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It's Time For A Change

Luke 3:7-18
One day a certain woman went into a department store to do some Christmas shopping. She noticed that the store had two Santa Clauses. But she thought it was odd that there was an extremely long line for the one Santa Claus, but no one was in line for the other one. Finally, she saw why. It was because over the Santa Claus who had no one in line, there was sign that said: "Express Santa. Eight presents or less."
What is the Christmas season all about? That's the question that we're asked today in our reading from the Gospel of Luke. For a lot of people, Christmas is a time to give. But probably for even more people, they look at Christmas as a time to get. It's like the displays that you sometimes see at stores, with Santa's sled being pulled across the sky by his reindeer, as "Silent Night" is played in the background. From children on up, when you ask people what they think of first when they think of Christmas, most people probably wouldn't say Jesus. Instead, if they were honest, people would admit that when they think of Christmas, one of the first things they think of is a fat man in a red suit, carrying a bag full of presents.
So John the Baptist appears in our reading today to force us to remember what Christmas is all about. Now, as you might be aware, John is a rather strange fellow. He probably wouldn't be someone who you would naturally invite to your Christmas party. For instance, while all your other guests would show up wearing bright red and green sweaters, or other holiday clothing, John would show up wearing a shirt and some pants made out of camel hair. While everyone else would be munching on the chips and cookies that you've prepared, John's favorite snack food is locusts. So you can imagine how that would frighten some of your guests, especially if some of the antennas came off in the onion dip. While all of your other friends would be greeting each other with "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays," all that John keeps saying to people is, "Repent."
Even though John is, well, different than anyone else you've probably ever known, John isn't a bad person. In fact, especially at Christmas time he's a good fellow to have around. Part of the reason that so many people are afraid of John the Baptist and try to keep their distance from him is that they misunderstand what he's all about. The basic problem is that most people don't understand what John's talking about when he talks about repenting.
Most people think that repenting means that we have to beat ourselves up, tell God how awful we really are, and if we keep telling God how sorry we are, then maybe, just maybe, God might forgive us. In other words, we repent, and then God forgives us. But the problem is that's not at all what repenting means.
In fact, that is entirely the opposite. Our reading from the Bible this morning clearly shows us that what comes first is the fact that God comes to us and forgives us. Then, after we realize that we have been forgiven by God, we are then to repent, to change our lives to the way that God wants them, as a way of showing our thanks to God. But again, first God forgives us. Then second, we are to repent. Not the other way around.
When we're told to repent, that's not bad news. We shouldn't be sorry to hear that word "repent." Because what "repent" means is that with God's help, we can change. "Repent" means that no matter how badly we've messed up our lives, or no matter how badly someone else has messed up our lives, we don't have to be stuck in that mess forever. Instead, with God's help, we can change.
What John the Baptist reminds us is that we don't come here to church because we're already clean. No, we come here to church because we're washable. And that's what repenting is all about. It means that with God's help we can turn away from all those things that mess our lives up and make us dirty. We can start to clean ourselves up and become more like the people that Jesus wants us to be. That's what repenting means—because Jesus forgives us, we can change.
What John the Baptist also says to us is it is possible for us to change, and God expects us to change. And that's a message that we need to hear. The problem is that so often we read in the Bible about how God loves us. Then right away we close our Bibles, and think that that's a very nice thing to know—that God loves us. But we need to read on in the Bible. Because we're told not only that God loves us, but that since God loves us, God hopes that we'll change and start living more and more according to the way that God wants us to live.
John the Baptist is kind of like a Doberman Pincher. At this time of year, for the most part, all we're thinking about is Bethlehem, and the baby in the manger, and stars in the sky. We're like carolers, strolling along the sidewalk on a snowy night singing "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night." All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, John the Baptist leaps out at us and starts growling and barking about repenting, and how some of us are like a bunch of snakes, and how if we don't change our ways we're going to end up in an eternal fire. All of that sort of takes the "ho, ho, ho" out of the season.
We need John at this time of the year. Because too often at Christmas time we just think about how God loves us, and we stop right there. We don't go on to think about what God expects from us in return. For example, in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments start out with God saying: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." Then the Ten Commandments are listed. You see, first we're reminded how God is good and loving and merciful—how God freed the Hebrew slaves. But then the second part is what we are to do in response to God's goodness and love and mercy. And what John the Baptist does is remind us not to forget that second part. That yes, God does love us. But that God does expect something from us in return.
There was a man who lived out in the countryside. Every year the road in front of his house kept getting worse and worse, with more potholes all the time. The fellow kept calling up the highway department to complain. But nothing ever seemed to happen. But finally, after the man kept calling for months on end, the highway department did do something about his problem. They put up a sign in front of his house that said: "Caution—Rough Road Ahead."
I wonder if that's what we often do. We know that there are things that we should change in our lives that there are things that we should improve about the way we live, but we don't do anything about those problems. The reason for that is that change is hard.
John the Baptist reminded the people of how they needed to change. Those people saw so many problems in their lives that they really didn't know where to start. So they came right out and asked John, "What should we do?" John said: "If you have two coats, share with a person who doesn't have any. If you're a tax collector, take just what is due to you. Or if you're a soldier, don't use your position to steal from people."
Notice that John didn't tell any of those people that they had to start wearing clothes that were made out of camel hair. He didn't tell any of the people that they had to start eating locusts. In fact, John didn't tell the people to do anything that was difficult or burdensome. All that John said was for the people to treat each other fairly. To share with those who don't have enough.
At Christmas, we remember how God does love us all in a very special way. That God loves us so much that God sent the only Son into the world. But the message of the Bible doesn't stop there. God does love us, but God also expects something from us. God expects us to repent. So this Christmas season, let's think about the changes that God wants us to make in our lives. And let's not just think about them. Let's do something about them. After all, isn't it time for a change?
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, PA