Repentance – The Cure for Despair
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Luke 3: 7 – 18. Focus on what going in a new direction does for us and why repentance cures despair. Check out Rasaan Bourke & The Choir following the sermon.
John the Baptist has always seemed to me like the old junkyard dog of the gospels. In the lectionary he always appears just before Christmas when our defenses are down. Here we are strolling toward Christmas just a few more blocks to go when all of a sudden – GRRROWWW-LLLLL!!! And the next thing you know we’re in the grips of this big ole junk yard dog, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And before he’s done with us we’ll have nightmares of brooding vipers, axes and unquenchable fire, when all we really wanted was a change to sing “Silent Night.”
And there’s no getting around him. Every single gospel writer introduces Jesus by talking about John, which means that in one way or another this junkyard dog is God’s idea. John is the watchdog who makes sure no one wanders into holy precincts unaware. And as different as they will turn out to be, John’s judgment precedes Jesus’ grace. They go together like night and day, because those who know nothing of judgment need nothing of grace.
When John waded into the waters of the Jordan River with the people who had come out to see and hear him he was preparing the way of the Lord. What sounds scary to us was in fact a message of great hope to those who first heard him. The same God who could make children of Abraham out of rivers rocks could turn them into children of God right then and there is they simply were willing to repent and return to God.
And in this way their past would lose its power and hold over them. What they had done or not done, what they had said or not said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives. They would no longer hear those nagging voices in their heads. Voices that constantly told them how bad they were would suddenly become silent and in the silence that followed they would be free to begin again, listening to God’s voice this time – a voice telling them how blessed and loved they were.
Now as scary as John comes across his message was a pretty good offer and it explains why so many were willing to come out into the wilderness to hear him. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them. We hear guilt where they heard a message of hope.
And I think there’s a reason for this. Most of us were taught that repentance means owning up to how rotten, selfish, sinful and deeply defective we are, how we grieve the heart of God by our very existence and how sorry we are for this. It means dumping all of our pride and ego on the ground and stomping on it and asking God to forgive us.
Only what if repentance isn’t really about this? What if pride and ego are not the problem at all, but the very opposite? What if the main thing most of us need to repent of is not our arrogance but our utter despair and our fears – that things will never change, that we will never change, that no matter what we say or do we are stuck forever in the mess we have made of our lives or the mess someone else has made of them, but in any case that there is no hope for us, no second chances? Now that would be a real problem.
I cannot tell you how many people I know who are all but dead with despair and fear. It doesn’t happen just one way; it happens in all kinds of ways. A family member abuses a little boy and forty years later, even though that family member is long dead, his hands are still on that little boy now become a man. That little boy now a full grown man is angry and depressed has trouble with commitment and intimacy and is still keeping his forty-year old promise never to let anyone hurt him again like that.
Or a moody teenager doesn’t know what is wrong with her, but she can’t find anyone to talk to about it. Her father is never home, her mother turns ever talk into a sermon, and she doesn’t want anyone to see her coming out of the counselor’s office at school, so she starts hanging out with some people who are even moodier than she is and that makes her feel better.
When she is arrested for shoplifting at K-Mart, no one seems all that surprised. When her mother picks her up at the police station, she tells her she has been nothing but trouble since the day she was born and whatever small spark of a spirit that was inside her is now gone. All that remains to be seen is just how much trouble she can be. And believe me she will do her best not to let anyone down.
For most people, despair is a much more serious problem than pride will ever be. And that’s because we’ve been taught incorrectly that repentance is primarily all about us. In case you haven’t notice. It’s all about me, me, the miserable sinner. No wonder it’s so revolting. But there is another kind of repentance, a healing kind that is far more interested in God. It spends more time looking at the kingdom than at the mirror. It has more faith in God’s power to make new than in our own power to mess things up.
It’s what John the Baptist was offering people – a fresh start, a way out, a cure for despair and fear. He offered it as a beginning, not an end. He knew there was someone coming after him who had something much greater to offer, although he didn’t know who or what that was going to look like. He was just content to be God’s watch dog, nipping at people’s heels to get their attention so that they would be wide awake for what came next.
And no one, I think, was more surprised than he was, when he looked up a short time later to see who was wading toward him through the water – not the ax-wielding lumberjack he had expected, not a bigger meaner junkyard dog than he was, but one as gentle as a lamb, one who could gentle even John. Amen