Friday, December 14, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 16, 2007)

Verse-by-Verse Comments, Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

(1) In the Gospel lesson last week, we read and heard about John's ministry by the Jordan River. His prophetic message was about the Messiah of whom John had said:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
Thus far, while calling people to repentance as John had done, Jesus hadn't enacted judgment.
This confused John. Jesus wasn't acting the way he expected the Messiah to act. John wonders if his identification of Jesus as the Messiah was right.

It's not that John's expectations of the Messiah were wrong. It's that they were incomplete, as we'll see.

4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
(1) Jesus points to His actions, foretold of the Messiah in Isaiah 42:7 and 61:1, as signs that He is the Messiah.

(2) A time of judgment will come, on what the New Testament calls "the day of the Lord." But Jesus' signs and the ministry of the Church exist to point people to Him as Messiah, God, and King and with that made clear, to their need to repent and believe in Christ.

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
(1) Last week, in one of these passes, I asked what accounted for the appeal of John and his stark message of repentance. Jesus asks the same question here. What drew people to John, Jesus concludes, isn't that he was a frail plant blown by the wind or he wore soft attire.

The reason, quite simply, is that John spoke the Word of God, plainly and bluntly. That's what prophets did. The prophets' mission wasn't to foretell the future. Instead, they held a mirror up before people to show them their need to return to God and to assure them that if they walked with God, their wholeness would be restored.

John's prophetic ministry was designed to prepare people to receive the Messiah.

10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
(1) Jesus cites Isaiah 40:3 and says that it refers to John. In popular piety, these words became associated with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. In v. 14, Jesus will identify John's ministry with that of Elijah.

(2) Jesus speaks a good word about John. But his words show us that great as John was, he was just a man and though faithful in his ministry, as capable of being wrong about the Messiah as anybody else. Like all of us, John, in spite of his own predispositions, was called to believe what God revealed about Himself and His character in Jesus. Since Jesus performed all the signs of the Messiah, John was left with the same call we receive this Advent season and every day of our lives: Repent and believe!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is God Real?

Yes, but as Steve Taylor sang, "It's harder to believe than not to." (1)

Lutheran Zephyr talks about this here. It's a great post, even though he quotes a piece I wrote here.

(1) Harder to Believe

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 16, 2007)

[These passes are designed to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. In them, I look at the Bible lessons around which our worship will be built. Hopefully, other readers of 'Better Living' will be helped by these passes, since we use the lessons associated with the Church Year that are used in most congregations in North America and actually, the world.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

General Comments:
(1) We come to the third of the four Sundays in Advent, the season that precedes Christmas. This year, known as Year A of the three-year lectionary cycle, as in the other two years, the Gospel lessons for the middle two weeks of Advent feature John the Baptist. Last week, we read Matthew's account of John's ministry on the Jordan River. This week's Gospel lesson finds John in prison, with questions about Jesus. More on that later.

(2) More about the season of Advent here.

(3) Isaiah 35:1-10: Chapters 1 to 34 of Isaiah have contained many oracles of judgment against the nations for their rebellion against God, which includes injustice and inhumanity toward others. God's people aren't exempt from judgment for their sins. In the chapters immediately preceding our lesson, Edom is singled out. Some believe that the nation of Edom helped Assyria to conquer Israel and Judah.

Isaiah 35 brings a shift in emphasis. It isn't God's desire to punish, although the Bible testifies that God will ultimately accept our choices, whether to receive Him and His grace or not. (See here.) In spite of the sins of Israel and their exile, God wills to restore the well-being of His people. The call, as has been true in all the texts on which we've focused during Advent, is repentance, turning back to God.

You can find some general information on Isaiah here.

(4) A few thoughts on the Isaiah text...First, on v. 1, the wilderness is the place where death and the devil have made themselves at home, according to the Bible. But it's also the place where God made life spring up and where God breathed life into lifeless dirt in the case of the first man. But, even the wilderness will be a glad place when Israel is restored (and when the Messiah comes).

(5) I love v. 8. You can even be an imbecile, but if you're walking on God's way, you'll be okay. This gives me great comfort!

(6) Psalm 146:5-10: Psalm 146 is part of a set that ends the Psalms, the Old Testament worship book. Some call Psalms 146-150 the Hallelujah Psalms because "each hymn includes a call to worship, a statement of the purpose for praising God, and a renewed summons to praise. These Psalms all begin and end with the word Hallelujah (in the NRSV, translated as “Praise the LORD”)."

(7) The God extolled and praised in these verses is very different from earthly rulers. This one acts on behalf of those who can't act on their own, those who freely acknowledge that their "help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God."

