The R Word

1/1/2014

THE “R” WORD
Matthew 3:1-12
A Sermon Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Normal: Calvary UMC
December 8, 2013

Last Sunday, I attended worship at Springfield: First UMC.  Communion was served. During the “The Great Thanksgiving” we were encouraged to remember the night Christ gave himself up for us.  Bread and cup were lifted and then shared.  The day before, one of my District Superintendents got married in Galesburg. The marriage liturgy called Sylvester Weatherall and Aletha Warner to repeat after me; “For better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part.”  Rejoice and redeem have inspired us too.  For instance, God has used his amazing grace to redeem us.  And Paul urged us to “Rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)

Yes, a lot of “R” words enrich with our lives.  But, there is one “R” word we find difficult to face and/or may not find so enriching initially.  The word is repent.  In essence, turn away from sin; and turn toward God.  Less of “Pluto done it,” pointing the finger at others and more responsibility for our own shortcomings is demanded.  We who profess to follow Christ encounter a desert preacher whose ultimate concern is the state of our souls, nothing more, nothing less.  If we cannot turn away from our sin, our joy will be incomplete at best and sad at worst.  But John the Baptist will not let us languish in our sins.  “This man sent from God, who came to bear witness to the light, insists that the path to authentic joy in the Lord demands that we must repent. He speaks and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive. The mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.”

THE PRESENCE OF SINNERS

The need to repent implies one basic fact.  Sin and sinners exist in the world.  It comes to us from the Garden of Eden.  A rule is broken.  Our trespasses overtake us.   We infect one another with it.  Now the fall in Eden taken in modern form is every bit as destructive and disruptive to human life now as then.  If a person, group or nation had not taken the wrong path, a bit more of heaven would be ours on earth.  That is one implication of Matthew 3:1-2.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”     
So what is the nature of sin John the Baptist addresses when he starts preaching in the wilderness of Judea?  Two gospels help us, namely Matthew and Luke.  Matthew identifies men of the cloth i.e. religious leaders as sinners.  When it comes to the people they serve, John the Baptist labels them as “a brood of vipers.”  John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees to turn away from their sin.  If they believe their gorgeous robes and a religious heritage can save them, nothing could be further from the truth.

Luke’s gospel takes to task the crowd of people seeking baptism.  Some are selfish.  They have two coats. It never occurs to them to give the spare away to one who has no coat.  Some people seeking baptism have more food than they can eat.  They won’t feed the hungry.  Other seekers are tax collectors.  Forsaking the practice of ripping off the people is the activity John wants stopped immediately.  Finally, soldiers who work for the government rip off the law abiding citizens using violent threats, lies, and extortion.  They too must cease and desist.  Sin abounds in Judea.

Fast forward to 2013, are we any better?   We are certainly wiser that our counterparts of 2000 years ago.  However, does the label of sinner fit us too?  Yes it does.  Television shows documenting what happens between Cain and Abel are our proof.  They are highly rated shows detailing all kinds of wrongdoing.  American Greed, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, 48 hours, America’s Most Wanted,  Cold Case Files and Investigation Discovery.  Of late, a new game breaking the rules of human civility is gaining ground.  Known as the Knockout Game; a group of young folk approach an unsuspecting pedestrian on the street and try to knock a person out with a single blow.  If one blow is not enough, they may try again until the deed is done.  Human sin reaches beyond the short life television shows.

In New York, the conductor whose train was going 82 mph in a 30 mph zone will not forget the lives lost and the people seriously injured by his error.  Ditto for a shoplifting Mom, a Mom who abandons her children, deadbeat Dads, clergy gone astray or persons whose God is power, prestige and/or money!!  If the persons and groups of persons mentioned above are not proof that sin is in the world, I do not know what is.  Even today, John the Baptist urges God’s people to repent - to turn away from sin.  The better world that we seek is in our hands, of course with God’s help.  Just like the crowd of folk who heard J.B. in the desert or met him at the Jordan for baptism, you and I are asked to repent - to turn away from our sin.  Why? You and I wear the same label as everyone else.  We too have fallen short of the glory of God.  We are sinners.

