Sermons

Sun, Dec 10, 2017

Reimagining repentance

Series:Sermons

There's growing opposition in Britain...

to a planned visit by the American evangelist, Franklin Graham--

son of the legendary Billy Graham.

A petition against him being granted a visa has been organised by a number of church leaders--

with support from some members of parliament--

because of his long history of hate-speech.

Franklin Graham has described Islam as "an evil and very wicked religion";

called for a ban on Muslim migrants long before Donald Trump had the idea;

and claimed that the "Muslim Brotherhood" organisation had infiltrated the US government under Obama.

He also has a long history of homophobic pronouncements:

claiming that Satan was the mastermind of the push for marriage equality;

praising Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for his draconian laws... 

and strong stance against "any gay and lesbian agenda";

and declaring that you can't be gay and Christian.

Indeed, he asserts, anyone who follows a 'gay lifestyle' is destined for the "flames of hell".

Asides from his vitriolic statements against Muslims and the LGBTI community...

he has also railed against atheists, abortion rights, immigrants and refugees, gun control, and assisted dying legislation.

And he's told any Christians who disagree with him that they're not 'real Christians'.

 

Frankly... 

I don't know how anyone filled with so much hate...

can think that...

in any way...

they're following Christ.

But, sadly, there's been no shortage of preachers throughout history who have done just that.

Over the centuries there's been no shortage of preachers who distort and pervert the gospel--

the "good news" of Jesus Christ--

preaching a message of fear...

and a God who hates and punishes.

And it certainly would be easy to see John the Baptist in that light.

Let's face it, according to Mark's Gospel--

which we heard read this morning--

John the Baptist was a bit of a freak:

wandering around in the wilderness...

dressed in camel skins...

and surviving on wild honey and insects.

At first glance-- 

just like many hell-fire-and-brimstone preachers--

you would have to say, "this is not a mentally stable person".

And John comes across here as that sort of preacher--

just like them.

After all, the author claims: 

"John...appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins".

 

And yet, despite his apparent eccentricities... 

nothing would be further from the case...

when understood within its socio-historical context.

First of all, the word translated here as "repentance" refers- 

primarily-- 

to a change in one's way of thinking, a change in attitude.

Second, what we understand by "sin" isn't necessarily what was understood in the first century.

It wasn't necessarily--

or even usually--

about doing bad things or acting immorally.

Rather, "sin" was about how the community perceived relationships with God.

Because they understood the whole community as "the people of God"-

as God's family-

if you didn't fit into the community...

then your relationship with God was faulty.

You were guilty of 'sin' if you did something that the community deemed inappropriate--

if you were perceived to be different...

if you didn't abide by their norms and rules...

if you didn't measure up.

It could simply be pursuing a certain occupation--

one that was considered "impure"...

like being a shepherd, or a fisherman, or a tax-collector;

or it could simply be because you were poor...

which meant that you couldn't afford to offer the appropriate sacrifices...

you couldn't fulfil all of your religious obligations...

you couldn't get time off to go to the synagogue...

you couldn't afford not to work on the Sabbath...

nor to give ten percent of everything...

and you couldn't avoid contact with outsiders or outcasts.

And it wasn't always something about which you had a choice...

or any control.

But, in the eyes of "decent" folk--

in the eyes of those who could afford to do the right thing...

in the eyes of the religious establishment and the powers-that-be--

that made you a 'sinner'...

beyond redemption.

 

So, in effect, what John the Baptist was doing was quite radical, even subversive.

He was offering these people--

people who didn't fit in or who couldn't do what the wealthy and respectable expected--

he was offering them a way out...

one that circumvented the normal rules and procedures...

one that bypassed the authority of the religious powers-that-be.

John's baptism was a symbolic act--

a way of saying, "yes, I want to belong.

I want to be in relationship with God.

I want things to be different".

Even though the reality of their life couldn't change.

For John, baptism was a symbolic commitment to a different way of life...

a symbolic commitment to a new sort of community--

a just...

compassionate...

alternative sort of community.

That is what John the Baptist's preaching was really about.

It was an invitation to all those who were thought to be outside God's community--

all those who were deemed unworthy or unrighteous--

it was a invitation for them to come...

to find welcome and acceptance...

and to be included...

despite what they had been told...

despite how they felt or had been made to feel...

despite what they had been brought up to expect or believe.

It was an invitation to discover--

perhaps for the first time--

that they were, indeed, welcome and valued...

and they really did belong.

It was a call to put aside everything and anything that got in the way...

everything and anything that stopped them from hearing God's voice...

and knowing that they were loved and accepted by God...

whether it was their past--

with its painful memories and scars;

whether it was their self-image--

because of what others had told them about who they were...

that they were useless or inadequate or beyond the pale;

whether it was their life circumstances...

or their self-destructive choices or practices.

John offered them a symbolic act--

a way to say that they were not going to be constrained by the past;

a way to say that they wanted to be a part of God's future.

That was the change of attitude--

the "repentance"--

to which John was inviting them.

 

And, in a sense, for us that's what Advent is really about.

It's a time for self-reflection...

a time to let go of the past...

a time to prepare...

a time to be open to the possibilities of God's coming...

God's indwelling...

God's re-creative presence among us and within us.

In a way, then, we too stand where John the Baptist's audience once stood.

In different ways, all of us are haunted by memories...

ashamed of past failings...

wanting to be accepted and to belong...

and yet often constrained by what we have always been told-- 

by the way that others see us...

by the names or labels that they give to us...

which we, in turn, have internalised...

and allowed to shape how we see ourselves...

and how we think God sees us.

And, like John's audience, symbolically we're called to let go of all of that...

to put the past behind us...

to put aside the labels and the damaging self-images...

and to reconnect with God...

to commit ourselves to a new way of being...

to adopt a new way of thinking and seeing...

to dare to dream...

to hope...

to trust...

to change...

and to live.

 

 
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