Here is an Advent sermon about what repentance looks like, and in particular, what repentance looks like in a church setting.
Get Out of the Way of the Lord!
A Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-5 and Mark 1:1-8, Second Sunday of Advent—Year B
God was on the move into the future, the prophet Isaiah declared. And the people of God needed to get ready to go with God. But on the road to the future, the obstacles in the literal wilderness weren’t the only obstacles that God would have to overcome. God would have to overcome the obstacles in the people’s hearts. What was in God’s way? Try stubbornly held beliefs, attitudes, fears, and just plain old habits. Try exhaustion.
Sometimes people don’t want to take the risk of hope. Why get their hopes up? I can hear them right now raising objections to Isaiah’s vision of a new journey to the Promised Land: “Isaiah, this is too far-fetched. What if we fail? Isaiah, we don’t want to get disappointed again. No, thank you.”
Somewhere in the back of their minds they knew that if God wasn’t through with them, then God could still ask, expect, even demand something from them, something that would cost them. Daring to hope opens you up to pain all over again. You might have to drink the cup of suffering.
Some of the exiles found comfortable lives in Babylon. Why put that at risk? Others wanted to go home, but were afraid to make the journey.
To get the exiles moving, God had many obstacles to overcome. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah cried. “Cut a road! Open out a way! Make room for God! Push over the mountains! Raise up the valleys! Smooth out the rough places!” And that includes those in your hearts. To put it bluntly, prepare the way of the Lord also means get out of the way of the Lord. Get out of the way and let God lead. Set aside whatever gets in God’s way and let God have God’s own way.
It was a lesson that God’s people had to learn again and again. Even the great apostles Peter and Paul had to learn to get out of God’s way. Remember what happened when Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where his opponents would crucify him? Peter rebuked Jesus! No, this couldn’t possibly be the way! “Crucifixion must never happen to you, Lord!” Peter wasn’t just speaking for himself there. He spoke for all who expected the Messiah to be a conquering hero, which was just about everybody. No, the way of the cross couldn’t possibly be the way.
Jesus turned and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block, you’re an obstacle to me.”
Later Peter again found himself dismayed at the direction God was going in. In Acts God was making it clear that the gospel was for Gentiles, non-Jews as well as Jews. And this meant that Peter and the others would have to give up their squeamishness about table fellowship with people they had grown up believing were unclean. Peter saw a vision of unclean animals being lowered before him on a sheet, along with the command to take and eat. Immediately he exclaimed, “But Lord, I’ve never eaten anything that is profane or unclean!” This happened three times, and Peter finally understood what God was getting at. The barrier of clean-unclean needed to fall so the gospel could move forward. Peter and the others were going to have to let go of the way they were raised to think of Gentiles and welcome them as brothers and sisters.
Then there was Paul who actively fought against the direction that God was moving in through Jesus Christ. His teacher, the rabbi Gamaliel, advised Paul (then called Saul) and his fellow Pharisees who were absolutely convinced that the Jesus movement was wrong, that they had better leave Christians alone. If you don’t, Gamaliel said, you could turn out to be fighting against God! If this movement is of God, you can’t stop it!
But Saul tried anyway. On his way to Damascus to round up all the followers of Jesus’ way that he could find, God showed him the truth with blinding clarity. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Why are you fighting against me?
To let God have God’s own way, to prepare the way for God, Peter and Paul had to turn. They had to change. They had to go in another direction. The spiritual word for this is repent. Peter and Paul needed to repent.
That’s just what John the Baptist told people. God is on the move, God is on the way, he announced, echoing the words of Isaiah from centuries before. God is on the way to pour out the Holy Spirit. I baptize with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, get ready. Therefore, repent!
John became the voice crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make a straight path for him!” And the way to clear the road was to repent. Make a smooth road in your heart! John made it clear that it’s not just other people who need to change. It’s not just other people that need to repent. It’s us! In Matthew and Luke, John makes that very, very clear: Don’t you even begin to say, “But Abraham is our father,” he told folks. You need to repent! You need to change!
