As a seven year old who usually found worship less than exciting, young Jim Cymbala nonetheless found himself impressed by a preacher named Howard Goss. As Cymbala explains it, Goss, unlike many of the preachers who came to the Pentecostal church of his childhood, “didn’t rant and rave to make a point. Nor did he use emotional gimmicks as he delivered the Word of God. He simply explained the truths of Scripture in an easy, conversational tone.” Yet, something about Goss’ personal faith impressed the seven-year old Cymbala far more than anything Goss said.
Years later, himself by now a Pentecostal pastor, Cymbala met the son of Howard Goss. The younger man remembered “a big camp meeting” held in Canada when he was a kid. Every prominent preacher of their tradition was there and the event attracted huge numbers of people to the morning, afternoon, and evening preaching services.
As Goss’ son recollected, all the preachers jockeyed to be picked to preach at the evening events, when the crowds were bigger and the prestige greater. “Suddenly,” Howard Goss’ son remembered, “one of the leaders asked where my father was. He was…highly respected by everyone. They wanted to consult him [about the preaching schedule]…They finally heard that he was last seen in the kitchen and dining hall area, so [the son recalled] I went with them to find him. They could scarcely believe their eyes when they got to the kitchen. There was my dad on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor with some of the…workers!”
When told that the prominent preachers wanted to know what his preferences were on the preaching schedule, Goss demurred. “You don’t need to worry about me,” he told them, “But I found out that they’re short of help here in the kitchen so I thought I’d lend a hand.”
Here was a man, the direction of whose life was altogether different from what we see in the lives of most people in the world…maybe even in the Church. Most people allow the directions of their lives to be dictated by the sinful orientations with which each of us is born. As we cave in to these sinful orientations or impulses, we wander farther and farther from God, like the lost sheep that wander from the shepherd in Jesus’ famous parable. In these Advent and Christmas seasons, we remember that God has acted as a good shepherd seeking those who have wandered from Him and Who, through His death and resurrection, has done everything necessary to bring us back under the gracious rule of God, where we can experience life forever with God.
But, as I’ve said before, God does not force His eternal kingdom on anyone! Nor can it be earned by acts of religious piety. Nor can it be claimed simply because we were raised in the church, or held high offices—whether as clergy or laypeople—in the church, or because we were nice, polite people, or because we were in worship every single week. The people who enter God’s kingdom are like Howard Goss: They turn from the sin to which they are naturally oriented and they turn in faith to the God Who came into the world on the first Christmas in Jesus Christ!
Of course, when Jesus was born, few in the world took notice of it. He lived in obscurity until God the Father signaled that it was the right time for Him to begin a ministry that would culminate in His crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew 3:1-12. our Gospel lesson for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, finds John the Baptizer preparing the people of Judea and the world for the disclosure of the long-awaited Messiah. Today, John’s words can prepare us for the return of that Messiah, the crucified and risen Jesus, Who, at a time known only by God the Father, will come back to this world to fully establish His eternal kingdom. John was telling His original hearers and you and me to get ready to meet Jesus.
But how do we get ready? John says—in words similar to those Jesus Himself would later deliver in His own sermons: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Turn from your sinful orientations and turn to God so that God transforms you from an enemy of God to a friend of God, John is saying.
It’s interesting, too, that the word, “Repent” in the original Greek of Matthew’s Gospel is in the present tense, meaning that repentance isn’t a one-and-done phenomenon. Repentance, constant reorientation to the rule and will of God, is to be part of the daily life style of a Jesus-Follower. This is no doubt why Martin Luther, who taught clearly that we cannot earn our salvation by obeying God’s commandments, nonetheless began The Small Catechism with a discussion of the Ten Commandments. Every grateful follower of Jesus will want to turn each day to God, asking God to show them where they have disobeyed God, so that they don’t, slowly and ignorantly, wander away from the gifts of God’s grace and salvation.