WILLING TO REPENT

Once our status of sinner is established, one would think there is a willingness to repent.  That is not true.  Some folk who hear the word repent feel no need to repent.  They hold firm to what they are doing and how they think.  That is the position John the Baptist encounters in the religious leaders of his day.  Why?  Wouldn’t you think that religious leaders would be the first in line to embrace repentance so that folk whom they serve and lead would observe them living up to the word they preach?  True, but the Pharisees and Sadducees perceive John the Baptist straying into their territory.  They are responsible for biblical interpretation, religious observances, ordering the life of the faithful and the nature of repentance. No funny looking outsider, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey is going to tell them what to do even if he is right on about their soul salvation.  Sad to say, some of these leaders work behind the scene to get rid of the very one Christ sent to prepare the way for his coming, John the Baptist.

Let’s not think too lowly of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  We may be closer to them than we know.  Our lives may reflect the same response to repentance namely rejection.  Do we have the attitude of the publican or the sinner in Luke 18?  A Pharisee and a tax collector are praying in the temple.  “Thank God I’m not like other people - thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors.  I fast twice a week and pay my tithes” quips the Pharisee.  “Have mercy on me a sinner,” prayed the tax collector.  He felt so much shame they he could even lift of his head.  Jesus said the repentant sinner went home more justified than the man who felt he needed to change nothing.  As if to say, “I’m okay and I know it.”

Last Sunday, I watched a television program on Pete Rose, a retired baseball player.  Without mentioning the Word, Rose talked about how the need to repent caught up with him in one area of his life.  In 1989, Rose was kicked out of baseball for life.  Why? He committed the cardinal sin, betting on baseball.  Like his biblical counterpart, Rose engaged in denial well beyond three times.  Eventually, the weight of fourteen years of denial broke down a man noted for being the toughest of the tough.  Pete Rose finally admitted that he bet on baseball.  His book entitled My Prison Without Walls made it plain.  I have not read the book.  Yet, his living in a prison without walls illustrated what personal sin has done and is doing to us.  In some aspect of our lives, all of us are imprisoned by a sin or sins.  They have captured us.

The Apostle Paul talked about his “caughtness” in scripture.  In Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul admitted that he had “a thorn in the flesh.”  Furthermore, he begged God to remove it.  Meaning, it kept him from being the servant of Jesus Christ he ought to be.  God refused to remove his thorn in the flesh.  Yet, God offered him grace to deal with it.  Hence, yielding not to temptation remained a mighty struggle in Paul’s life as he sought to be faithful to Christ.  Brother Paul articulated that same struggle in the book of Romans. “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.”  (Romans 7:19-20)  Calvary, this is the testimony of a faithful follower of Jesus Christ not an infidel or agnostic.  Herein lies the power of sin.  It holds sway over the best of us.  This is all the more reason why we ought to listen and response positively to the passionate, loving, caring call of Jesus’ voice crying in the wilderness, “repent, prepare ye the way of the Lord” proclaims our brother John the Baptist.

REPENTANT SINNERS

Last Sunday, I attended worship at Springfield First: UMC.  Communion was served.  And a baptism was conducted.  When the baptism was finished; the congregation of 300 to 400 people stood to its feet and applauded.  What happened?  First, Senior Pastor Roger Ross invited a young man to join him up front.  He seemed to be in his mid-thirties.  Then, Pastor Ross asked him to share his testimony.

