Change: A Word for the Second Sunday of Advent

Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship, December 5, 2021

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tibe′ri-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae′a and Trachoni′tis, and Lysa′ni-as tetrarch of Abile′ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca′iaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechari′ah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, 
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

 -- Luke 3:1-6

I have to make a confession to you, and I hope you won’t think less of me. I make U-turns. Yep, I said it, I’m a proud, unapologetic U-turner. In these days of MapQuest and Waze, the U-turn has become something of a lost art – and it is an art. Sensitivity to traffic volume and patterns, rules of the road, and even more, admitting that the way you’re heading will not get you to where you’re going. No New Jersey jughandle or making three rights or lefts – no, it takes a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to make a U-turn. There’s a sense of urgency in U-turning, it says you’re not waiting, “Hold on, here we go,” a devil-may-care boldness, and who knows what you’ll discover along the way. U-turns are not for the faint-of-heart. That’s really what I want to say today. To turn around takes courage.

Luke begins his story, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, … .” I don’t need to read all the rest of the names – an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, two high priests, the politically powerful perched on their thrones pulling the strings, religious leaders - puppets of the state who say they speak on behalf of God. But the word of the Lord does not come to them. Think about it. It comes to a simple man, and it comes to him in the wilderness.

In the second year of the presidency of Joe Biden, while Eric Holcomb was the governor of Indiana, Gregg Sprunger being the mayor of Berne, Tom Henry mayor of Fort Wayne, in the pastorate of Peter Martin at Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship; in the 21st month of a global pandemic, a time of increased anxiety, the appearance of omicron, economic hardships, families, friendships, the country’s very fabric fractured … single, married, parent, grandparent or not; gay, straight, trans; young, old, no matter who you are, the word of the Lord comes to you.

Not in some other world, not in some other life; comes into the busyness, the craziness, the chaos, it comes in the midst of anxiety and anger and worries about the future, the word of the Lord comes into this wilderness, your wilderness, the wilderness of 2021 America, the word of the Lord comes to 2021 you. What is it saying?

One of the things we progressives have difficulty wrapping our minds around is that there are individuals, companies, institutions that benefit from the policies and positions that pervert the values of Jesus …

  • who benefit from prejudice and division, from the disenfranchisement of people of color and others;
  • who benefit from a toxic masculinity that codifies certain definitions of manhood and womanhood, and manifests itself in public policy issues like childcare and women’s health; how we raise and educate our kids and grandkids; how the sexes are represented in the media; 
  • who benefit – as everyone from the Pope to William Barber tell us – from an immoral, short-sighted, self-interest-based, trickle-down economic system that no matter what they say does not provide equal opportunity for all, that is skewed against the poor, blaming them for their poverty, and a global economic system, let’s face it, on a collision course that will destroy the planet pure and simple – they benefit from this unjust, destructive system;
  • who benefit from a gun culture and violence and war; and more – they benefit from these things, many of them worshipping a militarized Jesus, they don’t want it to change.

And the church, too, and not just those on the Right but progressive churches, and we do, too, our hymns and prayers, our Sunday morning creeds and confessions to the contrary, our blind spots don’t allow us to even imagine how we have benefited, how we benefit from these things.

So it’s in the midst of all this, the word of the Lord comes to each one of us in the secrecy of our hearts, and it says, “Repent! Make a U-turn!” That’s the question for today – in that secret place where no one else can see, can you admit at least to yourself what U-turn you have to make if you want, as Luke put it, “to see the salvation of God”?

Repent, easy to say, so hard to do. U-turns don’t come naturally, we don’t change courses so easily. Think about it, you’ve come by your deepest beliefs, your values, your worldview, your faith, not with a ledger or spreadsheet weighing pros and cons, conclusions arrived at by logical analysis. Let’s be honest, you believe what you believe because of a strange mixture of reason and emotion, the heart is as much a part of the equation as the brain.

So changing your mind isn’t so simple, it means changing what has worked for you up to this point, changing what has given your life meaning, how you’ve made decisions, what has multiplied your joys, comforted you, sustained you in your grieving up to this point. Changing a mind is more than changing ideas, it’s changing an identity. That’s why it’s important not only to listen to what people say they believe, but to listen even more to why they believe what they believe, to where their beliefs come from inside them. Understanding why we believe what we believe can help us find a way “in” to understand ourselves, and especially in these polarized times, how to understand those with whom we disagree so strongly.

