These notes formed the basis of my sermon at Emmanuel, Northampton on December 4th 2016. The passages I referred to primarily were Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12.
‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’
Funny, as I’m preparing this sermon I’m thinking about the times in our society now that we might hear these words. Perhaps you, like me, have been on Abington Street in town of an afternoon, and heard a preacher loudly shouting these words. I wonder, do you stop and listen? I have to admit there have been lots of times when I’ve heard people preaching, using ‘Bible’ language, words like repent and sin and so on, where I’ve crossed over on to the other side of the road, actually been ashamed of fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ, because of their methods of evangelism and the force which they often deliver their message. To be blunt, it’s just not cricket. It’s not cool, I think to myself. I spend a lot of time trying to build relationships with people, to get to know them, to find out about them and their stories and to draw them into a relationship with God, and his Church. A foghorn on Abington Street just doesn’t help my method, or a message of inclusion, togetherness and so on. Sometimes, and I probably shouldn’t admit this, I just wish people like this would shut up and leave me to get on with my day. And I’m a minister. Imagine what it’s like for everyone else.
But that’s the thing, these people, these voices in the wilderness, they just keep going, because they have a calling, they’re certain that they need to tell people about the fact that Jesus is coming, and that this matters. My annoyance that, quite often, in the midst of my sadness about the way they’ve chosen to communicate, I feel my conscience being pricked, I feel a prompting in my heart, in my spirit, to do exactly as they suggest and to ‘turn back to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’, well that is only part of the story. I don’t want to be reminded that, at times, I don’t live, or look, much like someone who follows Jesus. I don’t want to be challenged about the choices I make, about whether they help or don’t help the growing of God’s kingdom here on Earth. I have my freedom, and I don’t want someone, particularly if they look and sound like they’ve been in the wilderness for a long time, making any kind of suggestion about how I should use that freedom.
I wonder if that’s what it was like for people who heard John the Baptist. He was confrontational. ‘Repent’ he said, that meant that he thought the people he was speaking to needed to change how they were living, the direction they were facing, the direction they were moving in. They needed to turn to God, because the kingdom of heaven was close at hand. One was coming who was greater than he, he wasn’t worthy to untie his shoes. I suppose these days it might be Converse.
People didn’t like what they heard. Matthew says that it was the Pharisees (they would later be people that Jesus often clashed with, of course) who challenged John and were called, subtly I always think, a brood of vipers. No something you want to be called, I think you’d agree. They’re challenged to prove by how they live that they have repented of their sins. Jesus is coming and he will sort the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. He will see, he will know and he will judge entirely fairly. Words and piety won’t cut it. It’s motives and actions that will be the measure of whether repentance has happened. Does that challenge you? It challenges me.
We heard about Jesus-Shaped People this week. It was exciting. You’ll be hearing more about it in the coming weeks and months. We’ll be learning about what some of Jesus’s key priorities were and how we can apply them to the life of our Church. One of the key themes we talked about on Wednesday night was about being prophetic, speaking truth to power, challenging evil.
If we’re going to do that, it starts with us. It’s a hard thing to say, but sin, things which turn us away from God, it is evil. Sin is evil. Sins are evil. It doesn’t mean we are evil if we do sin, but we have to bear in mind that to live in a way which is not God’s way is a serious problem, one that needs dealing with. We can’t just challenge the evil we see around us. We have to challenge anything in ourselves which is not Godly, and invite Jesus to judge us fairly, as our readings this morning promises us that he will do. We’ve been reminded again this morning of the forgiveness which is ours because Jesus won it for us on the cross. That doesn’t mean we can carry on living in the way we did before we knew about his offer of forgiveness though. We need to invite Jesus to live in us, individually and as a whole Church, so that he can give us the strength, wisdom and courage to live his way.
Our job is to prepare the way for the Lord, to clear the road for his coming (as people did as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday later in his story). To do that, we need to make a continuing commitment as a Church family to turn towards Jesus, to let him bless the things we do and are that are of him and to challenge us on the things that we do and are that may not be.
Are we willing to repent and return to God? The kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Jesus is coming, not just in our annual remembering of his birth as a baby on that glorious first Christmas day, but he is coming back, to, to judge the living and the dead, to rule in a kingdom where ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ He will rule in peace and with fairness when his time comes and we have been offered the chance to live with him, forever. Let’s make sure that we’re facing towards him, worshipping him as the one who offers us the only true route to life and hope, and living his way this Christmas time.
And so, it turns out that those preachers on Abington Street are right after all. Not only that, but we are called to shout, with how we live our lives, as well as with our voices if God calls us to, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’