"Being Prepared: Seeking the Peace of God"
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
Sermon by Rev Martin Ambler
Sometime back, I came across a description of what it would be like to live in a perfect world. Here are a few of the thoughts.
- In a Perfect World a person should feel as good at 50 as he did at 17, and they would actually be as smart at 50 as they thought they were at 17.
- In a Perfect World professional football players would complain about teachers being paid contracts worth millions of pounds.
- In a Perfect World the post would always be early, the cheque would always be in the post, and it would be written for more than you expected.
- In a Perfect World crisps might have calories, but if you ate them with dip, the calories would be neutralized.
- In a Perfect World every once in a while at least, a child who always closed the door softly would be told, "Go back and slam the door."
I believe we all long for a perfect world - or for a world that is at least a bit better than this one.
The good news of our faith is that there is a better world coming - a perfect world - a world located right here - a world made up of things that we can see and touch.
Isaiah the prophet announced the coming of that world as part of his Messianic vision:
"A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse," he writes, "from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord."
Isaiah goes on to describe how this child of David - this child of God - will judge or rule the world - Then he adds, as we heard earlier:
"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them..."
There is more - but all in all what Isaiah describes is a perfect world, a world of peace; a world of justice; a world of harmony.
It is the testimony of both the Old Testament and the New that one day that perfect world will come to pass.
But meanwhile - both Testaments are clear that the time of universal peace - the time when God rules over all that exists here - is not yet. That the gift that some seek to build for themselves with science and technology - with commerce and finance - is yet to come - that it is the final gift that God will bestow - a gift that God will bestow when we are ready to receive it.
How do we prepare for God’s gift to us of a perfect world?
So how do we get ready for this world? How do we prepare to receive God's gift? How do we hurry up the process of receiving what God wants to give us?
The biblical answer is clear - we bring closer the kingdom of God, - in fact we begin to sense it, to partake of it, to participate in it and to spread it around to others before it arrives in its fullness - when we accept another gift of God - the gift of repentance
Repentance is the gift of turning about and acknowledging our need for God's help, of confessing our sinfulness and then being able to start afresh - walking in the path that God shows us.
In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, Calvin says to Hobbes, "I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I'm sorry I did it".
"Maybe you should apologize to her," Hobbes suggests.
Calvin ponders this for a moment and then replies, "I keep hoping there's a less obvious solution."
One of the interesting realities of life is that God has given us an obvious solution to one of our greatest problems - our lack of peace - that peace which should be within us - and that peace that should exist outside us.
God has given us an obvious solution - but often we're tempted to avoid that solution and seek something a little more obscure.
John the Baptist comes on the biblical scene as something of a throwback. He's a figure out of an earlier age. You probably wouldn't want him at one of your Christmas parties. He's a disaster zone, with his camel leather clothes and his matted hair. But, almost with humour, Matthew tells us that all Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear him.
I wonder why? I wonder if you and I would have gone. I think we might have.
I think we might have because John had a profound gift; the same sort of gift that Jesus had. He had a gift of cutting through the advertising jargon, the new age nonsense and the quasi- scientific psychobabble, and telling people the truth. And something in us ultimately prefers the truth over comfortable lies.
Repentance is the key
John's message can be reduced to one word, "repent".
Jesus' message, in large measure can be reduced to three words, "repent and believe".
Both of Jesus and John used the word repent, neither of them explained what they meant by it. So I have to conclude that they believed their audiences knew what they meant. When Jesus or John said "repent" their listeners got the picture. Do we? I wonder?
When I use words like "confession", "sin" and "repentance" what comes to mind?
Most of us have a fairly high degree of resistance to any of those words. Either they create bad images of the worst of church experiences or else we've heard them so often that they lack any energy; they just fall off our tongues and lie there at the end of the pew, feebly waving their arms but unable to engage us.
Too many people hear those words and think of a formula, a religious routine, perhaps on bended knee. We tell God we're sorry for what we've done and God dispenses forgiveness and then we continue on as we did.
Repentance is more than just saying sorry
If that's what repentance means then there is no way that John or Jesus or the living word of Almighty God will ever get through to us.
So forget for a few moments that you've ever heard the words confession and sin and repentance or ever participated in those acts. Listen again, as if for the first time, to one crying in the wilderness this advent season to make straight the royal road.
Let me ask you a simple question: "what, at its most basic is Christianity all about?"
I would answer that it's about relationships - with God and with my neighbour. The two are inseparably tied together. We prove the reality of one by the quality of the other.
We prove the reality of our relationship with God with the quality of our relationships with our neighbours
How we answer that question "what's Christianity about" is really important because that gives us the clue to the next question "what is sin"?
Again, a simple answer; sin is the straining of or the breaking of our relationship with God. So, when I confess, what I'm doing is admitting or acknowledging that my relationship with God, my relationship with my neighbour, is not all it can be.
