Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pointing in a New Direction

Pointing in a New Direction

This sermon is also available in audio at:

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 3:1-12
Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2007

In recent years I have discovered that when I turn on a televised professional sports contest, it is more for background noise than because I am really interested. More often than not, I watch through closed eyelids. There are reasons for this. Players have no incentive to develop loyalty to any team in particular or their fans, and it is not unusual for players to play for three, four, even five different franchises during their short careers. What a shock it would be to hear of a player turning down the lure of millions of dollars from another team because of a desire to remain with their friends and teammates on their present team. Sometimes with conflicts between owners and players bringing things to a standstill, cheering for this or that professional sports franchise becomes about as inspiring and fun as cheering for, say, Microsoft over Citibank, or vice versa, how can anyone really care?

Even so, I confess there was one professional football game several years ago now that still stands out in high relief in my memory. It was not the Superbowl which, I admit, I can hardly remember at all from last year or any other. It was a playoff game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. During the course of the game, one of the players was knocked unconscious on the field, and when the trainers reached him, they discovered he had stopped breathing.1 It turned out his neck was fractured. I remember his motionless body lying there in the midst of frantic activity by trainers and doctors as they labored to save his life and minimize his injuries.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by. Thousands of fans in the stands fell eerily silent. The announcers departed from their customarily manic sports-jargon blathering and began speaking with the hushed tones that I remember from television coverage the day President Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The cameras focused repeatedly on the shocked faces of players, on groups of players kneeling in prayer, players from either team joining each other on their knees, players looking heavenward in tears, and on that motionless body on the field. An NFL game had suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a prayer service. The player did recover later, but it was touch and go for a very long while.

And of course the game itself was no longer the point. The TV coverage was no longer pointing to the game. Vince Lombardi, it turns out, was wrong, at least on that day. Winning is not the only thing. While no announcer named the name above all names, clearly that quarter hour in the midst of a game was now pointing in a different direction. Important as it had seemed to them when they started, all the players and fans there knew that something more important had taken precedence.

When John the Baptist came out of the desert preaching a message of repentance, he did not arrive in a vacuum. He came at a time when people were going through the motions of their lives, but theirs was an occupied country, they were a people without a prophet, a people who had lost track of something important. So John came, dressed in rough camel leather, eating a subsistence diet that the desert provided him. He came, he spoke, he challenged the people. It was unexpected, it was shocking, and apparently it was also riveting in its impact on them. Folks streamed out of the city up in the mountains, came down to the floor of the Jordan Valley to hear John and receive his baptism of repentance.

John told them he was there among them as a sort of a signpost. He was, in a way, like the signpost on the freeway ramp that says in bold letters on a bright red background, “WRONG WAY.” If we see one of those signs facing us, we know we had better turn around immediately, that to continue in the present direction will bring catastrophe.

Matthew summed up John’s whole message in a sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He went on to call the synagogue leaders a bunch of poisonous snakes, saying things that would get most preachers fired, if not killed. But he was God’s man, a prophet, fearless.

Repent. It’s not a word we use much any more in our everyday conversation. We may say, “I’m sorry.” We hear a lot from people who are sorry. A whole school yard full of children gunned down by two other children, and they say they are sorry, as are parents or grandparents who leave potent weapons within such easy reach of children. People convicted of crimes that are heinous and those crimes that merely affect their approval ratings in the polls, from these we often hear those now familiar words, sometimes read in front of the courthouse for the benefit of TV cameras: “I’m sorry for whatever pain I have caused.” We hear it from carnivorous boxers, from tantrum-prone baseball, basketball, football, hockey players, from politicians, presidents, from celebrities.

There has been a lot of this, perhaps more than a lot, perhaps way too much. Public relations departments now have specialists who can counsel their clients on exactly the amount of time needed for the public psyche to become distracted. Turns out it is about a month. They give advice to their clients on the appropriate timing and content for that all-important date with the cameras where one can say “I’m sorry for the pain I have caused.”

I remember Garrison Keillor’s short story in the New Yorker magazine from a few years ago, the fictional first-person account of a person claiming to be “a professional Remorse Officer for the New York Department of Human Services.”2 His job? To find people who are doing bad things and tell them they should stop. Why does this strike me as funny? Could it be because we have had an epidemic of “I’m sorries” in our culture, but precious little real remorse, hardly any repentance, few people telling transgressors they should stop and turn their lives in a new direction?

The word repentance doesn’t mean to be sorry so much as it means to turn around, to face a new direction, to recognize that what we are doing now is taking us the wrong way and that we need to stop and turn another way. Repentance helps us focus our lives beyond our own plans, beyond our own maneuverings for whatever self-serving goals we may be pursuing.

Repentance is not a destination, it is a point of departure, a fresh start, a new vision, a new realm of possibilities opened by a God who never seems to tire of making all things new, and it happens just where before we thought there were only the closed doors of our own imagined and limited choices.

John says something really true about repentance when he addresses the religious authorities who also came out to the Jordan. He said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Repentance is not merely a magical incantation of some words that will distract others from our transgressions, that will wipe away what we have done wrong so we can continue on with our lives as though nothing has happened. Repentance bears fruit of changed lives, repentance recognizes possibilities beyond those we had seen before we handed ourselves over to the man in the camel hair outfit on the river bank. Repentance doesn’t just accomplish today’s forgiveness, it has consequences into the future.

In the end, and this is the seasonal truth of all this, repentance makes us ready to receive the One who is coming, the One whose sandals John was not worthy to carry. Without repentance, we cannot face the Messiah. Without turning from those things which ever turn our lives inward, without this we cannot receive him. This is the reason for a season like Advent, arriving just before Christmas. It is meant to help us prepare, to repent/turn from those things that separate us from him so that when the day comes that we celebrate the arrival of Jesus, we may join in the festivities, we may see him when he comes, like shepherds and wise men, and not miss him, like Herod, hunkered down in our palaces, pointing to ourselves.

Probably most people today still recognize the name of Albert Schweitzer as the German physician who took his medical skills to a mission station in Africa for the major portion of his adult life, a sort of Mother Theresa of his generation. Fewer will remember that Schweitzer was also a trained theologian who wrote the hottest book in the theological world at the turn of the 20th century, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Even fewer will know that he was an accomplished organist.

When he was a young theological student, Fred Craddock3 heard that Schweitzer was coming to Cleveland, Ohio to play a dedicatory concert on a new organ in a large church. Dr. Craddock is now a retired preaching professor, but at that time he was young, filled with himself, eager to show his stuff. He had written a critical paper about Schweitzer’s book, his professor had given him an “A.” He took a bus to Cleveland, and planted himself in the front row in the fellowship hall for the question and answer session after the concert. He was ready, loaded with a page of smart questions, prepared to put the aging old doctor on the spot.

But Dr. Schweitzer didn’t begin with, “Are there any questions?” He got up and said, “I thank you for your hospitality, for your gracious reception of me, but I have to go back to Lambarene in Africa. My people there are dying. They are sick and they are hungry. If any of you have in you the love of Jesus, come help me.” Dr. Craddock’s smarty-pants questions turned to ashes right there in his hands. His life was pointed in a new direction.

John the Baptist can appear at any time, pointing the way, calling us to repentance, challenging us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It is the season we are in. I hope we are paying attention.

1 Rise and Walk: the Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd, by Dennis Byrd with Michael D'Orso. N.Y., N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1993.
2 “The Current Crisis in Remorse,” in We Are Still Married, by Garrison Keillor, Random House, 1992.
3 Thanks to Fred Craddock for sharing this story in “What We Did Not Know,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1998 p. 36.