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Growing up it seemed that every child learned the story of The Little Engine That Could. We all know the story, the little train continued to fail to climb a steep hill until it learned to say those words, “I think I can.” With each repetition of these words the train would spew out more steam. The little train would gain more momentum until finally it climbed to the top of the hill shouting the words, “I think I can, I think I can.” These words are ingrained in the American psyche. In this “can do” society, we want to accomplish good things in life. We feel a calling in life to develop certain gifts and achieve certain goals. Our search for the right attitudes, the right skills, and for the right perspective has been elevated everywhere in society. Yet the fact that we can do something does not answer the question why we do something.
With that said, imagine hearing for the first time John the Baptist’s message. I suspect if we saw someone clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist eating locusts and wild honey we would not be too receptive to his message thinking they might have just one oar in the water if you know what I mean! Yet John the Baptist is the very voice of Advent. I wonder if people really understood John when he declared that his mission was to:
“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (Mark 1:3)
Fewer I bet understood him when he said,
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. (Mark1:7)
There must have been complete confusion when he said:
“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. (Mark 1:8)
And among those who believed in him I wonder how they responded to the words “repent and be baptized” This command that we repent seems to imply that we are able to repent. We hear the command and respond like the little train, “I think I can, I think I can” yet is repentance that easy? The late author and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote the following about repentance in his book Mere Christianity: Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms… This process of surrender-this movement full speed astern-is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.
If we stop to reflect upon the world we live in and examine our lives honestly, repentance is one of our most difficult tasks, yet John the Baptist says this is something we must do. An old Chinese proverb tells us, that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step. John came to point out what that first step must be. He said that the way for Jesus must be prepared. This way was not simply a highway in the desert, but rather a highway in our hearts, a direction and a step we must take.
As we speak of direction in life, there is a story about a University professor who went to visit a great spiritual leader in the community who served as the chaplain for University faculty. “Reverend he said, Teach me what I need to know to have a happy life. I have studied the sacred scriptures. I have visited the greatest teachers in the land. I have not found the answer. Please teach me the way.” The chaplain stood up and began to serve tea to his guest. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring and pouring so that the tea began to run over the rim of the cup and across the table, and still he poured, until tea was flowing upon the floor. The professor watched this until he could no longer restrain himself. He shouted, “It’s too full, stop, no more will go in!” “Like this cup”, the chaplain said, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you the way unless you first empty your cup?” In a similar way, how can we welcome Christ, how can we enter into a closer relationship with him, if we have not emptied our hearts through repentance? John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by encouraging people to repent. The word repent is a word we hear often around the Church Season of Lent but do we really pay attention to the meaning of this word? What does the word repent mean? Quite simply it means to “turn around” to change direction, to face a new way, a U-turn on the road of life. To repent means we must begin to walk a new way, leaving the old way behind. Much as the professor had to empty himself to learn the way of happiness, so each of us must change direction if we are to move from the wilderness into the Promised Land. I believe that all of us in some way are in a wilderness. It is not what is outside that defines our wilderness rather it is what is inside contained in our hearts, created by our actions or inactions. I’ve often heard others say that being too busy creates a wilderness experience in their lives.
During this busy season of Advent hours of shopping and finishing those Christmas to do lists, meetings and parties to attend can exhaust us physically, emotionally and even spiritually. Perhaps many of us are feeling this way today. We have worked a full week, spent some of our free time running errands, doing chores around the house transporting children here and there and now we have come to Church today. In this busy season we start feeling anxious and pressured. Pressure comes from the places where we work, the stores where we shop to the constant rings of advertisements on billboards or our car radios. We are pressured to be happy, to be full of cheer, to enjoy ourselves, even when we are too tired. We feel compelled to spend money we do not have charging up great debts so that our families and friends can have toys and gadgets that they do not really need. We are hounded by appeals for this and that charity, and we are asked to work harder and longer as we near the close of the year 2017.
In this time of Advent, we need to discover a way to escape and come to a place where there is rest. I would like to suggest one way in which we might prepare to combat our busy lives this season. This suggestion came from the late Roy Bonisteel in a column he wrote many years ago. Roy Bonisteel entertained, challenged and enlightened millions of Canadians throughout his years in journalism. Some say that he was the Paul Harvey of Canada. He is best known for his twenty-two years as host of “Man Alive.” His compassionate and open-minded interviewing style made him and the program one of the most respected on Canadian television. His program often concerned itself with matters of human spirituality and the search for meaning and dignity in life.
In one particular column, Bonisteel offered his readers a U-Turn in how we approach the Advent and Christmas season. His suggestion was that instead of doing more things during Advent and Christmas, we might do less that we might slow down, and relax a little more. He wrote, “These days of Christmas are too precious to spend marching to other people’s tunes. It is a month to say “NO”. Are there things in your life you would like to say “no” to this time of the year? Some of us would like to say “no” to meetings that can just as well be put off until January. “No” to invitations that we will dread when the date arrives. “No” to demands that take us away from our home. As Bonisteel suggested, when we say “NO” to certain things this allows us to say, “YES” to other things. “Yes” to trying out that new Christmas recipe. “Yes” to reconnecting with neglected friends and relatives. “Yes” to sharing Christmas stories from our past and singing the beautiful songs of the season. “Yes” to playing with our children, grandchildren or spending more time with our spouse, loved ones and friends.
The repentance that most of us need, the turning around that most of us require, is not a hard thing, but it is a change of attitude toward life, and toward the things we think are important. To repent is to alter one’s way of looking at life; it is to take God’s point of view instead of our own. Repentance is not about saying what a miserable sinner we are, repentance is not saying I’m sorry over and over again. Repentance is doing things a new way, a way that gives us a new perspective. By doing so, we allow Christ to enter more deeply into our hearts.
In reflecting upon the life of John the Baptist, we have the benefit unlike those who followed him at first, of knowing that the one who followed, the one that he called people to prepare for, was the Lord of Life, our King of Kings, our Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. One of our assigned Scripture lessons this morning comes from 2nd Peter. In the 3rd chapter the following verse is shared as we think about the promise of Christ returning to earth again in all his glory.
But in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:13)
We can take comfort this morning knowing that John the Baptist called us to this promise, the promise of a new life revealed in Jesus. He reminds us that if we are to have that life, eternal life in heaven, that we must do just a little more than want it, we must prepare ourselves for it, by changing our direction, by doing certain things differently than we have done before.
In all the dark valleys that life may bring us, let us take comfort with the knowledge that God our Father, the God of all comfort, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, is at our side each step along the road of life. Remember during this Advent season, U-Turns on the road of life are allowed and needed!
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
December 10, 2017