That shouldn't strike you as being all that revolutionary a thought! It's simply acknowledging what I know to be true. I don't always live up to my own standards. Forget any talk about what I "should do" or what I "ought to do"
I don't always manage what I know I can do! I'm not always the Christian I can be. Heaven knows, I'm not always the husband, the father, the brother, the friend, I can be. I'm not always the minister I can be. That shouldn't be particularly surprising - about you or about me.
Those relationships are a key to understanding who I am. When I am less than I can be, I strain them and break them. The bible calls that sin (singular).
What we call sins (plural) are all the many different ways that we strain and break relationships.
The doctrine of sin is a very profound insight into our human condition
The doctrine of Sin is not simply old-fashioned prudery that wants to deny us any fun. It's a very profound insight into our human condition. And, ultimately, it's a hopeful statement -- because God is not prepared to leave us in our mess.
God wants us to have his peace and to spread his peace.
• That is why he sent the prophets to Israel,
• And that is why he sent John to prepare the way for Jesus in our lives,
• And that is why he pours out the Holy Spirit upon us.
God wants us to have and to live new lives, as citizens of his kingdom of peace.
What does repentance really mean?
So then, what is "repentance"?
Repentance is a gift of God, a gift that can go into every part of our life. It is the announcement that we don't have to go on forever repeating the same tired mistakes, crying the same bitter tears, falling into the same worn traps. That's what repentance means.
1. Repentance is a change of direction: First of all repentance means a break with the past, a change in direction. It's active not passive. In other words if we're driving East out of Bournemouth on the spur road and we want to get to Weymouth we have to repent of our direction, we have to change, or we won't get to our destination.
Thinking about it, discussing it, creating a committee to study it, feeling sorry about it won't change anything.
Feeling sorry or regretful sitting in church is only a very preliminary first step. It's the step of looking; of looking in the right direction - of knowing what way to turn - but it needs more - it needs another step - which leads us to the second thing concerning what repentance is.
2. Repentance is something we live out - each day: We live out repentance each and every day, not by being sour, dour and mournful - but by seeking to do what God tells us to do through the scriptures - by trying to do what God urges us to do in the quiet depths of our heart.
Notice though, what John tells people to do.
➢ He doesn't say, “get a camel leather wardrobe like mine.”
➢ He doesn't say, “switch your diet for mine.”
➢ He doesn't say, “grow a beard like mine.”
➢ He says, “please God in the work you do each and every day.”
Please God in the work you do each and every day
Repentant people are real people, not plaster saints or sticky, holier than thou caricatures of humanity. They are real people, taking responsibility for their lives because they know that God has promised to help us make the changes we know ought to be made.
But we have to make the choice to take the gift. The Christmas season is a time of giving gifts.
Imagine that sometime in the next week a friend comes to your home or office and knocks on the door. You open the door and they're standing there with a package in their hands.
What's the first thing you say? "For me?”
“No, it's not for you, I always wander around with gift-wrapped packages - of course it's for you!”
So we take it and put it on a table and try to carry on the conversation. Finally we ask "should I open it?" “Of course not dummy, I always give you presents just so you can admire the wrapping paper!”
But that's the key. For until we open a gift it remains nothing but potential. Until we open it, it retains an infinity of promise, but only promise.
John came to prepare the way for Jesus - the Prince of Peace. He came and offered a gift of God - a gift that enables us to meet God more fully; the gift of repentance.
Confession and repentance are the two keys to unlock both inner and outer peace
To confess, to repent, is often very difficult. Admitting our need for help - and believing that help is available - even for us, can be a hard thing to do - but it's the key to unlocking the future: a future of inner and of outer peace
- the peace promised long ago,
- the peace that Jesus brings even now to those who accept God's gift. The gift of peace that can transform the world and bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray.
Help us gracious God to accept and to unwrap the gifts you give us; especially we ask you to help us accept the gift of repentance:
- to acknowledge our deep and abiding need for you
- to confess that only you can help us find what we are looking for:
- That only you can help us repair our broken relationships
- That only you can lead us to the peace you want us to have the peace that both we and our world needs.
Lord, hear our prayer....
Help us God to be ready for the coming of your kingdom.
Help us to live each day according to your word, to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you.
Help us each day to confess our weakness, to reach out to those around us who are in need, to forgive others as you forgive us, to serve others as Christ has served us.
Help us each day to first praise you and thank you for your goodness, and to first ask what it is you want us to do, and help us then to do it.
Lord, hear our prayer....
We thank you God for your promise of a world of peace, for your
promise that Christ will reign and that he will judge favourably
for those who are poor and those who oppressed, that he will
smile upon those who are in need, and lift up those who are cast
down. Make us instruments of his grace and his power even now -
before his kingdom comes in its fullness -- make us people who
seek to bring your blessings of food and clothing - of shelter
and warmth, of care and of compassion, of justice and of mercy to
those who require it. Lord, hear our prayer....