[This message was shared during the worship celebration of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
A seminary professor of mine once told us the story of a long flight he took. Seated next to a friendly couple, he had a conversation with them that lasted most of their flight. Early on, the husband asked my professor what sort of work he did. He explained that he was a Lutheran pastor and that he taught at the seminary in Columbus. “What a coincidence!” the man said, “I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church”
Their conversation went on pleasantly. But my professor was bothered by something. It was clear from while both the husband and wife had been baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church, they were no longer connected to any church. Christ and the fellowship of believers who together, listen to God’s Word, serve in Jesus’ Name, tell others the Good News of new and everlasting life for all who believe in Christ, and share the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood (not to mention enjoy fellowship dinners and coffee hours together), were all fading memories for them. They had no vital, daily link to Christ.
This was a heartbreaking thing for my professor! He felt like the people from my first parish who would come up to me during funeral visitations and ask, "How do people without Christ make it through something like this? Where do they find strength? Where do they find purpose?"
So, my professor steeled himself and said to the couple, “You both are wonderful people. I hope that you’ll consider reconnecting to Christ and the Church. It brings me joy and comfort to be close to Jesus each day. And I was wondering, would you like to affirm the covenant of your baptism right now by inviting Christ into the center of your lives?”
The couple was horrified. The husband yelled at my professor. “What are you talking about? I told you I was baptized!” That was the end of their pleasant conversation.
Might my professor have handled things differently? Maybe. But I can’t fault him at all. The reaction he got from that couple as the three of them flew thousands of feet in the air was probably no different from the one John the Baptist got on the banks of the Jordan River when he told the people of Judea, the children of Abraham, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Some in that crowd, most notoriously the Saducees and the Pharisees, members of two Jewish sects who, each in their own ways, thought that they had corners on the righteousness market, might well have thought, “What are you talking about? We’re the heirs of Abraham!”
They were, of course. But John was unimpressed with their genetic lineage, a lineage he shared. He didn’t care that they spent long hours in the temple or in religious conversation. The proper preparation for the coming of the Messiah he was announcing had nothing to do with being on the membership roles of First Lutheran Church of Jerusalem (if there were such a thing) or of being a branch on the right family tree. It had--and it has--everything to do with living a repentant life.
When we think of being repentant, we usually think of being sorry for our sin. Repentant people are sorry for their sin, of course. But that’s not all that it means to be repentant. John gets at the true meaning of repentance in the Gospel lesson for today when he says that those who walk with God should “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
At our old house in Cincinnati, we once had five tall shade trees. I agree with the man who once told me, "You can't put a price on a good shade tree." Those five trees were wonderful! But over the course of our seventeen years there, each of them either fell down or had to be cut down before they did fall. All rotted from the inside out. Even after disease had filled them internally, external layers survived, their xylem and phloem intact, allowing the trees to sprout some branches and leaves. It was only after they were down that I realized how dead they’d been.
People who lead repentant lives are fully alive, inside and out, even when their bodies are no longer strong. That’s because unlike the couple that met my professor or some in the crowds who went to see John the Baptist, their faith isn’t composed of religious memories, religious membership, or religious parentage.
They’re rooted in Christ today.
They follow Him today.
They have a vital, living relationship with Christ right now.
This morning, we will witness the baptism of Isabelle Audrey. The baptism practiced by John was nothing more than a symbol, a good symbol reflecting people’s intention to turn from sin and walk in God’s ways, but a symbol nonetheless. But the baptism that Isabelle will undergo today is entirely different. John only baptized with water, a symbol of cleansing, but in this baptism, the baptism instituted by Jesus, He baptizes Isabelle with the Holy Spirit and fire. Christ will fill Isabelle with His resurrection power and He will send His fire to cleanse her and light her way through life. Baptism is an awesome and mysterious thing! In it, God claims us as His own dear children and commits Himself to us for all eternity.
