Wilderness At Work
It was my first game as the Captain of the Varsity Cheerleading Squad. Much to the dismay of the popular girls in the school, my loud voice had won me this hotly contested honor. The squad had been practicing all summer-and we had our routines almost perfected. That early September night we were very excited-and more than a bit nervous. The band picked up, the energy of the crowd erupted-and immediately the ball began to move rapidly down the field. With a shiver of anticipation, I cued the rest of the girls, and we started our cheer. TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN-WE WANT A TOUCH DOWN! Voices screaming, arms pumping, legs jumping. It was exhilarating! Except that-something was wrong. Our crowd was not responding-but the one across the field was. I spun around to look at the field-and almost fainted. Yes, the ball was moving down the field-but in the wrong direction.
You see, the other team had the ball-and in my misguided enthusiasm, I had just cheered our rivals on to a touchdown.
Today, John the Baptist stands before us-bold, loud, and energetic. But before he cheers us enthusiastically down the field, he asks us to check our spiritual compass to check the direction of our lives. He implores us to make sure we know where we are headed-that we are clear about which direction we are carrying the message of our lives. He assures us that it is not too late to repent-to literally turn around. No, it's not too late to change the direction of our lives-so that we won't miss the New Life that God is promising to bring our way. We know that during this season of Advent, this Season of New Creation, we are called to wait, to watch and to expect. But, we are also called to participate in God's Advent. To participate by preparing ourselves through repentance.
All four gospels force us to deal with bristly John the Baptist-and always in early December-when the rest of the world is wrapped in soft, sweet celebration. John comes to us in the glare of biblical truth to confront us, to afflict us, to discomfort us-to remind us that most of our preparations for Christmas don't prepare us for Christ at all. Luke's version of the John story begins in the immediacy of history. It begins right where we are. In the eighth year of Bill Clinton's presidency, when Paris Glendening serves as Governor of Maryland, and Connie Morelia sits in the House of Representatives, when Teri Thomas is the General Presbyter of National Capital Presbytery, in the year 2000, the word of God comes to John-and through John, the word of God comes to us-to Cathy and Joan, to Bob and Joe, to Scott and to Lily-the word of God comes to us in the wilderness. Prepare a way for the Lord. Examine your life-examine your priorities, your values, and your behavior. Check out your emotional, your spiritual, and your ethical life. Are you headed in the right direction? Are you headed in the direction of the good? Are you headed in the direction of God? And if not, then repent. Turn around. Change direction.
Is your health unhealthy-your blood pressure too high, your cholesterol too rich, your weight too much? Well, then, repent. Turn around. Change direction. How is your family life? Is it balanced, honest, open, connected? Or is it stressed, precarious, lonely, brittle, broken? Repent. Turn around. Change direction. What about your work-whether volunteer or paid-is your work rewarding, creative, compassionate-or is it tedious, overwhelming, demanding-disconnected from your vision and your dreams, an unsatisfying use of your gifts and your energy? Repent. Turn around. Change direction. And what about your faith? Is it vital, growing, healing, and serving? Or is it small, tired, tepid, dull? Repent. Turn around. Change direction.
My friends, if we want God to come warmly, humanly, simply into our lives-then we need to get ready. We need to prepare. We need to repent. We need to change. Yes, today John speaks uncomfortable words to us-in a Season when we yearn to be comfortable.
There is great tension these days within the Christian world about many things-but nothing is more troubling than the theological tension between grace and law, between acceptance and judgment, between God as Lover and God as Judge. A few weeks ago I made some critical remarks about the Promise Keepers movement in one of my sermons-sharing some misgivings I have that grow out of my concern for what I perceive to be the exclusive and narrow nature of the Promise Keepers theology. About a week later a member of this congregation came to see me, and with great courage and sensitivity, expressed concern about my remarks. Her question was this: "If your theology is so inclusive, so based on the primacy of God's gracious and accepting love, how come you are being exclusive and judgmental about those with whom you disagree?" In other words, how can judgment and grace coexist in the same place? It was-and it is-a very good question. AND it underlines the discomfort we all have with these John the Baptist stories. If God comes freely and graciously for all of us in the full humanity of Jesus-if God is born in us whether we deserve it or not-how come we have to DO something in order to receive it? How come we have to repent in order to be forgiven? How come we have to change in order to receive God? What right does John-or anyone-have to judge us, to criticize us, to assume that we aren't okay just the way we are?
Well, the answer is, John shouldn't-and he doesn't. Today the words of John the Baptist-words crying in the wilderness of our humanity-are not words of criticism. They are words of choice. John is not judging our worth. He is inviting our wholeness. He is not criticizing our past. He is offering our future. John is communicating the paradox of our faith-that the free and lavish grace of God makes no difference unless we are accountable. The unconditional love of God cannot find fertile soil unless we first uproot the weeds in the wilderness of our souls. God does not judge us. John does not judge us. We are not to judge each other. BUT the truth of the gospel is that we must judge ourselves-we must face the truth of who we are and claim the hope of who we want to become. And after we judge ourselves-after we honor this call to accountability-then we can receive God, as God recreates us in holy image. This is the work of Advent. This is the work of preparation. This is the work of repentance. This is the work of turning around to face the direction of God. And the result? Exquisite freedom and abundant life!
There is a medieval legend about a man who was decadent and irresponsible in many ways but who had enough grace in him to want to be good. He went to a costume maker who gave him a costume to wear-complete with a halo wired to his head. As the man walked down the street he was tempted to act and react in his normal, shiftless way-but then he remembered the halo on his head. So he decided to act differently: He gave money to a beggar on the street. He treated his wife well. He refused to cut corners at work. Eventually he returned the halo costume-but as he was leaving the costume shop he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror-and he saw a permanent halo glowing above his head! It seems that he had become what he did-that his repentance had made possible God's forgiveness and transformation in his life. Yes, by turning around and beginning to behave in a new way-this man found a permanent new direction for his life (as told by Thomas Troeger).
My friends, through our baptism we receive a halo that is permanently attached to our soul. But we need to be about the business of looking in the mirror of our days and polishing that halo with repentance and intent. John makes it clear this morning that repentance is what we do. God will have space and place to make us into new people-so that God can complete the baptismal blessing of our lives.
Somehow when I think of Advent, of repentance, of preparation, I don't have visions of arid deserts and wild prophets. I think instead of the wide open fields of North Dakota and Minnesota-with acres of sunflowers turning their faces toward the sun. The beauty of these flowers is in their responsive turn. Their health and wholeness comes from their openness to the sun. Their life is defined by what the Light can give them. So it is for us in the fields of our daily living. My friends, let us turn around and let us turn our faces toward the Light of the World-and let us shine.
Susan R. Andrews