December 10, 2017

REPENTANCE AND HOPE
Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11; II Peter 3:8-15a

No matter how old we may be or in what generation people might have lived or may be living, we always find ourselves having to deal with the reality in which we live and wondering about or hoping for what could be.  All 3 of our lessons for today convey this same message—a message that is expressed in the opening lines of a Missouri Synod hymn that I learned as a child, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.  Earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home.” 

Most of the Judaic people who were living in Babylon couldn’t wait to return home.  The elders among them had experienced the conquest by the Babylonians, had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, and had been marched through the treacherous desert by the Babylonian army and resettled in a strange land where they were allowed to set up their community and live together in relative peace.  Faced with the nagging question about where they had gone wrong, they longed for the day when God would bring them back home so that they could live a life of repentance and attempt once again to be faithful to the word of God that, as Isaiah says today, will stand forever.

In our gospel lesson for today, John finds himself in a similar desert or wilderness where he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for a messiah who would come to liberate the people from the occupation by the Romans and re-establish the Judaic nation where God’s way would be able to shine and thrive once again.  Even their own religious leaders had turned away from God’s truth and had participated in all kinds of oppression, corruption, and violence against their own people under the guise of being totally devoted to the law of God that they had fabricated and under the guise of being righteous in God’s sight.

Several decades later after Jesus of Nazareth had come and gone, the author of our second lesson for today is writing to a people who also are waiting and hoping for a better day—a day when God would usher in new heavens and a new earth where righteousness would be at home.  Things are not going well for these people, many of whom have been banished by their ancestors for following in the way of Jesus and who continue to be harassed and persecuted by the Romans for their loyalty to the one whom they now profess to be their Christ.  How long will they have to wait?  Only God knows, because with God one day is like a thousand years.  In the meantime, the best that these people can do is to live a continual life of repentance and strive to live at peace without spot or blemish until the day when God would come to fulfill their hopes and dreams about what could be. 

Two weeks ago, as you know, we went to visit our sister congregation in the city of San Salvador.  We spent 6 days with these people who are living under such harsh conditions.  Gangs roam the streets and threaten anyone who does not pay for their protection.  Corruption and violence are rampant throughout the country, and those in authority and power will do anything to protect their domain—a domain that is controlled by a few extremely wealthy families while the rest of the people live in abject poverty.  Sufficient food is scarce.  Healthcare is abysmal.  Loved ones are still being disappeared even though the revolution supposedly has been over for 25 years.  No one knows from one day to the next whether they will live or die.

Yet, in the midst of all of this reality, we experienced a small community of faith that continues to give thanks to God for each new day, celebrates the joys of life and community, sings songs of hope for a better day, and holds on to the word of God as if there was no tomorrow—a word that cries out to them, “Comfort to you, my people, for the anguish that you are experiencing today will not always be.  For I am always about creating new heavens and a new earth where repentance and forgiveness will rule the day and my peace will reign over your city, in your country, and throughout the world.”

Those of us who are experiencing a similar demise in our own country and who are seeing the disappearance of so much that we have achieved over the past few decades certainly can get a sense of what this hopelessness and despair might be like.  Even as people of privilege, we are not immune to these feelings and wondering where we might have gone wrong.  Whether directly or indirectly, we all have contributed to this demise.  Our fear of getting involved, our apathy, our own greed, our silence, our parochial failure to organize with others, our busy-ness, our lust for comfort and convenience, our need for security—you name it and we all have been there in one way or another.  Not to forget our inbred racism, elitism, individualism, and protectionism. 

God’s hope is that we all will come to repentance.  John’s proclamation is for all of us to repent and be open to receiving the forgiveness of sins and experiencing the freedom of the Spirit.  When Jesus came along, one of the first words out of his mouth was an invitation and expectation for us to repent because the reign of God and the day of salvation had come near.  That day of salvation also had come near for the Judaic people who were living in Babylon.  As far as they were concerned, they had paid double for their sins and now were preparing themselves to return home with repentant hearts and a renewed willingness to serve their God Yahweh as their Sovereign rather than the kings who had led them astray while claiming to be agents of God in their midst.

Repentance is not always an easy road for us to travel.  In fact, repentance often is the road less traveled because it means that we have to admit where we have gone wrong, what mistakes we have made, and how we have failed to heed the word of God and follow in the way of Jesus.  The baptism that we proclaim was meant to liberate us from all of these apprehensions about naming, admitting, and confessing our sins so that we truly could experience the forgiveness that God is so eager to bestow upon us.

Amazingly, in our gospel lesson for today we are told that the people from the whole Judean countryside and all of the people from Jerusalem were going out to John, confessing their sins, being baptized in the river Jordan, and receiving God’s forgiveness.  Jesus’ baptism supposedly would have the added benefit of people being empowered by the Holy Spirit so that once the people would be absolved of their evil ways, they would be liberated and empowered to live into Jesus’ vision for what could be.

We all have a vision of what could be in terms of how we could be more faithful to and consistent with the word and the will of God and with the way of Jesus where justice and righteousness are at home, where peace abounds, and where everyone is free to be what God has created and called all of us to be—people without spot or blemish, people whose love for others will win the day, people who welcome everyone into the beloved community, people who are willing to share with anyone who has a need, people who dare to expose and address the oppression, corruption, and violence that infects the human heart, and people who practice the art of forgiveness.

I no longer like this hymn that I learned as a child because it paints the entire earth as a desert drear—a place from which we must escape so that we can get to heaven after we die.  So many people who have been baptized in Jesus’ name have this perspective, which is one reason why we have not taken such good care of this planet earth as we have been instructed by God to do so.  From the prophet Isaiah to the author of Second Peter, the vision for the future is the creation of new heavens and a new earth—a new earth where life is not so dreary or despairing and where we all will lead lives of holiness and godliness all of our days.  If we think that such a vision is futile, just remember and hold on to the hope that, as we are told today, the patience of God is our salvation.  Amen.