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Based on the scripture reading:
Luke 3:1-6

2003 December 7
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

Turning to God

I was shopping the other day, and a two-year-old who was with us said something out of the blue that made me think of John the Baptist. If you are a parent or friend of toddlers, you might very well know of a television show called "The Wiggles." A toddler I know has a favorite part of this show when one of the characters falls asleep in the most inappropriate of places, like in a museum, or in someone's car, and everyone else has to wake him up. They say at the count of three, "Wake up, Jeff!" So this toddler often walks around yelling with excitement, "Wake up Jeff!" When we went to the store one morning recently after watching "The Wiggles," this two-year-old, again yelling excitedly, started prancing throughout the shopping aisles and shouting as we waited in line for the cash register, "Wake up people!" "Wake up people!" "Wake up people!"

I imagine the prophet John the Baptist would get a kick out of this little prophet's comments in the store.

John went through the wilderness urging people to wake up and prepare for Jesus, the Messiah, who would be coming soon. I think John would cry this message out today too, most especially while people are shopping for Christmas. Can you imagine John in his camel coat and sandals at a shopping mall? I wonder if his message, Jesus is coming, would even be heard, or rather, drowned out by the clinging and clanging of Christmas toys and some loud rendition blaring over shopping mall speakers of "Santa Claus is coming to town." "Wake up people. Prepare for Jesus," John says. Just how do we prepare? How do we ready ourselves for our saviour, born of Joseph and Mary?

John the Baptist says we do this by repenting.

It is written in the Gospel of Luke: "And he came into all the region round about the Jordan preaching the baptism of repentance unto remission of sin." (Luke 3:3) John called upon people to repent and he wasn't alone. When Jesus began his public ministry, do you know what his first word of instruction Back to top to the people was? It was the word "repent." (Mark 1: 15, Matthew. 4:17)

So this Advent, you and I are encouraged by John and by Jesus to repent as a way to prepare for Christmas, as a way to be forgiven of our sins, and as a way to bring us nearer to God.

Repent. When I first read this scripture in the Gospel of Luke, and I realized I would preach upon it for my candidate sermon, I got a little nervous. Here I am, your newly called associate pastor, hoping to make a good first impression. I questioned, "How can I preach about repentance to people I haven't even met yet?" I imagined that the word repent would surely conjure up for some of you images of televangelists threatening that you must repent, or else, all doom and gloom and hell to come…, with fingers wagging at you through the TV screen. Well, first let me assure you, you did not call a televangelist to the pulpit. But let me say also that we, in a more liberal tradition, can use this word - repent - too.

The definition of the English word "repent" is to be sorry. However, some biblical scholars have argued that when the Bible was translated into English from the original Greek, coming up with the word "repent" or "to be sorry" for John the Baptist's message made for one of the worst translations of the New Testament.1 Metanoia, the original Greek word does not mean "to be sorry." Metanoia actually means to have a "change of mind." The religious sense of this word means something even more specific -- "to turn" or as the Old Syriac language has it, "turn ye" to God.2 John asks of us therefore that we turn away from sin and turn to God.

John's message is as old and wise as the most ancient of prophecies. The Hebrew prophet Joel writes, "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…" (Joel 2:12) Isaiah writes: "Let them return to the Lord, that the Lord may have mercy on them and to our God, for God will Back to top abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:7)

Turn to God. Just how do we do this for Advent and beyond? Sometimes all we need to do is just sit still, like you're doing right now on this snowy morning, taking a break from shoveling out all that snow! What we need is to take moments to step out of the busy fray that hits us all full-force before Christmas. Just sit still long enough to feel that God is already at your side. Have you ever been on a train or bus and you were so busy or caught up in thought that you didn't even notice the person sitting in the seat next to you? That's the way it is so often with God. It's as if God is sitting next to you, tapping you on the shoulder saying "I'm right here for you. Just look. I'm right beside you." Turning to God can be a prayerful and subtle move.

Turning to God can be a bold move. It's about the man who puts down his drink for the last time and calls to get help in his recovery from addiction.

Turning to God can be a risky move. It's about a teenager who notices that no one on the bus makes room for this one kid who everyone makes fun of, who is not cool to be seen with. It's about this teenager suddenly making room for this kid to sit with her.

Turning to God can be a move that requires reaching out. It's about the man who knocks on the door to meet a neighbor he's never bothered to meet before. The neighbor is elderly and can't drive and so the man offers to do some Christmas errands for her. Or it's about the woman who learns to care not only for people in her immediate circle, but for people she has never even met and who live half way across the globe.

Turning to God can be a new move. It's about parents who have never said a prayer outside of church, but for the first time, create a prayer ritual for their little child. Every night, they say a prayer at their child's crib and then one night, just as the child is learning to talk, she finishes what her parents Back to top are saying with a newly uttered -- "Amen."

Turning to God can be a move that requires self-improvement and changing behaviors. It's about the couple who always seem to argue, find fault, and judge each other harshly for what they see to be endless, annoying habits. It's about this couple one day making a commitment to change, to focus on the positive about each other, lifting each other up.

Turning to God can be a humbling move. It's about the man who finds out that his brother, who he has been estranged from for 15 years, had a stroke. The man resolves to travel far and find his brother, swallow his pride, forgive and let go of old hurts, and try to love him again, knowing he may never get another chance.

There are lots of stories all around us like these about people turning to God. Such transformations make for the best of Christmas stories. What will our stories be this Advent as we prepare for the coming of Christ? How will we turn to God?

Sometimes it's not so easy. That which would separate us from God and separate us from one another is sin. Moving away from sin can seem incredibly difficult sometimes. Trying to change or reach out in a way you have never tried before can seem daunting. But that is why we have each other. That is why we come to church, because together, we can help one another. We can make turns to God together as the people of the church and experience the holiest of communion. The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles tells us that there is "rejoicing in heaven" (Luke 15:7) whenever we turn to God. We become richly blessed. Our sins are forgiven (Luke 3:3) and there is "rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God" (Luke 15:10). We "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," (Acts 2:38) and "times ofBack to toprefreshing come from the Lord." (Acts 3:19) We have a lot to look forward to when we come to church and when we grow in our faith.

I've been looking for the right church to join as an associate pastor for a while now. I've had a lot of time to pray. I start my prayers by asking - "God, please help me find a place where I, and the people of the church, will be drawn closer to you." I've accepted the call of your search committee and a call that I believe comes from God. It will be my honor to play any part in empowering you to turn to God. I am excited to be with you as we walk this faith journey together - children, youth and adults alike. In this Advent season, I am grateful for new beginnings.

In closing, I'll leave you with a song I'm sure you all know of. It's a song that's been playing over and over again in my mind ever since I read John the Baptist's proclamation. It's not exactly an Advent song or a Christmas song, but I think it fits in with the season. "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right." May we turn and come round right together, this day, and forevermore. Amen.

  1. See "Repent (metanoeite) in Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament. Bible.crosswalk.com/commentaries/Robertson'sWordPictures Robertson refers to the biblical scholar John A. Broadus. 
  2. John J. Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C. The Liturgical Press, 1997. pp. 5-7

Copyright © 2003 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission.

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