Spiritual Infrastructure

This is the second Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of peace.  We can get pretty cynical about peace in a world that is full of turmoil.  Beauty contestants seem to always wish for “world peace” and we kind of snicker at their naiveté.  Holiday gatherings should be a wonderful time of celebration, but as many families know all too well, they can also cultivate even more conflict in dysfunctional relationships.  And personal peace?  It can be hard to come by, especially in a season known for its hurry/scurry pace.
Peace, frankly, sometimes seems like a pipe-dream.
My battle with disillusionment
There have been times in my life when peace seemed to be at hand and other times when unsettledness kept me awake or drove me to despair.  I’ve always been a goal-driven kind of guy.  I like to look into the future and dream about what could be.  As a young man, I had lots of dreams.  Some of them, I know now, were “delusions of grandeur.”  Still, I need to have some positive vision for the future or I am lost.  And that’s where I found myself a year and a half after graduation from college and in my first few months of marriage. 
I loved music and found that I had a gift for conducting even before I entered high school.  In my senior year of high school, we went to a church that had a minister of music.  Observing him in action and having a deep sense of calling since an early age, I knew what career path I wanted to pursue.  After I finished high school, I determined I would be a music major at a Christian college.  As I neared college graduation, I watched one of my friends from the department land a sweet job as a full-time minister of music right out of school.  In the spring of my senior year I sent out resumes expecting the same result.
It didn’t come.  Instead, I ended up moving boxes around in a warehouse for eight hours a day, five days a week.  That was the beginning of my disillusionment, but I figured I would work even harder, press on, and finally land my job.  Turned out, I couldn’t take the boredom of the warehouse job and took a part-time position at a Christian school in September as a music specialist.  I was paid about one-third of what I made in the warehouse, but at least I was using my skills and learning as I went.  I kept my resume fresh and sent it out to any positions that would come open – which in those days was very rare and hard to find without an internet.  I was also engaged to be married in nine months, so there was real pressure to find my dream job. 
Looking back, I really wasn’t that good.  I was an exceptional conductor, but definitely a sub-par singer and my piano gifts were only beginning to emerge.  Today, I don’t think I would have hired someone like me back then.  But I had lots drive and ambition with a little bit of talent.  
Nine months of searching and nothing came up.  We were in a recession and I needed a real job to support a wife.  I even began applying for jobs in the business sector, including collection agencies and home loan offices.  I didn’t know it then, but I had crossed over into the world of depression through my discouragement.  I remember sitting down in an interviewer’s office and having him ask me why he should hire me to be a loan officer.  I opened my mouth but nothing would come out but blubbering and sobbing.  Not one of my better moments. 
In a miraculous turn of events just prior to our wedding, God providentially provided some cobbled-together employment, including the music teaching job at the Christian school, that gave us a means of support.  I was married, but my dream of being a minister of music was quickly fading.  In a season of life that should have brought me great joy and fulfillment, I was sinking deep into despair.  My plan was dying and I was, too.
But God had another plan.  I don’t know how long it took me to see it.  I can’t explain how I came to envision what he had for me.  I think it was the creative and still small voice of the Holy Spirit that prompted me to look at things in a different way.  Frankly, I did not appreciate my job teaching music in the Christian school.  I resented having to teach children.  I was better than that, I thought.  How foolish and arrogant I was!
But then God opened my eyes to see his agenda.  The Christian school was only five miles away from the State University, which at the time, had one of the premier master’s programs in choral conducting.  Moreover, back then, California higher education was an incredible deal and even affordable for two young adults teaching in Christian schools.  Hard to believe that tuition was only $50 a semester!  God led me to that program which was my heart’s desire and opened my eyes to the great privilege and opportunity I had in teaching music to children.  Looking back, I realize that my job in the Christian school was perfect for my development and one of the best jobs I ever had.  The chance to study choral conducting on the graduate level was an incredible gift to this marginally talented musician.  All along, it was God’s agenda for me.  I was a wreck until I perceived his plan.  When I stopped fighting and submitted to his agenda, I discovered the wholeness and peace in my life that had been displaced by disillusionment and despair for nearly a year. 
I stopped fighting and gave in.  I changed my mind and my direction.  Have you ever experienced something like that?
