Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sermon for December 9, Advent 2: Opening To God

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 2:13-23

Advent Series on Our Inner Experience of God
Sermon 2: Opening to God

This is the second sermon in a series on our inner experience of God. Last week I spoke on the desire for God, this week on opening up to God. My text is Matthew 3:2-3: In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’"

In the days of John the Baptist, the people of Judea did not feel God among them, but far away. The Temple was empty of God’s presence and no Son of David was on the throne. The only glory in Jerusalem was that of Caesar and the gods in power were Jupiter and Mars. So they were praying for the return of the Lord.

Be careful what you ask for, you might get it. The prophet is standing at the Jordan River, just down the road from Jericho, to remind them of the first return of the Lord, with Moses and Joshua, the Lord of Hosts upon the Ark of the Covenant, on the shoulders of the Levites, who stood in the Jordan River and the waters held back, and thousands and thousands of the hosts of Israel were baptized as they passed through the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Joshua led them marching around the walls of Jericho, and they shouted "The Lord of Hosts" and the walls came tumbling down. All the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified, their armies melted away, and their leaders trembled to sue for peace.

The Lord is coming back, says John the Baptist, with a fiery host we can only imagine, and their leader will be another Jeshua, another David, and those in power will come down. When God comes it’s not just God, it’s the whole kingdom of heaven, a new administration, a new set of laws, a new kind of justice. Justice means judgment, so be careful what you ask for.

When he comes to judge, when everyone gets examined, how will you stand up? Will you have been connected with the Romans? Do you collaborate? Have you been trying to get along? Did you join the Baath party just to get your job? Are you now or have you ever been a Communist? If the Lord is really coming, you might want to repent.

You can hardly blame John the Baptist for expecting it like this. How could he have known what only Jesus was the first to see, that the Lord would come but so much differently? Yes, in judgment and holiness and righteousness, but from the inside, in the heart, his only army the Spirit of God, his only weapon the Word of God.

Jesus knew it from that same Spirit resting on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This is the Holy Spirit we want inside of us, opening us up, making room, increasing our capacity for God. To give way to this Spirit is to repent.

When I was a child I was allergenic and asthmatic. Some nights I was so clogged up I couldn’t breathe. We had a little machine called a vaporizer, which made steam, and my mom would put it in my room. She would add Vick’s Vaporub to the water, which added menthol to the steam. That vapor would fill the room and I would breathe it in and that would open up my passageways inside, and the more I breathed the more I could breathe.

Consider now the proposition that repentance is not something you do, but that God does inside you. Consider that repentance is not your act, but God’s activity inside you. That repentance is God’s Spirit inside you making room for God’s self, like cleaning out the place while moving in, like clearing the land and building a house. It helps us, I think, to realize that repentance is not so much our work as the work of God in us.

Our part in repentance is to give way to God, to let God do it, to not prevent it nor obstruct it, to give way to God’s Spirit opening us up inside, painful and scary as that may be. Because you can’t expect to have the feeling of God inside you and have everything else about you stay the same. You can’t have more God in your life and still keep yourself the way you are. Of course not.

Maybe you don’t want to have God inside you. That’s easy. Just don’t repent. Who wants to give way to outside influence? Who wants to call oneself into question, who wants to doubt oneself? Who wants to hesitate, or look weak, or not in control? Ain’t it so that he who hesitates is lost? Who wants to be examined, to be up for review, to be subject to reconsideration, who wants to let another have more say about you than yourself, who wants to be judged?

Or maybe you do want God inside you but you don’t want to repent. So what you can do is keep God’s spirit small and weak and minimal. You keep it in a little box and keep it silent. You can protect yourself and your estimation of yourself, the way you’ve worked out everything, the commitments and loyalties you already have, your promises to yourself and to your past, your solutions to your problems, your own judgments about people and the world. You can keep the judgments of God confined within you.

Or you could do designer spirituality, which is fashionable today. Keep your god the size and shape to fit within you. Your own personal higher power, your piece of the energy of the universe, the god who is everything and everywhere, the god with no desires and no initiative and no justice and no judgments. This god needs no larger room in you, you don’t need to repent.

But do you want to have inside you the God of Israel and Jesus, who is willing to stand against you, to challenge you and wrestle you and call you into question?

About four years ago, my wife Melody finally got it through to me that I should expect resistance to my leadership and opposition to my big ideas, and not get angry when it happens and even welcome it. It took me fifty years to get this. None of us like to be opposed, none of us likes to be judged, but we face this from other people all the time. When we welcome others into our lives, we have to welcome this as well. So, will I resist it back or gain from it?

I am claiming that you can get help with repentance from the opposition and resistance of the world. We’re tempted to resist it back or dismiss it because it’s usually unfair and frequently misleading. The trick is not to take it on its own terms, but to interpret the opposition against me by means of the Word of God, so that my opposition’s value does not depend on its intent.

When other people judge me, my gain is from when I let their judgments move me on to the judgments of God, which are more fair and loving, and useful, and always more just. It’s not that God sends the opposition, the world is hard enough as it is, but that God’s Word can make a straight path in it and God’s Spirit can enter in upon it.

Even our blessings and successes can be opportunities for repentance if we are listening to God and judging our experience by the categories not of the world but of the Word of God. Not just from the Bible, but the Bible in community, the Word of God as we share it together, the wisdom of those who have been kind to us and have our better interests in their hearts, who love us, warts and all, and want us to love them back. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.

In the Apostles Creed, the Holy Spirit makes the communion of saints which leads to the forgiveness of sins. The community can help in our repentance, help to open us up, to notice when we need the vaporizer in the room, and even to come close and massage the Vaporub upon our chests, and give us words to clear our minds. The community can be the mother that helps you breathe and the Voice in which you hear the Words of God.

So now let me state it once again. Repentance is God’s work in you. It’s not that you first repent in order to be clean and ready for God to come to you. That makes you focus on yourself. Rather focus on welcoming this God. Welcome the Word of God in all its ways and means into yourself, and the Holy Spirit certainly makes room in you to build her nest.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

3 comments:

Liz said...

What exactly is repentance? I have heard it in context but I wonder the depth of its meaning. It is a word that is working hard in your sermon but I think I may be missing an important point. Please help.

"Consider now the proposition that repentance is not something you do, but that God does inside you. Consider that repentance is not your act, but God’s activity inside you. That repentance is God’s Spirit inside you making room for God’s self, like cleaning out the place while moving in, like clearing the land and building a house. It helps us, I think, to realize that repentance is not so much our work as the work of God in us.

Our part in repentance is to give way to God, to let God do it, to not prevent it nor obstruct it, to give way to God’s Spirit opening us up inside, painful and scary as that may be. Because you can’t expect to have the feeling of God inside you and have everything else about you stay the same. You can’t have more God in your life and still keep yourself the way you are. Of course not."
Liz Walker

Old First said...

Yes, repentance is deep, and I can't say what is is "exactly."

Kathleen Norris gives a nice little explanation in her book Amazing Grace, which I have here at the church.

I think of repentance as the practice of repeating what God says about me, confessing God's judgments against me (and my world), and through the repeated confession of that, to come to see it and believe it in my life; and having seen it, begin to change it.

Old First said...

And I should add that my beloved Heidelberg Catechism defines repentance as "the dying away of the old self and the coming to life of the new." We should talk more about that.