In a 1997 sermon, Robert M. Bowman tells about a friendship between a former head of the NAACP and the one-time Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. They met debating each other, many years ago. The Klansman taunted the black man and called him names. The black man responded that nothing the Klansman could do would make him hate him. He responded instead with love. Over a period of many years, the Klansman would telephone the black man, beginning the conversation by calling him the “N” word. But in 1991, he called and said, “Hello, brother.” He went on to tell his friend that he had left the Klan, had accepted Christ, and was called to preach the gospel, and that his conversion was due to the example of the black man returning hatred with love. By the time that Bowman recounted this story, they co-pastored a church and together preached about God’s love.
Last week, in our Bible lesson, we were introduced to the ministry of John the Baptizer, who said that the appropriate preparation for Christmas and for meeting Jesus Christ in our daily lives and in eternity is repentance. Repentance is the means by which our wills, minds, and hearts are opened to Christ and we become more like Him. When repentance happens--when we turn away from sin and toward God, miraculous things take place. That includes Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan renouncing racism and instead, becoming followers of Jesus.
In the very visual Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for repentance conveys the idea of a person once walking away from God, changing course and turning back toward God. In the more cerebral Greek language of the New Testament, the word for repentance--metanoia--means to change one’s mind.
But repentance needs to be more than a one-and-done deal. Sin is the common condition of the human race and even the most spiritual people you and I might name must fight it every day. Satan, the apostle Peter tells us in the New Testament, is a ravenous lion looking for those he can destroy. You can be sure that if the devil tried to tempt even Jesus, he’s not going to give up on trying to lure you and me away from walking with God. It’s possible for those of us who have repented for our sins to slip up and turn back to sin and away from God. If we’re to keep walking in the free gifts of forgiveness, love, and hope that Jesus gives to all with faith in Him, repentance needs to be our lifestyle.
But what does a repentant life look like?
Every year in this season, we read or see stage or movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. As you all know, it tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who one amazing Christmas Eve, is met by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Through these encounters, Scrooge feels compelled to change his mind and the direction of his life. Near the end of his story, Dickens says of Scrooge, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Scrooge turns from the greed and self-centeredness that was killing his humanity and, according to Dickens, kept doing so for as long as he lived. His repentance became a way of life.
Today’s Bible lesson takes us back to John the Baptizer at the Jordan River, preaching repentance. His message doesn’t sound like anything that Oprah Winfrey would say. “You brood of vipers!” he cries out to some of us hearers.
He tells them too, not to count on being children of Abraham to get them into the Kingdom of God. The question isn’t what the religion of our parents and grandparents were; the question for each of us is whether we ourselves believe in and follow the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
What John was really saying is, “To get the life God gives for free, you have to be walking toward God yourself!”
That means being truly repentant. Our lesson says that John encounters three different groups of people who want to know what a repentant, faithful life might look like in their real worlds.
- The first group are described vaguely as “the crowds.” John tells them to share their extra coats and extra food with others.
- Then comes tax collectors. John tells them to only collect what they’re supposed to collect.
- Finally, he’s approached by soldiers. He tells them not to use their power to extort from the people.
In other words, God wants us to live out our lives in the same everyday places we all presently occupy. But we’re called to be light in a darkened world by conducting ourselves with an obvious love for God and love for others.
That’s a repentant way of life and it’s only possible when we surrender ourselves to the Savior Whose birth we soon will celebrate.
I’ve told some of you before about Fred. (This is a different Fred I'll be telling you about in one of the spiritual gifts devotions later this week.)
Fred was a member of my internship congregation. Less than a year before I met him, Fred had been in the clutches of alcoholism, an addiction in the grips of which he’d been for a long time. Finally, his wife and family and friends had had enough. An intervention group was organized in which all these people who loved Fred told him that he needed to quit.
Their tough love paid off. He enrolled in a Twelve-Step program and he continued to work the steps the rest of his life. Fred turned from his addiction and turned to Jesus Christ. He kept turning to Christ day-in and day-out.
What a difference it made in his life! When I first met Fred, I didn’t know his story and when I handed him a cup of wine for Holy Communion shortly after my arrival, I was perplexed that he simply held the cup and, without drinking from it, put it into the tray with other worshipers' empty cups.
His daughter and son-in-law later told me that they had been terrified that Fred would drink the wine, but were so proud of Fred and so grateful to God that he’d been able to put that tempting cup down. A lifestyle of repentance is made up of a thousand such little victories, won because we dare to turn from destruction and death and turn to Jesus.
I got to watch Fred through all the festivals and seasons of a Church Year because he never missed worship. That’s how grateful he was to Jesus for his deliverance. I watched him weep at the reading of the story of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. I watched him too, sing at the top of his lungs in celebrating of Jesus resurrection on Easter. And I saw the light in his eyes when we celebrated Christmas. Of him, like old Scrooge, who turned from sin, it could be said, “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
As we turn to Christ each day, asking for forgiveness of past sins as well as the courage to resist sin today and to keep walking with Him tomorrow, may the thing be said of us. You see, the ones best able to truly keep Christmas are those who live this lifestyle of repentance, a lifestyle of walking with Jesus. Amen!