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
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 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 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
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
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 are saying with a newly uttered --
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 ofrefreshing 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.
- 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.
- 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