This past week I happened to be listening to the radio when Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney and “fixer” was being sentenced. I had to look up what a “fixer” was. According to my dictionary, a “fixer” is: “a person who makes arrangements for other people, especially of an illicit or devious kind.” But at this point, Michael Cohen had run out of room to maneuver or “fix” anything. Speaking to the judge, he said, “Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back….I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am.” Perhaps he was trying to win sympathy for a lighter sentence. But it sounded like repentance to me.
Repentance means not only saying, “I’m sorry” but also means committing to live life differently.
In our Gospel, people from all walks of life come to John to be baptized – not with the baptism of new life in Jesus… Jesus hasn’t started his ministry yet – but with the baptism of repentance. John’s baptism of repentance calls for change, a 180 degree change in the way that people live their lives. John tells people: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
People believe John – but… they want to know: What does this mean? Specifically, “What does this mean for me?”
Suddenly John becomes practical: If you have two coats – share with someone who has none. Don’t cheat, steal or extort money. Don’t be a bully. Be satisfied when you have enough.
John the Baptist isn’t theoretical or heady. Instead, he gives them some very practical, very “do-able” ways to “bear fruit of repentance.” Instead of the old way of getting what you can when you can, John calls the people to: Share. Be fair. Don’t extort or bully or steal. Instead…care for others.
John challenges his listeners to do their part – to be good neighbors, to care for the other. It sounds a lot like Jesus’ 2nd commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said that all of the law and all of the teachings of the prophets rests on two commands. Love God. Love your neighbor. These are the law – the commandments for how we too should live our lives. But… while the law and the commandments can help us be better neighbors - and while repentance, asking for forgiveness and changing our ways to care for others helps build the community… they are not the Gospel. They are not the Good News.
John the Baptist knows this. Although he is a little in the dark – he doesn’t know who the Messiah will be -- he does know that it’s not him. And he knows that the Messiah is coming. He points to Christ.
There’s a great painting by Reformation painter Lucas Cranach of John the Baptist preaching to the people by the river Jordan. In the picture, John is pointing to Jesus – and just so the viewer doesn’t miss the significance of this….his finger is about a foot long. He points to Christ as the way, the truth and abundant life.
That’s what Paul was doing too when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul wasn’t writing his annual Christmas card of peace and joy to all the earth – he was writing from jail. And yet… despite his situation, Paul says, “Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.”
This sounds like an impossible task. After all… always is a long time. Bad things happen. Situations change. And yet… Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi – and us -- to hold onto the joy of Jesus Christ -- not because we are happy and not because everything is going to go our way but because…the Lord is near.
The Lord is near. Paul invites us to share with God – to pray with intention – and to not let any of our personal challenges, whether our own health, family, finances or work or school – or the problems of our world to overwhelm us. Instead… Paul invites us to share our challenges with God – with thanksgiving.
We can give thanks… as we ask and as we pray, because we know God listens and God is near and… we already know the end of the story. That’s the Good News. Because of Jesus’ love for you and the promise that God made to you in baptism, God has already forgiven you, redeemed you, and claimed you as God’s own.
So… like the crowd in John the Baptist’s day, the question becomes… what then shall we do?
We are still subject to the law – and so Jesus’ first and second commandments still apply to us. “Love God and Love the neighbor”. And we still live in a broken world, a world that needs people to stand up to oppression and injustice. As a people of God, we are pretty good about praying for justice and peace, and caring for the neighbor through various programs such as Dinner at Your Door, Near, and Kidpack, but our Community Outreach task force is exploring new ways that we can be witnesses to and with our neighbors so that others can know God’s way of truth and justice and God’s redeeming love.
The truth is - there is much bad news out there. There is much that needs to be changed. Regardless of whose fault it is, it is not part of God’s plan for 7 year old girls fleeing oppression to die in our country because they don’t have water to drink or food to eat. It is not part of God’s plan for children in Flint, Michigan to still be suffering from the lead that was in their water tap. It is not a part of God’s world for children in our own community to be hungry and homeless. This is not God’s way. And God has put us here….in this community….to reflect the love of God and to help make our community care for its most vulnerable people.
So… what are we going to do about it? We will pray first but then… rather than assume that we know and before we develop a program or do anything else to seek to make difference in our community – we are going out into our community to ask them. That’s why Deacon Kirsten and I and hopefully a few of you will be visiting our neighbors today. And as we go, we will be asking questions about them but we will also be standing there, not because of our own agenda, but like John the Baptist and Paul – as people of God who are pointing to Christ and saying by our presence: God cares about you.
There is a need in our community to see God’s witnesses – you and me -- reflect the love of God so that others can know and live into the abundance of God’s love and mercy and to be treated with care. After all, God’s community is not a closed club. The love of God, the way of Christ is for all.
Paul challenges us to live into the Good News, into the freedom of the Gospel. It is because of the love of God given to you and me that we can live with joy –no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be – Christ’s love and joy shines through and we can dare to rejoice always.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, rejoice in the Lord and let the joy of Christ reflect in and through you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
December 16, 2018 Advent #3