After composing himself, Jeffrey Scott shared these details: “I am married to a beautiful wife.  She means everything to me.  We have two children.  I have a good job and a nice house.”  Jeff noted that his Mom and Dad had come to witness his baptism.  Then, he complimented his parents highly for “raising him right.” Polite applause followed.  “If his parents raised him right,” I thought, “why had Jeffrey not been baptized as a child, youth or young adult?” While I was thinking, Jeffrey answered my question.  Long ago, Jeffrey had read the Baptismal vows and questions in our liturgy.  And he decided that he could not answer in the affirmative.  Until such time as he could, Jeffrey chose not to be baptized.  Last Sunday, Jeffrey acknowledged that he was ready to answer those question-ready to become a baptized member of Christ’s church-ready to repent. 

Roger shared a paraphrase of the following questions with Jeffrey.  1. On behalf of the whole church…Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  Jeffrey said, “I do.”  2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  “I do,” said Jeffrey.  3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord?  Jeffrey said, “I do” and was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  After Jeffrey was announced as a new member of Christ and this church, we stood up and applauded.  I don’t know if an encounter with risen Lord brought this on.  I can report to you that the “R” word can bring joy out of sadness, indecision and un-readiness in 2013. I saw it with my own eyes last Sunday.  A young man intentionally turned toward God.

Nelson Mandela died this week.  Around the world, people acknowledged the loss of a great statesman, father, leader and colleague whose work and witness left the world a better place.  So did the woman at the well in John 4.  She gave us one sterling example of what it means to turn toward God, the essence of repentance.  Like Mandela, she even struck a blow against apartheid.

One day, Jesus decided to go Galilee through Samaria.  It was the shortest route.  Doing so, Jesus broke a rule.  He refused to maintain a Jewish apartheid system specifically “Have no dealings with a Samaritan.”  Tired and thirsty, our Lord stopped at Jacob’s Well for refreshment.  An outcast among outcasts, a woman came to the well for water.  It was about noon, a good time to avoid respectable people.  And she met Jesus there.  “Give me a drink,” he said.  The woman said, “We can’t talk.  Don’t you know the apartheid system is in place?”  “If you knew who was talking,” Jesus said, “you’d be asking me for a drink.”  “Sir,” the woman said, “Give me this water so I’ll never be thirsty and never have to come here again.”  Jesus said, “Go call your husband.”  The woman confessed, “I don’t have a husband.”  Jesus replied   “I know.  You’ve had five husbands and the one you got now ain’t yours.”  A realization hit her.  “Sir, I see you are a prophet?”  And she began to explain the religious apartheid system of her day.  The Jews have their temple in Jerusalem.  We Samaritans have our temple on Mt. Gerizim.  “Worship God in spirit and in truth,” our Lord proclaimed.  In other words, “I am not wrapped up in the ideology or theology tied to Jews or the Samaritans.  I’m about God’s business.”  Inspired or pushed to articulate her core belief, the woman responded “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain all things to us.”  Jesus said to her. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  Shocked, stunned, amazed, rejoicing, the woman went out and evangelized the whole telling them about Jesus the Messiah.  John 4:39 said it best.  Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of her testimony.

Notice the major transformations that took place in the woman’s life.  First, by talking to Jesus in public, she challenged a rule that kept Jews and Samaritans apart-that made women feel undervalued and disrespected.  Second, she kept on talking to him despite the have “no dealings custom between Jews and Samaritans”.  Why she was getting help that was unanticipated.  Third, the woman asked our Lord for living water with the understanding that she would not be misused, abused, victimized, devalued and disrespected because she was a woman.  Four, she felt comfortable disclosing her sins to this stranger.  He was so compassionate, forgiving and loving.  Five, ultimately she learns that the man is not a prophet but the Messiah whom she expected to come, incredible.  Six, the woman became an evangelist for Christ.  Many people believed in Jesus Christ because of her testimony.  Seven, her repentance led to her new life in Christ.

In Jeffrey Scott at Springfield First, the woman at the well, the apostle Paul, Pete Rose, the Pharisees and Sadducees plus the hundreds of women and men baptized and equipped for the coming of the Lord by John the Baptist, we have been able to see what can happen to human lives, in part and the whole, if we could only repent.  The “R” word is a good word.  Thanks be to God. Amen.