The following is a sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2013) at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The preacher is Jonathan Carle, a third year student at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
The Right Reverend Jeremy Taylor was a bishop of the Church of England and one of the most important Anglican theologians in Great Britain during the seventeenth century. In 1650 and 1651 he wrote two little books called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying.
Seventy years later in the 1720’s, a young student at Oxford named John Wesley picked these books up and discovered what would become one of the principle concerns of the people called Methodist: that is, the care of one’s time. Not surprisingly, Wesley’s discovery corresponds to a systematic increase in the use of his diary. He wanted to know how exactly he was spending his time each day. He wasn’t alone in his feelings of urgency.
By the time Wesley began to teach at Oxford in the 1730’s, he and his brother Charles and several of their friends were on a weekly schedule of devotional reading, prayer, and service to the poor. For Wesley, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not a neat idea nor a story about good morals. Rather, Wesley viewed the Gospel as a witness to God’s historical activity and a rule for his daily life. Challenged by his tradition, beginning with the commands of Jesus to love God and love our neighbors, Wesley wanted to do something about his faith. He and his friends looked at the world, looked at their lives, held the two up to the light of Scripture and asked each other “What are we waiting for?”
In John the Baptist we can see the same sense of urgency. He’s out in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley telling anyone who will listen that they don’t need to go to the temple to be cleansed. Simply, they need to observe the covenantal love of God and respond. Friends, this is why we celebrate Advent. Like John the Baptist reminding Israel of God’s desire for inward holiness, we retell this story every year to remember that Christ has come – the Incarnation of Christ is the culmination of God’s covenant with creation revealed through the people of Israel. We retell this story every year because in remembering the Advent of Jesus Christ we regain our sense of urgency about preparing for the Lord to return; we remember that we need to pay attention to what we’re doing with our time.
But how does repentance help us to look forward in our remembering? The word we translate as “repentance” is the Greek word metanoia. There are two words here, meta and noia, which roughly translate as “next to” and “perception” or “insight.” Together in the context of this passage of Scripture, the two words might mean something like “after being next to God, I have new insight.” So repentance is not simply about a change of heart, but a change of heart that leads to a change in life: An inner change that leads to an outer change. Repentance opens up space for God who has been waiting near by. And the instant God takes up residence in the human heart, grace inspires us to look outward to the world, for the whole of creation is God’s concern. This is where the urgency of the Spirit takes hold of us, for the Spirit is always moving toward creation’s new life. When, by the grace of the Spirit, we see the difference between where we are and where God hopes for us to be, we want to get to work immediately. When this happens we, like Wesley and his companions – like Christians in all times and places – become ‘doers of the word.’
Having recognized the depth of God’s love, repentance inaugurates the human desire to do something new. Forgiveness, then, is a gracious God giving us the power and means to do so. Preparing the way of the Lord is the actual work of doing something new: feeding hungry people, clothing naked people, listening to lonely people, giving hope to imprisoned people, comforting sick people, remembering forgotten people. All of this means speaking and acting out against disaster, disease, injustice, and oppression. All of this sounds like a lot of work – all of this is a lot of work, but what is also true is that being a messenger and channel for God’s grace is the deepest joy a human being can ever know.
And why is this? It is so because this is the task for which we were made. Participating with God in giving new life to creation is the deepest joy we can experience because it is the deepest expression of who we are as those created in the image of God. When we let grace lie, when we stop expecting Jesus to show up, we continue to ‘fall short of the glory of God,’ and we stop short of truly becoming the Body of Christ. So we come to the crux of today’s passage from Luke: Let’s look at how John describes it. Beginning again at v. 7 John says:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Cultures change as human life evolves, but John’s challenge to the crowd at the Jordan remains as potent as ever. Luke’s text tells us that God values both purity of heart and the holiness of life that comes as a result. The simple and convicting reverse of this is that where there is no holiness of life, where there is no resemblance to Jesus, neither is there purity of heart. So I ask myself and I ask all of you: What are we doing with our time? What is the focus of our spending? How do we use our authority? How are we living our lives? Do we honor God in all that we do? I know that I don’t. Friends, we need to urgently examine ourselves: Are we ready for the coming of Jesus Christ? All of the time between the ascension of Jesus and his return in final victory is a second Advent – but this time we’re getting ready for the coming of the Risen Lord. This time Christ will not arrive in the dead of night, naked and crying in the stable of an inn, but on clouds brighter than lightning with a glory in his face to fierce to look upon. We retell this story every year so that we remember what we have to look forward to and the work God calls us to in the meantime.
It is this looking forward that empowers us to the work of discipleship here and now. If all we do is look back – the sight is overwhelmingly depressing. I have done so many things wrong in my life; I have hurt myself and so many others in so many ways – but God’s grace is sufficient for me, for you, and for the sins of the whole world! God looked at the brokenness of creation and instead of leaving us here to die, he became one of us in order to give us the hope and power to do new things. The past does not rule over us, because God’s grace is new every morning and every moment of every day.
So we see that the power of repentance is that it changes how we see the world. And if we see that one way of doing things leads to the death of creation and another way gives life – What are we waiting for? We all – each one of us – have a choice to make, just like the folks at the Jordan, just like John Wesley and his friends. Our Christian faith started, and Methodism started, when a few young men and women took seriously the implications of the story of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that we must do the same if our church is to remain a vital expression of the faith of Jesus Christ; for we must either follow him into the brokenness of the world or admit that we don’t really believe any of this stuff about the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Living Word of God. If Jesus is who we say he is, what are we going to do about it? The loving light of Christ is never connecting and never transforming unless it passes through the lens of you and me – the Body of Christ – the channel of God’s grace for the world. Our call to be the Church is not a neat idea that sounds good on Sundays. It is either something we do, or do not do.
Today we begin retelling the story of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is a story of how the Eternal and All-Powerful One accepted the limitations of human birth, life, suffering and death in order to decisively demonstrate the life-giving power of love. It is a story that brings us to the realization that through the strength of God’s grace we are not powerless in the face of injustice, greed, war, disaster, and death. It is a story that moves us outward beyond ourselves in search of creation’s new life. It is a story that calls us as a forgiven and reconciled people to take the hope and forgiveness of Christ’s table out into the wilderness of humanity’s sin and suffering. The story reveals the mystery that God will not bring about the new creation without our participation. The story tells us that it is high time we used all our faculties and gifts to get ready for the arrival of the Prince of Peace. Sisters and Brothers in Christ, what are we waiting for?
Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshipers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
High on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!
Charles Wesley, 1758