Turning Again

Politically, it seems like the nation is ripping itself apart from within. The world is not as it should be and different factions are grabbing for control and stepping on one another to do it…And so crowds of people go out to see John in the wilderness to find out if HE might be the leader who will bring peace between the factions of Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, and more, and lead Israel out from under the thumb of Rome’s occupying power.
It feels like the world is falling apart to everyone and so even tax collectors and soldiers join the crowds making pilgrimage out to the wilderness looking for answers, or direction, or some kind of hope from this prophet, John.
Today we receive several new members and we are glad to welcome you and we know in your search for a congregational family you wanted to find a place with kind people, vibrant music, and a dynamic ministry….but preaching probably also matters and so it’s hard to imagine people wanting to join a community whose leader begins his preaching by insulting the people by calling them a Brood of Vipers… the progeny of pythons, or the children of snakes…serpent babies!…But the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding country are hot as the hinges to get out to the desert to hear this fiery sermonizing: John says, “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? You are to be a tree that bears fruits worthy of repentance! And if you aren’t a tree that bears fruit of repentance, know that God is readying his ax, to cut you down and throw you into the fire!”
They want to know what they are to do to prepare for this coming Day of Judgment. But this prophet of God defies the expectations of a preacher. He doesn’t tell them to do anything “religious.” He doesn’t tell them to pray, or to go to church, or even to ask for God’s forgiveness, but instead to ACT with kindness and friendship toward other people.He says to do three things: to share, to be fair, and don’t compare. To the CROWDS come to ask, “what should we do?” and he says to share: “If you have a coat and someone doesn’t, share one of yours… and if you have food and someone is hungry, share what you have.”The TAX COLLECTORS come to ask, “what should we do?” and he says to be fair: “Don’t collect more money than you’re supposed to, but just do your job fairly and collect what is prescribed by the law.” The SOLDIERS come to ask, “what should we do?” and he says, don’t compare: “be satisfied with your wages rather than worrying about who may have more or less, and do not try to take other peoples’ money, but simply accept what you have.”
John’s message is one of REPENTANCE…He tells us we are called to turn toward God and neighbor. “Repent” in Greek literally means to “turn around.” It doesn’t mean to have sorrow in your heart, or to feel sorry or ashamed, or to feel contrite and humble…but to turn around and change our direction. Like the crowds, the tax collectors, and the the soldiers, we are invited to turn again again toward God and neighbor.
We have the opportunity this time of year to REPENT and turn again toward God in gratitude for his goodness and all he has done for us. This is THE great gift of this season: A chance to remember again that the One who created us and gives us life, chose at a certain time, to be born into his own creation, in order to show us how to live – to help us find our direction and to give us hope.
When we look at the world and question in our hearts if there is any hope…we hear John’s words: THERE IS one coming with POWER who will baptize the world with the Holy Spirit and fire…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor by gathering the wheat and burning away the chaff with unquenchable fire.
This “wheat and chaff” image is a simple one – even for those who are unfamiliar: God will keep the good in the world. God will keep the corn and throw away the shucks, God will keep the nuts and get rid of the shells, or God will keep the present and throw away the wrapping paper, God will keep the letters and throw away the junk mail…God will keep the good in the world, and get rid of the rest: Jesus promises a day for us with No more cancer. No more sickness. No more suicide bombings. No more war. No more broken relationships. No more death. We will have life with God, friendship with one another, and all will be well.
Amazingly, John and Jesus tell us that we can point to this coming reality, even now: by turning again to God AND by turning toward our neighbor in acts of kindness and charity as an expression of God’s love…. As disciples of Jesus, We point to a reality that is to come…for a world that is often searching for hope.
For a couple months, as a congregation, we have been invited to turn and face the processional cross at the rear of the church at the end of our service. For me, this is a beautiful symbol of our greatest calling in life – to turn to face the One who is our Hope and who is the Hope of the whole world.
Jesus calls us INTO this community each week – to be gathered around the Word, to share in the supper, to take up a collection for the poor, to join our hearts in prayer… SO that the Holy Spirit can lead us back out into the world to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ.
We might ask the same question as the crowds, the tax-collectors, and the soldiers: What should we do? As we go out of here, Lord, what should we do?? It sometimes feels like the world is falling apart…what can we hope to DO about it? We are only a community of 300-400 people.
As the crowds were instructed: we can share – and we do, amazingly! We can be fair in the way we treat others. But also, we’re called to be like John, who knows it is not ultimately HIM that will save the world… instead, the One who will ultimately save the world is he One coming with the power of God, Jesus the Christ, who was crucified but is now alive forever and promises to return to set all things right.
All our sharing, caring, fairness, and preparing…point to him. So daily, we want to look, not to ourselves…but to Christ and to the cross. So, let’s do something today. Can you help? Even if it’s only for today. As a witness to our calling, When the processional cross comes by you today during our last hymn, would you turn and face the cross as it moves towards the back? It will look like a wave, from the front to the back, as we turn together, keeping our eyes on the cross. Let it be a reminder today, that we are looking forward to the coming of Jesus, God’s crucified and living Messiah and that Great Day when all heaven and earth; fields, floods, rocks, hills, plains, and EVEN the nations of the world will join the song of joy for the one who comes with the power of God and the wonder of his love.
As we follow the cross today, let it be a sign that while the world is NOT as it should be…it WILL BE. And we are looking to the One who will make it so.