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Preparing the way - repentance

We began to observe the season of Advent last week with a message of hope, looking forward to the coming of the Lord, for God is one who comes to meet us. Today's theme from John the Baptist's message, "preparing the way", takes up that promise of God coming to us in another way. It was part of last week's message [Looking forward in hope and fear] that when we speak of preparing the way of the Lord in the Biblical sense we are celebrating his coming to us. It is God who welcomes us into his future. If we expect great things it is in faith, not in what we may do to prepare for God's action in our lives, but in what God does for us. That is the foundation for anything we may do by way of preparation. It is on a basis of trust in the love, justice and power of God that can begin to respond to the Baptist's call to "Prepare the way of the Lord". Critically, it is when a person has trust in the goodness of God that repentance is possible.

So when John the Baptist as the last and greatest of the prophets of Israel called people to prepare for the coming of the Lord, he pointed back to words of comfort:

It is a passage which follows words of comfort and assurance in the original record from the time the people of Israel were expected a human historical saviour to overcome their oppressor and release them from captivity:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem ... The ancient prophet understood God as one who saves, who gives liberty to the oppressed, even if they were suffering because of sins in the past. The debt had been paid and new day was about to dawn: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. God is not one who ignores evil and disobedience, or who says that rules don't matter, but one who gives people to new start. That is what the people of Israel were learning through their escape from the hands of the Babylonians, just as they had learned long before that God rescues and leads people to a new life when they escaped from slavery in Egypt. John the Baptist in preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, represents the same prophetic tradition as Moses and Isaiah, with same word about the nature of God as one who comes to save his people. Comfort, O comfort my people. It is cause for celebration, and they imagine valleys and hills being smoothed out to prepare a way for the army of liberation, which in historical fact was the army of the Persians under Cyrus who conquered Babylon in 536 BC. Real historical events were seen to demonstrate the goodness of God to them: the glory of the Lord was revealed, and the people did indeed see it together. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. John the Baptist's proclamation of God's word, his warning of judgement and his call to repentance came out of that understanding of God as Saviour.

Love, security and repentance

If you are confident of the love of God, you can repent and start again. It is like the relationship of a child to a parent. The child who has confidence in the love of parents, can confess. It is true too in relationships between adults. The husband or wife whose marriage has laid a good foundation of love and trust can more easily confess a breach of their covenant and seek renewal of their life together. Your can always make a new start if you can go forward on a basis of trust, with love and security, even if what you have done has put that security in jeopardy . Indeed, to those who love God, there nothing which can separate us from the love of God.

The Christian gospel is very different at this point from secular self seeking, self fulfilment in autonomy. Compare the feeling associated with justification in terms of one's own interests with justification by Christ, being put right with God through his saving power. The tendency to justify mean and hurtful behaviour, public or private, as the necessary consequence of circumstances, tends in one way or another to excuse wrong doing, and is very different from recognizing that wrong was done and turn away from it to make a new start. You can try to justify wrong doing by pointing difficulties in a person's background or situation: he was deprived; she was hurt as child; this special interest group is disadvantaged; or that family belongs to a certain social class; or the company expects it and his job depends on it; and so it is argued that they are justified in cheating, or lying, or thieving, or whatever. But if you believe not only in the righteousness of God but also in his forgiving love and his willingness to take the initiative to come to save you and put things right for you, then you do not need to justify yourself, you can repent and accept forgiveness, and be free again - for by grace we are justified through faith.

Belief in justification by faith in God, rather than relying upon self justification, is a basic Christian believe, but do not too easily dismiss the reasons people might give to justify themselves. At least, do not be quick to condemn. Jesus understood the pressures people can be under to do what is wrong and the fact that everyone is prone to weakness. The call to repentance depends upon the possibility of forgiveness and its necessity in loving and secure relationship. That foundation in a secure relationship is often weak in human families and society, unfaithfulness by one partner or member will often provoke unfaithful or hurtful behaviour on the part of another, but God is always faithful even when his people are not. He might discipline them, but he will not abandon them. It is this knowledge of the faithfulness of God that makes it possible for people estranged from God to return to him. John's call to prepare for the coming of the Lord by repenting is based on a secure foundation.

