Isaiah 11: 1-10
I have to confess I struggle a bit with John the Baptist.
I have the overwhelming urge to clean him up, give him a shave, give him some clean clothes, and cook him decent hot meal. He comes over a bit dangerous and wild, he sounds as if he is out of control and he certainly doesn’t live by the rules of polite society.
He is not the role model I look for in a preacher. I don’t fancy all this shouting for repentance stuff. I prefer to like to wrap the gospel up in a neat parcel, a good catchy sermon and offer it as an interesting gift to you all.
But every time I tried to do that this week, John the Baptist kept messing everything up. He just won’t fit in the box of safe, predictable, and comfortable religion. His God is up to something bigger and certainly not comfortable.
We meet John the Baptist at the beginning of all the gospels –In each of them he is the advance party for Jesus. He is the warm up act, wild, hairy and badly dressed. He wanders out in the wilderness eating bugs and honey. He has one simple message. God is about to do something big and he does not want us to be facing the wrong way when it happens.
That is what repentance in the gospel is about. It’s about the direction we are facing and importantly where we are going.
Christianity is all about being on the move. We are a people on the move. In the Bible, it is amazing how many times God instructs people to get up and get moving. We are not to get too comfortable in our seats, or even in our buildings.
There are great examples about moving: Abraham was having a great time in Ur when God came to him telling him to up stick gather his family and move out.
Moses was hiding in Midian when the voice from the burning bush sends him into Egypt to confront Pharoah.
One of my favorites, Elijah was hiding in a cave because the evil queen and her army were after him. God listens to Elijah complaining about the poor working conditions for a prophet and God tells Elijah to get out of the cave and back to work.
In the New Testament we find Paul the apostle, perhaps the most important traveling preacher in the history of the church.
Our faith is a moving faith, a traveling faith, an open road faith. In the early days, Christians were known as “people of the Way.”
So when John the Baptist showed up calling people to repent, he is calling them and us to head in a new direction.
We understand the word repent, as asking for forgiveness, being sorry, but it also means to change direction, most literally to go back the way you came – to return to something you left.
John the Baptist is proclaiming the most basic message in all of Christianity – Return to God.
Return to God, because God was not lying.
In the reading from Isaiah, there is both the beautiful and the scary.
We are told of the kingdom of God where the wolf and the lamb lie down together. We are told of the kingdom where children will be safe and will not abused, neglected or killed. A kingdom where the knowledge of God fills the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah says the righteous judge will bring this kingdom. He is ‘A shoot from the stump of Jesse.’ I am sure those who heard Isaiah didn’t have a clue what he meant and history tells us they didn’t repent or return to God.
John the Baptist is saying, “Look, God was not lying about coming to judge. The kingdom is coming and it is going to be wonderful, but you have to repent, you have to change direction and turn to God because He does not ignore wicked and evil people. He does not ignore those who turn their backs on him.
You had better get on the right road now.
And here we are, on one hand we are surrounded by Christmas decorations, Christmas music and TV commercials about the joy and bliss of buying the perfect gift for someone. On the other hand John the Baptist is shouting repentance and talking about winnowing forks and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.
It would be easy to ignore his message; To discount it as the ravings of a mad man in the wilderness.
It is even easier to assume that the real target of the message was someone else, 2000 years ago, and nothing to do with us this morning. Even if we concede that it might possibly have a message for this generation, it is all too tempting to look around and see someone who is more out of step with God’s kingdom than we are. I am sure we can all think of someone who could use a little holy fire.
The Sadducees and Pharisees did just that ~ came out to see what all the commotion was about. John took one look at them and let them have both barrels.
This is not what they were expecting, they were the religious elite of Jerusalem tracing their family tree back to Abraham. They were the serious church people. They did what God said. They never missed church. They prayed beautiful and heartfelt prayers.
John took one look and called them all a bunch of snakes.
Here is the punch line:
When we are moving merrily on our way it takes just one step off the path to begin the downfall. ‘I know I shouldn’t do this, but it is no big deal.’ A bit further on we take another step, and then another, and another. With each step we find ourselves moving farther and farther away from the path. Before we know it, we are lost. We may still go through the motions, coming to church, singing the hymns but the power of God’s spirit eluding us.
John the Baptist came to meet us right here – in the wild and barren places –calling Repent. Get on the road with God again.
This morning we gather around the communion table, we have had the opportunity to repent and confess our sins. We have been forgiven – at the table we are offered the chance to turn back from those thoughts and habits and actions that take us out of step with God. We are invited to move back again in harmony with God’s vision for us and for our world as we remember Jesus who died for our sins, rose again and will come again.
In this season of great expectation may we all seek to find again the one who first called us to follow him and the one who still walks beside us along the road to God.
The gospel begins in barren place, where we can be alone with God, and that is so often where we find Him. Where there is no distraction, and little comfort, when we are challenged and tested, the place where we understand more deeply our total dependence on the living God.
Lord, when we get distracted by the pull of the world, call us back to the wilderness where we can be free from all that stands between us and your will. Help us to begin every day as a new journey, trusting in you – even when the journey is very difficult and the road is full pitfalls and rocks. And as Paul prayed for the church in Rome so we pray this morning – May the God of hope fill us all with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen