Matthew 3: 1 – 12_The Call to Repentance_on December 8, 2019

The Call to Repentance

Matthew 3: 1 – 12


(preached on December 8, 2019)


Like most pastors, I spend a lot of time every week preparing my sermon.  I study the Bible passages assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for that day.  I read commentaries by Bible scholars to learn about when and where the passage was written.  And I poke around on line, looking for illustrations to help relate the passage to our lives today.


For the most part, I enjoy that preparation.  But every week there’s a moment, just a moment, when I feel anxious.  It’s usually on Wednesday morning, as I sit down at my computer.  I pull down the word processing menu, where I choose what I want to do, and I click on an item on the menu that says: “New Blank Document.”  My computer screen becomes a blank white space.  Seeing that empty white space, I feel a twinge of anxiety.  A new blank document!  The page is empty, waiting for words of inspiration, words of comfort, words of guidance.  The page is completely blank.  At that moment, it’s up to me to fill that space.


New blank document. When you have to come up with something in writing, and you can’t think of anything, those words can be scary.  But if you think about it another way, those words, that emptiness, can be full of hope, full of possibility.  The blank space can make room for a new beginning.  A fresh start.


In our gospel passage for today, from the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist is calling people to make a fresh start.  “Repent!” he cries.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Prepare the way of the Lord.”  How do they prepare the way of the Lord?  John says, get rid of the stuff that’s blocking the way God wants to make into their hearts.  Clear a path, open a way so that God can come.


John is telling people, loud and clear, that they need to do some major work on themselves to prepare for the One who is coming, the One sent from God to shake them up: to stir their spirits and set their hearts on fire.  How do they prepare for the One who is coming?  To prepare the way they have to take a good hard look at themselves.  They have to recognize all the ways they’ve failed to follow God’s commandment to love God, their neighbor, and themselves. They have to turn from their old habits of hating and hurting.  They have to make a major change in their hearts and their lives.


Matthew gives us such a vivid description of John that he just about jumps off the page.  The coat he wears is made of camel’s hair, tied around the waist with a leather belt.  His diet is not the usual fare.  He lives on locusts and wild honey!


This vivid description may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s not.  To understand where Matthew’s coming from, it helps to know who was his audience.  Matthew was writing his gospel primarily to the Jewish people.  His goal in writing his gospel was to persuade the Jewish community that Jesus was the Messiah they had long been waiting for.  In his description of John the Baptist, Matthew uses images that would have reminded his listeners of Elijah, the great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures.  A coat of camel’s hair, tied with a leather belt.  A man who eats locusts and wild honey: that was Elijah.  Like John, Elijah was unconventional in his ways.  He was also a man of great courage.  Elijah stood up to kings and queens when they strayed from the worship of God to worship  idols instead.  Elijah called them to turn from the worship of fertility gods and worship of the one God of Israel.


But it had been a long time since anybody had heard a courageous voice like Elijah’s.  Four hundred years had passed since the brave prophet had inspired the faithful and admonished them to follow in God’s ways.  It had been a long silence.  For generations, people had been longing to hear a word from the LORD.  Maybe that’s why they flocked out to the wilderness to hear John.  Maybe that’s why they left their comfortable homes in the city, setting out in the dust and heat. They were longing for a word from the LORD.


John has a word for them, but the word he speaks isn’t a feel-good word.  The title of his sermon isn’t “I’m OK – you’re OK.”  His message isn’t designed to boost their self-esteem.  He has some tough things to say.  Yes, the LORD is on the way to them.  But they have to prepare the way.  They have to open the way so God can come into their hearts and lives.


John calls them to change their hearts and lives: in other words, to repent.  The word repent doesn’t get a lot of air time in churches like ours these days.  In most mainline Protestant churches, you don’t hear much about repentance.  One reason you don’t hear much about repentance is that clergy shy away from the topic.  A lot of clergy like me, who came of age in the “I’m OK – You’re OK” days of the nineteen seventies, are concerned about laying a guilt trip on people.  We don’t want to make people feel bad about themselves.