So we are about to sing [TIS 647 SA 25]:

Turning away from the old, is a cleansing and renewal, a radical change from within

The coming of the Lord is a time of cleansing and renewal. It is always possible to start again, to be completely renewed. It was so much part of the experience of the early Christians and is so deeply embedded in the New Testament witness that we tend to overlook its radical nature. See how strong these words are:

There is strength in the clarity with which the old ways are seen to be wrong, and greater strength in the radical nature of the change that was believed to be possible. I cannot help but think how strange it is in contrast that people who speak today of valuing change in a "progressive" sense in fact tend to justify the old ways rather change to a new way. Clothe yourselves with the new self, be renewed in the spirit of your minds said Paul; how much change do you want? Ah, yes, but there is the bit about being created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. There is a challenge indeed! The thing is that Paul knew it was possible, and far more radical than any self-justifying philosophy of human progress.

It is God himself who renews, but that renewal is a real, radical and deep change. A great deal of rubbish must be swept away for it be effective. It may be through a time of severe testing: like going through a fire which burns away the rubbish and leaves the precious metal. An image of cleansing and renewal that John the Baptist took up from the old prophets:

The apostles took over these images also from Jesus who spoke of the chaff being blown away and the cut-off branches burned in the fire. So the letter of Peter recognizes deep change with a precious result:

And Paul looked to a time of testing and revelation of what is truly valued:

It was in preparation for such a challenge that John the Baptist picked up a theme from the old prophets, of how the Lord would come like a man winnowing: separating the wheat from the chaff by shaking it in the wind with a fork.

Jesus himself spoke of God as a vinedresser, pruning and cleansing the vine, so that it would be more fruitful. So that although he taught us to pray that we might be saved from the time of trial or the testing time, he also told his disciples that they would be tested, tempted, persecuted, and strengthened as a result.

We can always start again

We are not promised an easy life in this world. We are promised that God will always care for us. That he comes to us in love, and that he will renew our life whenever we turn to him -- no conditions, no work required on our part. Absolutely free of guilt no matter what has happened, you can always start again. That is how much he loves you: so it is possible; you can 'repent and believe the gospel'. Then you will enjoy real freedom, salvation, new life, the like of which you have never known before, life in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish.

John the Baptist introduced a new element in relating repentance to forgiveness and to the Kingdom of God being at hand. The preaching of Jesus resembled that of John, although he spoke less of the need for repentance and more of the promises of God, but he certainly called for radical change:

A new element in the preaching of Jesus is that the time has come for what the prophets expected to be fulfilled. So we have the positive emphasis of the apostolic preaching, linking repentance and forgiveness with hope of fulfilment because of the work that Jesus had done in reconciling people to God.

It is the beginning of a new life:

It is related to faith:

In fact Paul does not speak very much of repentance, but of faith which includes repentance: union with Christ, death of the old nature, putting on the new humanity, resurrection to new life, and sharing in the new creation. John the Evangelist did not write of repentance but of rebirth, movement from death to life, from darkness to light. Through the long history of salvation, the call to repentance is clearly seen in Jesus Christ as a word of grace, good news:

So Jesus came, announcing the good news of the coming of the Kingdom:

The Christian call to repentance is always within this promise of fulfilment. That is what we remember as we prepare to celebrate presence in human life of the Lord born at Bethlehem. Preparing the way, we repent of whatever alienates us from God and our fellow human beings, and we are able to do that because we believe the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that God will indeed bring his promises to completion. In the security of the love of God in Christ we are able to admit our sins and seek forgiveness, secure in the knowledge of God's gift:

So then, listen to the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. {5} Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; {6} and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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