This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, December 8, 2013.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to speak and live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
At the 2004 Summer Olympics, Matthew Emmons competed in the three-position event where marksmen have to shoot a rifle from their stomachs, knees, and feet at a target 50 meters away. Going into the final shot, Emmons was slated to win. He only needed to be near the bull’s-eye to clinch the gold medal. It was a simple, but crucial shot.
“Going into the last shot that far in the lead,” reflected Emmons afterward, “I was just worried about calming my body down so that I could shoot the best I could. I came down on the target…boom – shot the shot- then looked at the TV monitor, and there’s nothing there.”
Emmons looked through his scope again, bull’s-eye! What’s going on?
“It turned out,” Emmons continued, “after a minute or so, we figured out I’d shot the target to the right of me.”
Emmons had made a nearly perfect shot at the wrong target. His “cross-fire” scored him zero points which plummeted him from first to last place.
Emmons had fired at the wrong target. He was so focused on “getting it right” that he never thought to check and see that he was aiming at the right mark.
Emmons’ story is one that reminds us that sometimes we need to be reminded where to aim. It’s a story that reminds us that no matter how hard we might try—no matter how much we prepare—we must aim at the appropriate target if we’re going to get “it” right.
Advent is a season of preparation: a time when we prepare to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.
The church’s traditional Advent practice stands in tension with contemporary culture. The rhythms of a secular, consumer society have displaced the church year. In that society, preparations for Christmas have been reduced to hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for the buying, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill. Not the promises of God, but our own ideals and longings, have become the focus.
How different is the preparation to which John the Baptist calls the people of Israel! The promises of God that are coming to fulfillment in Christ should compel people to confess their sins. John asks us to examine ourselves, rather than bask in holiday wonder. We should bear good fruit, rather than worry about material things to get or give. John is almost a comical figure dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, but his message is hard-hitting: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Every time I hear that word, visions of televangelists or street preachers screaming “repent” at the top of their lungs runs through my head. It’s a hellish scene that drudges up feelings of guilt, wrongdoing, and absolute unworthiness deep within me.
The word repent means “to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct…to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better.”
Many a preacher has sought to make people feel guilty for their actions so that they might change their lives. The problem with this approach—aside from the emotional terror that it causes—is that it is based on a mistranslation. We’ve been shooting at the wrong target.
John’s message wasn’t one of guilt. John’s message is one of change and transformation. The Greek word the gospel writer uses here is metanoia which means literally a “change of mind:” a change of ability, of purpose, of being. John’s purpose is not to make us feel guilty or unworthy, it is to get us to–as the Common English Bible rightly translates it–change our hearts and lives.
Repentance—and the confession of our sins—isn’t so much about what we’ve done wrong: it’s about how we’re going to realign our life to the very will of God. Its about transformation and the way in which we allow the grace of God to transform our hearts so that we can live new lives for the sake of Jesus Christ and the world God so loved and came to save.
In our Scripture lesson for today, Isaiah provides us a glimpse of what God’s coming Reign will look like. It begins with the rising up of a new, righteous and just leader (see Isaiah 11:1-5). It ends with a glimpse of the Kingdom (see Isaiah 11:6-9).
Our faith tells us that this righteous leader is Jesus. If this is true–if we really believe it–then why doesn’t the world look more like Isaiah’s vision? a time when all is at peace? a time when there are no predators or victims? no fighting? no division? If Jesus has shown us the Way why does the world—why do we seem to be straying so far off course?
This morning I would like to suggest that, perhaps, the reason Isaiah’s vision hasn’t come to pass is because we have not truly metanoia. We’ve not allowed the grace of God found in Jesus Christ to truly transform and change our hearts and lives. Sure, we often feel guilty for the things we do or fail to do that drives us and other away from God. But, at the end of the day, we’re not called to be sorry or feel guilty: we’re called to be transformed–to allow God’s grace to transform our lives so that the world sees in us (individually and corporately) the face of Jesus and the Kingdom he ushered in.
Friends, we’re in our second week of Advent, preparing to celebrate the arrival of Jesus on Christmas day. Now’s not the time to feel guilty and unworthy for the things we’ve not done. We all make mistakes. Now is the time to allow the Good News of the coming King to transform and change our lives so that we might bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. Now is the time truly to allow the Good News to change our hearts and lives so that the world might experience God’s love— experiencing true peace, harmony, and joy this Christmas.
 “Matthew 3:1-12: Theological Perspective” by John P. Burgess in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 44-46.