To repent then, is much more than to be sorry for one’s sins. In fact, it’s possible to feel sorry for a sin and not be repentant. Years ago, I met a woman in a nursing home. She was then in her eighties. But she had done something wrong when she was seventeen for which she still felt life-crushing shame. She refused to receive Holy Communion when it was offered to her because she was sure that God could not and would not forgive her. She acknowledged her guilt, but she would not reorient her life to the loving Lordship of Jesus over her life. She would not accept God's offer of forgiveness. It was incredibly sad! Repentance entails both the recognition of one's need of God's forgiveness AND the willingness to receive that forgiveness. For some reason, that woman saw her need of forgiveness, but couldn't accept it. She was like a person dying of thirst on the rim of an unseen oasis.
I sometimes try to explain what it is to repent in this way. In space, when a satellite wanders or gets knocked from its orbital path, the satellite must be re-oriented in order to avoid trouble, things like collisions with other objects or falling into the gravitational pull of the earth, resulting in a crash. But with a simple radio signal from ground control, the satellite can be re-oriented, put back into its orbit around the earth.
Each time we turn to God, asking God to show us our sins, to help us to turn from those sins, and to live differently, we’re responding to a signal from God’s Holy Spirit and, in repenting, God corrects the course of our lives, keeping us in orbit around Jesus Christ, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” the only pathway to God.
Repentance then, is no small matter. Not to chase anyone away from the centrally important discipline of regular worship attendance, Mark Allan Powell, a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, points out that repentance is even more important than worship. In a book on the subject of worship, he writes:
…if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. [Through Matthew’s gospel, we see that] the ideal response to [all that God has done for us] is repentance…[In fact,] Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel…but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented…We know from Jesus' teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God…That’s exactly what John the Baptizer seems to accuse the religious leaders, members of the Judean sects of Pharisees and Sadducees, of doing in our lesson as they join the crowds flocking to the Jordan River to undergo John’s baptism of repentance.
“You brood of vipers!” he says to them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.” When we orient our lives to the Lordship of Jesus and the will of God, rather than our own sinful desires, our lives will bear fruit. There will be something different about us. We’ll swim against the cultural tide. Our values won’t be the same as the surrounding world. We’ll be in Jesus’ orbit.
Sometimes, the world will count us as weird as John the Baptizer must have seemed to the people of his day, foraging for locusts and wild honey, living in the wilderness that ancient Israel once escaped by crossing the very river in which he baptized.
How weird are you willing to be for Jesus? In his wonderful book, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century, theologian and historian Leonard Sweet writes that driving our cars has, for many, become war by other means. So, why not engage in spiritual warfare when you drive?
“Other people talk on their cell phones…” Sweet says, “I talk to God. I know people think I’m crazy: sometimes I’m crying, sometimes laughing, sometimes talking out loud, sometimes lavishing impassioned outbursts into empty space.”
“In spite of the double takes” we may get from others, Sweet urges, “make drive time devotion time.”
In the end, how high a price is it to be considered strange or undesirable by a world ticketed for destruction, while remaining in the hands of Lord Jesus Who has conquered sin and death for those who trust in Him?
A song many of us were taught as kids tells us, “If you’re happy and you know it, then your life will surely show it.” On the banks of the Jordan, John the Baptizer taught a similar lesson, “If you’re repentant and you know it, then your life will show it. You will bear the fruits of repentance.”
This doesn’t mean that you’ll be some holier-than-thou snob! It means that your humility before God, your surrender to Christ, and your submission to the Word of God and the will of God will show up in how you live.
It might find you on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor of someone else’s kitchen.
It might find you telling fellow sinners where forgiveness and life can be found.
And it most certainly will find you, each and every day, turning to the God we know in Christ, praying with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart…See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
It’s those who daily and authentically ask God to orient their lives to Him who are truly prepared for the kingdom of heaven, truly ready to meet Jesus! May we be prepared. May we live in daily repentance!