Yes, John, we know we need to repent of the obvious sin that gets in God’s way, attitudes and actions that are obviously contrary to the way of Christ. But other obstacles in our hearts aren’t so easily recognized as sin. Even the most faith-filled people can find themselves unintentionally getting in God’s way.
I read about a church that was beginning to receive young families into its midst, and the children’s room was just too small. What made sense was for the ladies’ Bible class, which was decreasing in number, to switch rooms with the nursery. But the ladies wouldn’t hear of it, at least at first. That was their room! And it had been their room for decades. They had worked hard on it! It was beautifully decorated. Each class member even had her own personalized chair cushion. How dare the church leadership ask them to move! Eventually, though, the class members heard the voice of God calling them to make the change. And not only that, God was calling them to give special support to these little children coming in the church. They realized they needed to repent!
I read about another church that was preparing to renovate its sanctuary. The sanctuary, the most precious place in the church house was going to look different, and that thought was particularly painful for one man. He grieved because it was going to look different from the way it had looked in his father’s and grandfather’s generation. He told the leaders that if they moved forward with this project, he would cut off his financial support from the church, and that there were others—not named—who would do the same. The leaders didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to care for this man’s grief, and yet do what they thought God wanted them to do. The congregation was stopped in its tracks. I don’t know how it turned out.
Then there’s another church leader that I read about who reacted extremely negatively to every idea for future ministry that was suggested. A consultant came to help the leadership team talk about the church’s future, and when he asked the leaders to speak as optimistically as they could about where they thought the church would be in five years, this man said, “We will be dead in five years.” This man was filled with despair. He was so convinced that the church would go out of existence that he saw no point in trying.
Sometimes denial gets in God’s way. Congregations think, “Everything’s fine here. Look at our numbers. Look at the worship count! Look at the treasury! Look how busy we are! We don’t need to examine ourselves. We’re on the right track.”
But getting in the way of God also looks like this. Outwardly people say, “We want more people in our church.” But inwardly they add, “Just don’t ask me or us to do anything differently. It’s fine for new people to come and join, as long as they blend in and keep quiet. Don’t do any boat rocking.”
What is the true attitude underneath that? The truth is that my comfort, my preferences, my position in the church, my enjoyment matters more. I am more important than other people. I am more important than those who aren’t in the embrace of Jesus Christ yet. And, even deeper than that, what I really believe is that my will is more important than God’s will.
How much easier it is for God to move when God’s people are humble and yielded and surrendered to him. When they are truly ready to put God’s will first. Jesus knew what it was all about. He yielded. He got out of God’s way. He didn’t want to submit to torture and death. He didn’t want to drink the cup of suffering. But he let God have God’s way. Falling on his face in Gethsemane, he surrendered his own will. “Not my will but yours be done!” he cried.
Preparing the way of the Lord also means getting out of the way of the Lord. My own wants and hopes and dreams, no matter how good and noble they are, even my own wants and hopes and dreams must take a humble place, must be yielded. They might not be what God wants and hopes and dreams.
Making a way for the Lord means yielding and letting God have the right of way. It means giving God a straight, clear shot at what God wants to do.
There’s no doubt about it: God is on the move around here. What God has done with this church building itself is a very visible sign. God is up to something. God didn’t give us this beautiful building and setting to be a spiritual club, serving our own wants and needs. So what is God up to? Why has God given us such a huge gift? Maybe part of it is a test, to see if we will yield it back to him.
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make a straight way for God called Isaiah. Make a straight way for God, called John the Baptist. And that means repent. Move out of God’s way.
Advent and Lent are the two seasons of the Christian year that especially highlight the critical need for self-examination. Purple is the color of repentance. Our whole congregation needs to do some serious praying: Lord, is there some way I’m getting in your way? Is there some way we are getting in the way of what you’re trying to do here? Whatever obstacles we’re putting in your way, move them out of the way. Move us, Jesus. Move us to do your will.
Prepare the way of the Lord also means get out of the way of the Lord. Clear the way. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
Art: John the Baptist Preaching, by Jan Brueghel the Elder