For some, this humble realism is offensive. There is in our world today, a virulent, hateful, often violent atheism, represented by people like Christopher Hitchens and others. Like the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietsche, many post-modern atheists reject belief in God in part because they recoil at notions of God favoring the weak. Also influenced by the thinking of Charles Darwin, earthly existence, to them, is about striving to be Nietsche's ubermensch (overman), who uses his mastery--physical, intellectual, or otherwise--to conquer. It's an affront to their egos to acknowledge a God greater than themselves.

But what these post-modern atheists refuse to acknowledge is the incontrovertible evidence from history and from contemporary societies that, despite the misuse and misapplication of Christian belief by some, Christianity has always unleashed creativity, freedom, achievement, free enterprise, and scientific inquiry.

(8) James 5:7-10: The New Testament book of James, written by an earthly brother of Jesus, deals with ethics, how to conduct one's daily life. One of the reasons this is necessary is seen in this lesson. It's what the scholars call the delayed parousia, the seeming delay of the risen and ascended Jesus in returning to establish His Kingdom.

In a way, this is the same issue bothering John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson from Matthew. The early believers being addressed by James had expected Jesus to return sooner. This led to restiveness on the part of some and often, to a failure to keep living the Christian life.

James tells the believers to be patient.

(9) The word for patience used by James is longsuffering. He points to two examples of longsuffering. First, the farmer. In Israel, there are two major seasons of rain: October/November and April/May. The farmer must wait patiently for both these seasons, early and late, before being assured of a harvest to reap.

Second, James points to the prophets. This is a timely example for us. Unlike self-appointed prophets who have founded their own religions, the Old Testament prophets delivered their oracles without leveraging obeisance. They didn't seek to rule over others. They sensed that they were moved by God to speak certain messages, but accepted that, like those to whom they delivered their messages, they had to wait to see if God would either use those messages or confirm that they were, in fact, from God.

Based on what we see in the last of the great Biblical prophets, John the Baptist, in this Sunday's Gospel lesson, we see that the prophets even sometimes doubted themselves. John wondered if Jesus was the fulfillment of his prophecies delivered by the Jordan River? Had he gotten things right? Or was Jesus not the Messiah?

Above all, the prophets were ordinary, imperfect people who acted in faith and a willingness to be wrong. The same cannot be said of so-called prophets who founded new religions, who acted with little evidence of self-doubt, and who fiercely enforced their oracles on their followers.

James would say such false prophets not only have lacked a connection with the God Whose self-disclosure is recorded in the Bible, but that they also have lacked patience, the willingness to let God act and the willingness to be wrong.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

This collective collapse of ethics is the worst thing that has happened to baseball. Ever.

Cynical sports intelligentsia, many bloggers, and run-of-the-mill sports fans will insist that the appropriate response to former Senator (and Judge) George Mitchell's report on steroid use among major leaguers is a yawn. "I don't care if he used steroids or not," I heard one Fox radio sports host say last week of a major leaguer whose name has often been associated with use of the drug.

Well I do care. And not because I'm a moral vigilante.

If the use of steroids didn't have a clear and deleterious effect on the game played on the field, I might not care that players use them.

But steroids turn their imbibers into inhuman behemoths. When Mark McGwire faced pitcher Mike Morgan to hit his record-breaking 62nd. season homerun in 1998, it wasn't a conventional contest between an undeniably talented longball hitter and a big league pitcher. It was more like pitting a gorilla against a chihuahua in a battle over a piece of meat. The gorilla was bound to win.

McGwire and the others named in Mitchell's report, including a total of seven MVPs, have compromised the game for more than two decades, making all their record-grabbing exploits irrelevant. For years, fans of the game have known that the homeruns of McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Bonds, and others were gotten on the cheap, the result not of talent combined with training and smarts, but of those things enhanced by the stuff sold to them by performance-enhancing dope dealers.

All the individual records and World Series championships won through the use of steroids over the past two decades are tainted. Though no ex post facto action can rightly be taken, I wish that the names of Roger Clemens, McGwire, Bonds, and others could be expunged from baseball's record books forever. Hank Aaron and Roger Maris earned their homerun titles. That can't be said of baseball's steroid junkies.

The scandalous abuse of the game can't just be attributed to the many players implicated in the Mitchell report, though. Team owners, managers and coaches, trainers, sports journalists, and the office of the Commissioner of Baseball all looked the other way as steroid use became pervasive, altering what happened on the field of play, perverting the game.

This collective collapse of ethics is the worst thing that has happened to baseball. Ever.