Example of repentance in marriage
I get my sermon material from lots of different places.  I’m not above asking people for their ideas and borrowing freely.  I asked Diane this week if she could think of any situations in life that required a change of heart and mind.  She didn’t hesitate.  She said marriage.  (Am I really that tough to live with?)
If you’re married, you probably know what she meant.  Just because opening presents on Christmas Eve is what your family did doesn’t mean that is the only way to celebrate the Savior’s birth.  You might have enjoyed camping when you were growing up.  Doesn’t mean your spouse is going to love the great outdoors with all the dirt and bugs enhancing your vacation experience.  Oh…and the food issues?  I’ve gotten my hand slapped more than once for spicing up Diane’s concoctions on the stove.  The list can go on.  It helps to have a good sense of humor.  The fact is, if you are getting married, you better be prepared to change your mind and your ways. 
You gotta stop fighting and give in.  You better change your mind and your ways if you want peace in your home.  You need to get with the new program.  You have to repent.
…which brings us to our text today:
Matthew 3:1-6
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The nature of repentance
When we hear the word, “repent,” all kinds of images might come to mind.  We might imagine the hell-fire and brimstone revivalist prancing back and forth on the platform and playing on our emotions to get us to walk the “sawdust trail.”  Or we might envision the crazy guy on the street corner with the bullhorn blaring out, “turn or burn!”
The fact is, “repent” is a serious biblical word that demands our serious attention.  It is used seventy-eight times in the Bible, fifty-four times in the New Testament.  But what does it mean?  Most folks who’ve been around church for a while have probably heard that the Greek term from which we get our word “repentance” is metanioa which means a change of mind.  But there is another closely related word that is also translated as “repentance” and that is metameleia, which means a change of soul.  Both – a change of mind and a change of heart (or soul) – are essential for repentance to be complete.  Our thinking must change – as it did in my experience regarding my teaching job and our attitude must change – as yours surely did regarding how you’ll take your vacations after you got married!
The voice calling in the wilderness
John’s call to repentance certainly involved a change in thinking and attitude.  But it was also a very specific call in a very unique time.  We need to understand what John was doing and how the people were responding if we are to hear God’s call to us today.  The world in which John the Baptist issued his call and in which the Messiah would eventually launch his ministry was one of poverty and oppression.  A visit to most third world countries today would give you a good picture of what it was probably like when John and Jesus traveled the roads of Palestine.  Most people were subsistence farmers or ran a small business, eking out a modest living from day to day.  All Jews were cruelly taxed beyond their means by the Romans and their willing accomplices, the tax collectors.  There was a small portion of the population, the religious elite or royalty, who lived in luxury and condescension of the poor.  But far and away, most of the Jewish population was poor and they were eager for release from oppression by anyone who would offer it.
By the time John came on the scene, Israel had already had a few messiahs emerge from the people offering restoration of the Jewish kingdom, only to be cut down by the Roman sword.  Besides that, the Old Testament prophets had promised a messiah and Daniel had even hinted at a schedule that seemed to suggest that the time was ripe for their savior to come. Like a can of pop, shaken under the duress of oppression, Israel was ready to burst with expectation for a deliverer. 
But John was different.  Boy, was he!  He had a camelhair suit and a leather belt.  He ate locusts and honey.  John is a forerunner of the Kingdom of God that Jesus, himself, would initiate.  He doesn’t come with swords and armor, like previous revolutionary messiahs.  His only weapons are his words.  He doesn’t preach in the cities; he’s a loner in the desert.  He purposely eschews the trappings of earthy power when he heralds the news, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 
And yet the people come out to hear him…in droves.  He makes clear that he, himself, is not the Messiah, but he is preparing the people for Messiah’s arrival.  John is announcing a new program – a new way of thinking and living.  And the people respond with confession of their sin and submit to baptism by immersion, symbolizing cleansing and embracing a new order of life.
Regarding John’s ministry, the Apostle Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”  (Acts 19:4)  Catch the meaning here.  Though people were confessing their sins at their baptism, John’s call was not just for moral renewal, but rather to grasp a new way of looking at life: to embrace God’s program and agenda through the coming Messiah rather than their old systems and understandings.  The unveiling of the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God – they are synonymous) through Jesus’ teachings and actions which led to his crucifixion were to prove too radical for many who lived during that time.
