The Hardest Sermon

Here’s the text of the sermon I preached this morning, which several people have asked to read. Please know that I struggled mightily over every word, and I shook as I preached them both times. This is heavy stuff, but I said what I felt I was given by the Spirit this week.


Advent 2B: December 7th, 2014
Mark 1:1-8
Stir Up Our Hearts to Repentance

We prayed this morning, as we do every week in Advent, for God to stir up our hearts. And I don’t know about you, but I really did not want to pray for that. My heart is pretty stinkin’ stirred up already, from the news of no indictments in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the widespread protests those incidents have sparked. I’ve been glued to my social media streams, talking to my colleagues, my friends and my family, trying to figure out what all of this means, what I can do about it, and most difficult what our Christian faith has to say about it.

It has been an unsettling few weeks for our nation, and I want to recognize that this morning. I also want to say that as much as we long to have our previous peace back, I believe we need to continue to pray this prayer for stirring up. For just as the prayer says, stirred up hearts are the way we prepare for the coming of God into our midst. Unsettled spirits and wrenched guts are sometimes the way God’s Spirit reminds us that things are not as they should be, that God desires and has plans for something entirely different and better. It’s just like Mark’s gospel says, the beginning of the good news we all are hoping for comes with loud shouting voices and a call to repentance.

Did you notice that? While Matthew and Luke’s gospels start with the lovely birth narrative of Jesus, telling those familiar stories of shepherds and angels, King Herod and the wise men, Mark’s gospel comes out swinging. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, he says, is a prophetic voice shouting in the wilderness, with a call to repentance and forgiveness.

And it’s not just Mark. In Isaiah too, the call to repentance precedes the coming of good news. The text we have today, words of comfort and promise, follow 39 chapters of the prophet crying out to the people of Israel, naming their sins, and railing against their injustices. And it is the same with every prophet who foretold the coming of our Lord: prepare your hearts for what God is about to do by repenting. Turn away from your sins that you may see the great day of our God. Consecrate yourselves again as a people pure and holy to the Lord, so that you may be the instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.

Through the prophets, God consistently asks her people to repent in order that God may do a new thing in the world. And it makes sense, I think, because repentance is about turning away from one thing and toward another, turning around, changing direction. It’s not just saying we’re sorry, or lamenting the mess that has resulted from our sinfulness. It’s about turning our backs on the things that displease God, and turning toward the vision of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home.

In Isaiah’s time, God called the people to turn from the worship of idols. The prophet’s voice cried out against the injustice of the rich nation of Israel that did not care for it’s orphans and widows. Isaiah railed against a nation who had become so comfortable that they had forgotten all that the Lord had done for them. He proclaimed a new way, where the mountains are smashed down and the valleys filled up, so that the whole world is on a level playing field before the Lord.

In Jesus’ time, John the Baptist spoke out against a religious system that burdened the people with so many rules that it required unending sacrifice at the temple, something only the rich could afford. John called God’s people to turn from their desires for a warring Messiah toward the Lamb of God, a meek creature who changes the world through self-giving love.

As we hear these prophetic voices of the past this Advent season, might it be time for us to wonder what God is calling her people to repent of today? Might it be time to start honestly assessing the ways our lives are turned away from God, and make a commit to go a new direction?

There have been many clergy these last weeks who have raised their voices to call for such repentance. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners magazine, said “Repentance must begin in the white Christian community for tolerating this offense to our black brothers and sisters and, ultimately, this offense to God. It’s time for us white Christians to repent — turn around and go in a new direction.”

And just Friday, our own presiding bishop released a video statement saying this: “Our nation and church have been and remain deeply besieged by racism. We in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have named racism a sin, a violation of God’s intention for the world.”

Today I join my voice with theirs, crying out from the wilderness of our American society plagued with violence and injustice. It is time to repent, people of God. It is time to turn away from the attitude that if it’s not in my backyard it’s not my problem, turning instead toward the ethic of Jesus which calls us to love others as much as we love ourselves. It is time to turn away from a system is so filled with the sins of racism that it can’t even see them, turning instead toward a Christ who brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly in their place. It is time to turn away from a false peace that is kept by guns, tanks and the threat of deadly force, turning instead toward the lasting peace won for us by the One who is bringing a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

This is not easy work, true repentance. It will require more than just our Sunday morning confession of sin and proclamation of forgiveness. It will take courage to look honestly at ourselves and the institutions we support and participate in. It may lead you deeper into sorrow before it leads you out.

But it will lead you out. When the people of Israel were in exile, weeping over their sins by the rivers of Babylon, God sent them the word of comfort through the formerly cranky Isaiah, “Be comforted, my people, for you have already borne the full weight of your sin. I am coming to even everything out, and reveal myself to you.”

When the people confessed their sins at the Jordan river after listening to John, Jesus appeared and the very heavens were opened by the spirit of God descending in their midst.

And this season, even as the world seems to be crumbling around us, we know that Christ is ready to come again to all people who dwell in deep darkness. He is, as John said, the one who is more powerful than we are. And thank God because we cannot get out of this mess we’ve made by ourselves.

Which is the real point of repentance anyway, isn’t it? That when we confess to the full extent of our brokenness, we are forced to admit that we don’t know our way out, that we need help, that we can’t think of one single way of doing things that will make it all better. We understand our desperate need of a savior. And that’s exactly where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. It is just as Mark’s gospel seems to say, repentance is the beginning of the good news.

So, I encourage you to pray the prayer of today each day this Advent. Stir up our hearts, Lord God, and prepare us for your coming. Open our eyes to sinfulness that is all around, and give us courage to turn away from it in repentance. And please Lord Jesus, let this turning be the beginning of good news for our broken world. Amen.

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