In 1919, as most baseball fans know, eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Two of the eight, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte confessed to a grand jury that they had taken money from gambling interests to do just enough to give the championship to Cincinnati. The excellent Wikipedia article on the Black Sox scandal notes:
Prior to the trial, key evidence went missing from the Cook County Courthouse, including the signed confessions of Cicotte and Jackson, who subsequently recanted their confessions. The players were acquitted. Some years later, the missing confessions reappeared in the possession of Comiskey's lawyer.[1]

However, the majors were not so forgiving. The damage to the sport's reputation led the owners to appoint Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball. The day after the players were acquitted, Landis issued his own verdict:
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
With this statement, all eight implicated White Sox were banned from Major League Baseball for life, as were two other players believed to be involved.
The point? Then, as now, baseball confronts an ethical crisis that threatens to turn the sport into a WWF-style mockery of the game. If steroids and steroid users aren't evicted forcefully from the game, final game scores--not to mention pennants, world championships, and MVP and Cy Young awards--will be as meaningless as the scores of Harlem Globetrotter-Washington Generals games.

Baseball's banning of steroids must be a forceful as its ban on gambling. No matter if the courts can't or won't act, no matter what the exponents of it's-okay-if-you-get-away-with-it ethics may say, Baseball must impose draconian, Kenesaw Mountain Landis-style penalties on future violators of steroid rules.

Earlier I said that if the use of steroids didn't have a clear and deleterious effect on the game played on the field, I might not care that players use them. But there's another reason why I care about the use of this poison by baseball players.

The New York Times piece on the Mitchell report notes:
Don Hooton, who became an outspoken critic of steroid use after his son Taylor committed suicide after using the drugs, attended the news conference Thursday [at which Mitchell summarized and presented his report] and said of the Mitchell report: “This is more than about asterisks and cheating; it’s about the lives and health of our kids.”
As long as baseball--or other sports or society, in general--winks at the use of steroids for anything other than legitimate medical purposes, kids will use them. And kids will die because of them.

After years of countenancing steroid abuse, Baseball must right its ship. The integrity of the game depends on it. So do the lives of kids.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Son of God: God with Skin on Him

[This reflection was shared during joint midweek Advent services involving people from four area congregations, including Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Colossians 1:15-20
Luke 1:26-35
You may have heard the story of the little boy who was finding it hard to sleep at night. He called out from his room for his dad. When his father got there, the little guy said, “The longer I’m here, the darker and scarier it gets. Couldn’t you stay in here until I fall asleep?” “Son,” his dad explained, “nothing bad can happen to you here. Your Mom and I are right down the hall.” “I know, Daddy. But I’m scared.” “You don’t have any reason to be afraid,” the father explained, “God is right here in this room with you.” “I know, Daddy,” the little boy said, “but I want someone with skin on them.”

Christmas is the day you and I celebrate the miracle of God with skin on Him! This really is what the term “Son of God” means. When we call Jesus “the Son of God,” we’re not calling Him the junior partner in the God business or the son of God, the way Philip is our son. Tracing it back to its Semitic roots and uses, calling Jesus “Son of God” has the idea of His being fully God, only made known and visible to you and me. It’s what Paul is talking about in our first lesson, when he speaks of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” Who created “all things in heaven and on earth.” Jesus is God with skin on Him.

For some, the whole idea of God becoming human, is a horror, an affront to the dignity of God. But God doesn’t see things that way.

One of my favorite writers is journalist Philip Yancey. Once, he wrote about being in an ornate London auditorium, listening to Handel’s Messiah, and being struck by the chorus singing, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

Yancey writes, “I had spent the morning in museums viewing remnants of England’s glory—the crown jewels, a solid ruler’s mace, the Lord Mayor’s gilded carriage—and it occurred to me that such images of wealth and power” must have been in the minds of those familiar with the Old Testament prophecies of a coming Savior. “When the Jews read [the prophecies],” Yancey writes, “no doubt they thought back with sharp nostalgia to the glory days of Solomon, when ‘the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones.’”

Then, Yancey says this: “The Messiah who showed up, however, wore a different kind of glory, the glory of humility…The God Who roared, who could order armies and empires like pawns on a chessboard, this God emerged in Palestine as a baby who could not speak or eat solid food or control his bladder, who depended [on a poor tradesman and a teenage girl] for shelter, food, and love.”

In another place, Paul spoke of the incredible reality of God “with skin on Him,” saying of Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

But God showing up in our world is more than a neat trick. Writer Clark Cothern tells about the Christmas that a squirrel fell down his chimney and into the wood-burning stove in the basement. Cothern says, “I thought that if [the squirrel] knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out. Nothing doing. As I reached began scratching about like a squirrel overdosed on espresso.”

Cothern and his family finally constructed a cardboard box “cage.” There was a hole in one side of it. The squirrel walked in and once inside, Cothern was able to take it outside into a nearby woods.

