance; it is always “we”.
The gospel last Sunday included these words from Luke chapter 21 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the context those words most likely had to do with the “end of the world” which occurred for the residents of Judaea and Jerusalem when the Romans wrought havoc on what had been a rebellious province, and tore Jerusalem to the ground.
Those scriptures have a renewed meaning for us. We too experience fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. But note what Luke does NOT say. He does not say “run and hide” in cataclysmic days. Instead he says “stand up and raise your heads for your redemption is drawing near”. Scripture is assuring us that when we “stand up and raise our heads” we are defiantly facing the unknown future, knowing that our future will be filled with God.
It’s another way of expressing repentance.
Non-repentance is to run and hide in the face of adversity – and in doing so to run and hide from God.
Repentance is to stand up, raise our heads, and walk with confidence and hope towards the source of our life, which is God.