But repentance, in the sense that John means it, isn’t about feeling bad about ourselves. Repentance is about taking a good hard look at ourselves, recognizing the ways we’ve neglected to love God, our neighbors and ourselves.  Repentance means getting rid of whatever might block the way God wants to make into our hearts.


Repentance might begin when we realize something we did that hurt somebody else.  Repentance moves us to apologize, to make it right with them.  Repentance might begin when we make up our minds to let go of a grudge we’ve been holding.  It moves us to let go of that grudge, free ourselves from resentments that linger and fester, and move on.  Repentance brings a change so great that it rocks our world.


Speaking to the crowd in the wilderness that day, John pays special attention to the religious leaders, the temple officials who have come out to hear him.  He challenges their sense of entitlement.  You see, those religious leaders had no intention of getting taken in by John. They were convinced of their own righteousness.  They considered themselves in a special category: they were children of Abraham.


But John has no use for them.  Here’s how another version of the gospel puts it.  John howls at them, “You sneaky snakes!  Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered all of you!  Well, I’m here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over.  Don’t pull out your Members Only temple gold card – your theological credentials cut no ice with me!  Don’t tell me about your spiritual pedigree or that you are Abraham’s children.  God can raise up children of Abraham by reaching for a handful of stones.  From those stones God can create children of Abraham.”


John has no use for temple officials and their sense of entitlement.  He calls them to repentance, too, just as much as he calls the lowliest beggar in the crowd.  Because repentance means letting go of whatever status you might have, whatever makes you feel superior to other people.  Repentance means that what you might have considered treasure, now is trash.  Repentance means getting the trash out of the way, so you can open the way for God to come into your life.


This change in your heart and life might come suddenly, in a flash of inspiration, or it might come in a quiet series of small decisions.  But however it comes, it will open a way for God.  It will usher in a tremendous change in your life.


One young man made a tremendous change in his life, after he got a text inviting him to dinner.  Derek Black was a student at New College in Florida.  For his entire life, Derek Black had been steeped in the beliefs of the white nationalist movement.  His father had started the neo-Nazi website Stormfront and his family was good friends with David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan.


Black had written a lot on line, supporting the white nationalist conviction that the United States is intended for white Europeans and everyone else will eventually have to leave.  In college, he tried to hide his hateful convictions from his fellow students, but eventually they discovered his online posts.  He had been ostracized ever since.  The text with the invitation to dinner was his first chance in months to gather with fellow students.


The young man who invited him, Matthew Stevenson, was Jewish: the only Orthodox Jew on the campus of New College.  He had been wondering if Derek Black, the white nationalist,  had ever gotten to know any Jewish people.  He thought it might be good to include Black in his Shabbat dinners, where people from different backgrounds: Christians, atheists, Jews, and others got together over a meal, and shared conversation.

For the rest of the school year, Derek Black went to those dinners.  Around the table he got to know both Jews and non-Jews who didn’t share his white nationalist beliefs.  He listened to them.  Gradually he began to question the ideology he had supported all those years.  He began to take apart the arguments that white nationalists made: for example, that white people were superior to people of other races.  He began to challenge the belief that African Americans, or people of the Jewish faith, or immigrants from Latin America, were lesser human beings.


He took classes on subjects like Jewish scripture and Islamic civilization.  By the time he graduated, Black had disavowed his earlier beliefs in white nationalism.  He announced on a student message board, “I don’t believe that people of any race, religion, or otherwise should have to leave their homes or be segregated or lose any freedom.”


The next year he posted a message on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups.  In the message, Black said, “the things I have said, as well as my actions, have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, and all who struggle for opportunity and fairness for all.   I am sorry for the damage done.”


My friends, repentance might begin when we accept a dinner invitation and get to know people we used to think were strange or even undesirable.  Repentance might begin slowly with the simple realization that some of our beliefs have to change.  Repentance begins when you and I take a good hard look at ourselves and own up to the ways we’ve fallen short of God’s commandment to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  It begins when we turn from our old habits of hating and hurting.  It might begin in the wilderness, or around the dinner table, but wherever it begins, repentance clears the way for God to come into our hearts.








Rev. Elva Merry Pawle                                                                                                                     Advent 2