Later, Cothern says, he thought about how strange it was that before the squirrel was set free, he tried like crazy to bash his way to freedom from his “dark prison” and that the harder he tried, the more pain he caused to himself.

“In the end,” he writes, “he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger--one who could peer into his world--could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged.”

This is, in a way is what Jesus, God with skin on Him, does for us. All who dare to entrust themselves to His “tender care” are fitted for heaven to “live with Him there.” This is the One we call our Savior, Emmanuel, God with us, and “the Son of God.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Why Didn't You and I Ever Pray Together?"

Last week, my wife and I were back in the Cincinnati area, where we lived for the seventeen-plus years that ended little more than a month ago. We were invited to attend the annual meeting of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County, on whose corporate board I served for over three years. We decided to make a day of it, including an appointment with Vicki, who cut our hair throughout our time in Cincinnati.

As Vicki cut my hair, she stopped the buzzing of her trimmers and fixed me with a serious expression. "Hey," she said, "why didn't you and I ever pray together?"

Although my conversations with Vicki could be outrageously funny, there were plenty of times when we discussed serious matters. Over the years, I also discussed "spiritual" things with her and even promised to pray for her. But I never prayed with her. I never even offered to pray with her.

Feeling a bit flummoxed by her question, I suppose, I stammered around an answer. The gist of it was that, as a pastor, I need to be careful not to even appear to force my faith down the throats of people with whom I do business or I interact in my daily life. It's a valid a point. But the fact is that Vicki long ago became a friend of our family. Why, I asked myself, hadn't I ever prayed with her?

Vicki smiled at my obvious discomfort and said, "I'm just yankin' your chain, man." She went on to explain that after her mother suffered from a stroke a few weeks ago, she got a call from a client, a businessman. "How's your mother doing?" he asked. After Vicki gave him an updated report, he said, "Let's pray for her." And he began to pray on the telephone.

"I thought that was so cool!" Vicki enthused as she told me about it. "Here's this guy taking time out of his busy day to pray with me for my mother. It was great!"

In my whole life, I've never met anybody who minded it when someone offered to pray for them. It's the least offensive way a Christian can share their love of Jesus Christ. (Assuming, of course, that they will follow through on the offer and actually pray for the person!)

But as I reflected on Vicki's experience, I realized too, that I've never met anybody who minded it when somebody offered to pray with them.

Of course, such offers must be made sensitively. If Vicki's client had walked up to her at the busy barber shop where she works and loudly announced he was going to pray for her mother and she could join him, that would have been the height of insensitivity. Christians who embarrass others with their expressions of faith aren't helping anybody!

But the way her client approached Vicki on the subject demonstrated that he was no religious show-off, just someone who cared about Vicki and her family.

My family and I have been the beneficiaries of the prayers of a caring person like that. More than once. But one incident stands out in my memory.

In 1996, we bought a new Toyota Corolla. The salesman was great, obviously focused not just on making a sale, but on getting us into a quality car that we could afford. As we picked up the car and prepared to drive it off the lot, he said, "Hold it, folks, could we pray?" We were surprised, but readily agreed.

"Lord," he said, "please grant that as long as the Daniels family owns this vehicle, that it will give them quality service. Keep them safe as they drive in it. In Jesus' Name I pray. Amen."

Our daughter, who lives in Florida, now owns the car. So, eleven-plus years later, it's still in the family. And it's still a great car. As Sarah often reminds us, none of that should be a surprise. "After all, Dad," she tells me, "it's been prayed for!"

We weren't offended by that salesman's offer of prayer and in fact, look back on the experience with fondness and gratitude.

I know what some who are reading this may be saying right now: "Of course, you weren't offended. You're a preacher."

Leaving aside the fact that I have sometimes been offended by people who offered to pray with me--usually because they've displayed spiritual arrogance and presumption, let me tell you that, although I never did so with Vicki, I have offered to pray with hundreds of people through the years. And not just in counseling sessions at the church office or in hospital rooms. It's happened in lots of places.

Once a neighbor was visiting with me after we'd been out mowing our lawns. He told me about some things going on in his life. One thing led to another and, lo and behold, I asked if he'd like to pray. We prayed in my front yard. "I thought that would make me feel uncomfortable," he told me. "But it didn't. Thanks." "I thought it would make me feel uncomfortable," I told him. "But it didn't. Thank you."

When we pray, we voluntarily lay the needs and concerns of our world before God, asking that His will be done. When we offer to pray with someone else, we're doing that and expressing our concern for them.

If the offer to pray with a person is done with love for them and not a desire to look pious, it can be a great thing. Just ask Vicki.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Preparing for Jesus

[This message was shared during the worship celebration of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 3:1-12
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.]