Psychologists call this “splitting,” a form of dualistic thinking built into us, a defense mechanism to avoid anxiety and conflict; we cling to our beliefs as absolute good and “split” off those who are different as evil; but we don’t have to let it control us, that’s the point – it doesn’t have to be this way. (An aside: this is what happens with some on the Political and Religious Right who demonize the rest of us because the world, in their view, is literally going to hell, so they want to burn it to the ground or leave it all behind. It’s a psychological necessity for them).

It’s a truism to say that life is change, but in our day, the pace of change often outpaces our ability to deal with it; I’m always playing catch up. I’m 68 years old – to some of you that’s old, to others, I’m still a youngster – as I ponder the seasons of my life, in each decade there came a time, sometimes I chose it, sometimes it was thrust upon me, when the old answers that fed and sustained me no longer worked and I faced a decision to either retreat in denial and double-down, stubbornly holding onto the past; or I could embrace the new reality and set out on a journey God-only-knew where it would lead. And when, in a mixture of faith and holy foolishness, I chose the latter, I made a U-turn, to be honest, my life never changed for the worse. And funny thing is, as I’ve looked back over those decisions, I discovered there was another force at work, unknown, unnamed at the time, a force more powerful than I could have mustered on my own, a force we Christians call “grace.”

To repent is not merely “I’m sorry”; it’s not only a No, it’s also a Yes, a Yes to a new direction. The repentant life takes courage, it certainly does not come to us naturally, it’s probably the bravest thing we’ll ever do. It begins with an honest, sometimes sobering admission of who we are and what we long for, what we need, what we really need, a humbling really, that’s the word, a humbling, and admitting, too, that we’re not islands unto ourselves, but that we belong to each other, we are a part of each other, that in order to turn around we can’t do it all alone, we need each other. When will we finally learn that real strength is found in vulnerability, in taking a risk, in our mutual depending on each other?

R. Buckminster Fuller said, “So often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.” We can’t change the past, but we can change the future – whether we have years left or months or however long we have left – we can change how we are today, now who we are, we can change for the better. We can make a U-turn!

So I’m begging you and I’m begging the church, too, to step into the fray, because what I’m talking about here is nothing short of a moral infusion into the nation’s backbone. Just like the Baptizer, if you’re going to prepare the way, you’ll be a voice crying in the wilderness, so it requires a steeling of the will. I’m talking about a conversion here, not conversion to a particular religious faith, but a conversion to our nation’s original dream. This is where the message of Jesus is consistent with our nation’s creed – each human being valued in her or his dignity, thriving in freedom, with a commitment to the common good. And so a church on the right side of history will commit itself to the vision. “Pollyanna,” you say – Perhaps! “Idealistic church-talk that ignores the hard realities of the real world,” you say. Well, you might be right; I mean, there’s sure enough evidence to support that view; I wouldn’t want to bet the farm that it will come to be.

And yet … it really is pretty simple to me. You see, I know it’s true, I know it’s possible – Advent anticipation. Because in anonymous gestures and invisible acts that won’t make the evening news, I’ve seen the Baptizer’s vision of the world’s values turned upside-down come into being:

 … I’ve seen great dignity in the broken and burdened, the poor and the wounded – the broken made whole; I’ve seen …

 … how one word can topple the mighty, one word bless the lowly – one word; I’ve seen …

 … how forgiveness can transform prejudice, and enemies become friends – friends; I’ve seen …

 … the depressed and addicted and despairing find purpose in their lives and dream again – dream again; I’ve seen …

 … how the gift of tears, in the midst of unbearable heartache and unspeakable tragedy, can heal – the gift of tears; I’ve seen …

 … a peace that passes understanding in war zones and hospital beds and hospice homes – crazy, beautiful peace; I’ve seen …

 … the power of love, when they thought their life was over give someone back their life again, a second chance at life again – unconditional love;

 … I’ve seen it, all this, in people of faith and no faith, in people motivated not by fame or acclaim; and I’ve especially seen it in people who were graced with a vision of something more, something at the core of what it means to be human …

And I’ve seen it and known it and tasted it and touched it in the way of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the love of Jesus.

And I’ve seen it in you.

So it’s really pretty simple to me. On the 5th day of December in the year of our Lord 2021, with everything that is going on right now in the wilderness of this country … and in your families … and in your lives … and in your hearts … the word of the Lord comes to you. What is it calling you to do?

A video of this sermon is available on YouTube - CLICK HERE to view it.

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