Sunday, December 06, 2009

Repentance: God’s Positioning System

Because of its automatic play feature, if you wish to view the video mentioned below, click here.

I included this video because I liked the the photos and how it illustrated the theme of the sermon. I also like the idea of imagining what God's voice would be like. Since I've been a mom, the voice of God has often been like that of a child in my imagination. How would you imagine God's voice on your own inner GPS?

Baruch 5: 1-9; Luke 3: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
December 6, 2009

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Come and make straight the way in the desert,
a highway for our God,
Come and make straight the way in the desert.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord.

When the crowds heard John crying out to them, it wasn’t a sweet song they heard. The voice that calls us to repentance more often than not has an edge to it; sometimes harsh, sometimes a whisper, but it usually manages to get our attention one way or another. It can be that annoying voice that tells us (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “You have missed the turn”; “You are going in the wrong direction”, “Make a U-turn when possible”. Or you could have Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s voice installed in your inner GPS telling you, “You’re almost home! Slide! Slide!”

In fact John was probably sounding pretty cranky and hoarse by now. If you were to look at a map of the region where John was preaching, which was “all the region around the Jordan”, you’d see that the river Jordan, about 200 km of it, runs right through the territories of all those rulers listed at the beginning of the reading from Luke. John was calling people out of their familiar and comfortable hometowns out into the wilderness of the Jordan. By preaching from the sacred river and quoting the prophet Isaiah, John’s message would have been very plain to the people, that God was coming in a very real way.

But actually, he’s misquoting Isaiah and upending the meaning for the purposes of his own truthtelling. The third verse in Isaiah 40 reads “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…”. These words were spoken to the people of Israel when they were in exile, that God would come to them and lead them home.

However, in the gospel of Luke, we heard: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John is the voice in the wilderness calling for the crowds to join him there for a baptism or a mikvah, a ritual bath, for the forgiveness of sins. A mikvah is ritual immersion in a bathing facility with a natural source of water, such as a spring or a groundwater well. According to Orthodox Judaism, a mikvah is necessary to make one spiritually pure in order to worship in the temple. To facilitate purification, the water has to be living water—water that moves. And so John went to the Jordan, the sacred river, to offer this baptism, this mikvah of repentance.

In a hot arid climate, such as the Middle East, water is the antithesis of death. Many of the purity laws in Leviticus relate directly to some form of death. In Orthodox Judaism women are required to have a mikvah after their monthly period, not because the bodily function is unclean, but because the loss of blood is a form of death. Death is considered unclean because it is believed to be a consequence of sin. Death did not enter God’s creation until the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And so John was proclaiming a baptism, a mikvah of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To repent is to return from exile, to turn from going the way of sin that leads to death, to turn toward the Way that leads to the promised land of God. The Greek root of the word ‘repent’ means to think differently, to go beyond the mind that you have, beyond conventional understanding. Einstein is quoted as saying that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind or consciousness that created it.

To think with a sinful mind is to think we are in death. That’s the positioning system we usually listen to. To repent is to realize that we are forgiven; not only forgiven but loved unconditionally, that God intends us for life and for love, and then to live that truth as a way of life; as in (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “Jesus is the Way, the truth and the life”.

But why is John offering this repentance, this forgiveness in the wilderness? If a Jew who followed the Torah wanted to be cleansed of sin and death, they would go to the temple in Jerusalem, to be washed in the temple mikvah and proclaimed pure by the temple priests. One would think that that would be the right direction.

Most scholars agree that John was an Essene, a desert sect of the Jewish faith that rejected the temple authorities, believing them to be corrupt, that they had taken too much power and authority for themselves, controlling who was in and who was out. John prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah. To prepare to be ready to follow the Messiah, the people must turn from their sin that they may be able to accept the teaching and the Holy Spirit this Messiah would impart. They must be able to think differently about God and their relationship to God. And desperately wanting to be close to God, they came from all over the Judean countryside, from the surrounding territories, and from Jerusalem, away from the seat of religious authority, to participate in this cleansing mikvah that was free to all.

How do you need to think differently about your life and your life together here at ******** United Church of Christ? In what ways do you live as though you were in death that you need to turn away from? What familiar and comfortable places do you need to be called away from to join God in the wilderness of life-change and transformation? Are you ready to follow wherever the Christ child may lead you?

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


1. “I Hear the Prophet Callin’”, words and music by Pepper Choplin (based on Isaiah 35: 1-2, 4-6; 40: 3), © 2008 Lorenz Publishing Company.

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