But that’s not the end of the story. Later in her life, Isabelle will be asked, in the rite of Confirmation, to affirm her intention to follow Christ, not because her parents believe, not because she belongs to Saint Matthew Lutheran Church and it's the thing to do, but because, wooed by God’s powerful Holy Spirit, overwhelmed by the love and grace of God she sees in Jesus and His cross and resurrection, she’ll want to follow Christ herself.
And each day of her life, Christ the Lord, Who never tires of loving us, will be calling Isabelle, just as He calls us, to follow Him, to make God’s ways our way. Repentance then, starts not with us, but with the God we meet in Jesus, Who calls us, in the midst of all the difficulties, challenges, successes, joys, and busy-ness of life to say, “Come to Me. I will give you rest and more. I will give you hope that never dies. I will give you life that lasts forever. I will give you a purposeful life that never ends!”
Martin Luther said that the Christian is to live in daily repentance. The sin inside of us, the sin incited by the devil, and sin of the world will day-in, day-out work to discourage us from following Christ, make us doubt God’s love for us and God’s promises to all who believe. We daily need to bring our lives to God and tell Him once more, “Lord, not my will, but Your will be done!”
This is precisely what John the Baptist says in our Gospel lesson today. “Don’t presume to depend on your religious memories to get you through the challenges of life,” he’s saying. “They won’t help. Only God can help!”
The Greek language in which the New Testament was written has many more tenses for its verbs than does our English language. It’s a richer language than ours, in a way. The tense of the verb that John uses when he tells the crowds—and us—to “Repent!” has the idea of allowing repentance to be more than some one-and-done event, but an ongoing, everyday reality for us.
Maybe it will help to think of repentance in this way. Hundreds of miles above the earth, there are satellites orbiting around. As long as they orbit properly, satellites are useful. They send us lots of information. It was through the use of satellites that the TV weather people accurately forecast the snowfalls we experienced this past week, for example. But satellites don’t stay on course or send us the information we need automatically. Occasionally, the people at ground control have to send signals. That way the satellites remain focused rightly and they don’t veer off their courses. Each day, each moment of our days, God calls us to repent, to return to the course He has in mind for our lives, the course that brings life and hope and peace. To repent is nothing other than to fall into Christ’s orbit when He calls.
The trajectory of the repentant person’s life is entirely different from that of people who rely on their own supposed goodness. Pastor Dale Galloway tells the story of a boy named Chad. One day he told his mother that he wanted to make Valentine’s Day cards for his classmates. His mother wished that she could persuade him to forget about the idea. That’s because Chad's classmates were always putting him down, picking him last for baseball at recess, and laughing at him. But Chad was insistent. So, Chad’s mom bought the construction paper and the crayons and for three hours, he worked hard on making thirty-five cards, one for each classmate!
On Valentine’s Day, Chad carefully picked up the cards, put them in a bag, and ran out the door. Certain that he would be disappointed that his classmates had failed to remember him, Chad’s mother baked his favorite cookies and had them waiting for the moment he got home from school. At the usual time, she heard the other children laughing and talking as they walked toward their houses. Behind them all, walking by himself was Chad. It broke her heart to see him. But when he came through the door, there was a spring in his step, even though she could see that, unlike the other kids, Chad wasn’t holding a bag of Valentine’s cards. Choking back tears, she announced that she had his favorite cookies and some milk for him. But Chad seemed not to hear. His face was glowing and all he could say was, “Not a one...not a one.” Now, his mother thought she would cry. But then Chad told her, “I didn’t forget a one...not a single one!”
To repent is nothing other than to fall into Christ’s orbit when He calls.
Chad was a boy in Christ’s orbit, confident of God’s love for him, filled with the mind of Christ, and able to serve others without resentment or conceit. He bore the fruits of repentance, of daily contact with his Lord.
As we prepare to meet Christ at Christmas this Advent season, may the same be said of us. Amen
[The story told by Dale Galloway is found in Chuck Swindoll's book, Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living.]