As the story continues, the radical nature of John’s message becomes clear:
Matthew 3:7-12
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 
Repentance is more than moral reformation
Sometimes, we think in our ignorance and arrogance, “Yeah…give it to them, John!  Those Pharisees and Sadducees were really bad guys.”  Think again.  These were the guys, especially the Pharisees, that had the strictest moral code of the day.  They didn’t smoke, chew, or go with girls who do.  They never went to a dance or darkened the door of a movie theater.  Never even saw a deck of cards.  They all worked at Chick Fil’a or Hobby Lobby and never on Sundays.  Their moral standards would put the Amish to shame. 
So why does John call them a “brood of vipers?” 
Because John’s call is much deeper than a moral code.  He is calling them to a new, radical way of living.  He is saying a new day is dawning.  God is coming and you’re going to have to give up your way of thinking, your allegiances, and your power.  You can’t fight it; you have submit.  You have to change your thinking and your attitude.  You have to repent.
Job was a man with whom there was no unrighteousness.  And yet, when God allowed terrible suffering into his life, he descended into a pit of bitterness and began to accuse God of injustice.  Though righteous, he did not have peace…that is, until he repented, gave in and embraced God’s ways. 
Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

…My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

                                         Job 42:1-3, 5-6
Repentance, giving in to God is the only pathway to peace.  That’s why we light the peace candle of Advent when we read the text about John the Baptist.
Johnny Cash
Most folks know a little something about Johnny Cash – the country singer who always dressed in black.  Cash lived a hard life.  He was born into a poor but religious family and worked the cotton fields even as a child.  Throughout his life he carried the burden and heartache of losing his older brother in a terrible sawmill accident. 
To escape the pain at home, Johnny left to pursue a career in music.  He quickly found success in the recording studio which led to an extensive touring schedule.  But music and a blossoming career in popular music wasn’t enough to cover the pain in Cash’s life.  He immersed himself in a fog of pills and booze for over ten years to try and find a temporary peace.  Along the way he became a wrecking machine, leaving a trail of destruction in his young family, property, and his career.  He was arrested multiple times for drug possession and was the only person ever sued by the US government for starting a forest fire. 
Johnny had religious roots.  He loved and sang gospel music.  He knew who Jesus was and he knew he was running from God.  In his misery, Johnny tried to take his own life by wandering alone into a dangerous cave in which many people had died.  But it was there, in the quietness and darkness that he reached a moment of clarity and was confronted with the same message of repentance that John the Baptist delivered to the first century Jews.  In the deepest pit, Johnny finally surrendered to God’s agenda rather than his.  He was born again.  He found peace.
Cash’s battle with drug addiction was no miraculous cure.  He remained true to his commitment to Christ as a testimony of God’s grace, but he would also still struggle with prescription drugs and did enter treatment a few other times later in his life.  But since his experience of repentance in the cave, Johnny Cash was a man who no longer walked in inner desperation and conflict.  He stopped fighting and gave in to God.  He changed his mind and his ways.  He aligned himself with God’s life agenda.  He repented. 
Your call to repentance
The only path to peace is repentance – aligning your life with God’s plan.  We think of repentance as a one-time experience.  You know, repentance is for those people who need to receive Christ.  I’m a Christian.  I’ve already done that.  I don’t need to consider repentance.  But the Scripture remains true – we are all like sheep, we tend to go our own way.  And when we do, we have conflict in our life.  We don’t have peace.  Oh, we’re pretty good at hiding it.  But there are an awful lot of folks walking around here who don’t have peace in their hearts.  Can you imagine what it would be like if we – as a church – became a repentant people?  What would that look like?  I think we would begin to see lives powerfully transformed.  I think we would see people eager to share what God is doing in their lives and the peace that they have found in surrender to God. 
This second Sunday of Advent offers us the opportunity to hear the Baptist’s call to realign our lives with God’s agenda for our lives and for the world.  Our lives are so busy – especially in December.  We need to slow down, quiet our souls and consider if our lives are in alignment with God’s.  This is what it means to “prepare the way for the Lord” as the prophet did.  Repentance will clear a highway for God to inhabit your heart.
“The Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says, “Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved.  In quietness and confidence is your strength.”  Isa. 30:15
This is God’s call to you this morning.  This is your moment. 


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