Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
On our third week of Advent, we become closer and closer to that amazing story of Christmas. It is important that we’re able to keep our focus not just on the baby Jesus, however, but also on the Second Advent of Christ. Those in the pews know that Jesus has been born already—but often we forget this season that we’re not just memorializing a great figure from the past but celebrating a Lord who lives in our midst. It is often hard for us as Christians to imagine Christ as living among us, because we’re used to being able to see, hear, and touch living beings. We also have a tendency this season to only see Christ as an infant, which almost clashes with our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God image. We have such a mixture of images that we lose our focus. It is almost like skipping back and forth from chapter to chapter on a DVD; we suddenly loose the whole story and find ourselves confused. But Christ is in our midst. During Advent, it is good for us to remember that our primary focus is not on this cute and cuddly baby, but on the living Christ who reigns in glory.
The joy of Christmas is that it will happen again and often when we can not see it. Christmas is not only full of joy but also full of miracles. The miracles of Christmas are often those small miracles we quickly forget or do not even notice.
The true Christmas miracles are the ordinary miracles of life. At Christmas we may be more attuned to miracles because of the birth of Jesus. But again, and again Jesus proves that he lives among us. The miracle of his birth is just so easy to forget while as we ricochet from Black Friday to Cyper Monday to the last sales figures for this Christmas as opposed to last. We are too busy thinking about the perfect gift for Aunt Sue and Uncle Leland and we forget we have already had the perfect gift. One of the miracles of Christmas is to suddenly realize in the midst of the Christmas Season that it is Christmas.
In both of our Old Testament passages for this week, we hear further testimony about this new thing God is about to do and has done for all of humanity. Isaiah declares, “great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” and Zephaniah echoes, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst…he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” Loud praises and singing for this unforgettable and transformational event about to take place and that has taken place. Truly, in Jesus Christ, we are renewed and refreshed.
And when we fast-forward to Luke, we find John exactly where we left him last week: talking to the crowds about the coming of the Messiah. He first confronts them about their pasts. He exhorts them not to think that their ancestry will give them special privileges. No, this Messiah is here for all of humanity! We all are on equal ground here. What an exciting message for most! We will not be judged by our earthly status, but we are instead called to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
John doesn’t give one prescription to everyone about the fruit they are to bear. Tax collectors must learn to be fair and not extract more than the appointed rate. Soldiers are to stop intimidating people. People are called to do what they can in their lives to live as Christ would have them live. In other words, ethical responses are the first line of response to salvation.
Note here that it is in response to salvation. Salvation comes freely to us through Christ. We must be careful not to lead people to think that it is because some great thing we personally have done that we have been saved. It is through Christ, not because of our great deeds, that we are saved. As Christians, however, we respond to this gift through our deeds. We respond to God’s grace by continually growing more and more into the footsteps of Christ.
And then John speaks of baptism. He speaks of the baptism he is giving as inferior to that which is coming. He only uses water. The Messiah is coming—the one “mightier” than I—and he will have the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This baptism will carry fire and passion.
How sad it is that often people stop with the “baptism of water.” We need to help our families understand that having their children baptized as simply a rite of passage, like having the first-year picture taken? How many times do Christians see baptism as the “test to pass” or the “thing to do” versus the beginning of an extraordinary journey? We need to help them understand that baptism is a mark of God’s permanent ownership and the beginning of an extraordinary journey. For this baptism of water that we bestow on infants, children, youth, and adults is the visible sign of invisible grace, and only the very start of a path of faith, life, and growth.
Christ offers us a baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. It is a promise of transformation and renewal. The crowd is filled with great expectations about what is about to happen. Are we and our listeners ready to bear fruits worthy of repentance, to allow our lives to be changed? That is the promise of having Christ in our midst. Our lives are about to be completely transformed.
It is time to start looking for Christmas miracles. After all, in Christmas Miracles we see Jesus with us in everyday life. So, if you find the count down to Christmas scary you might be focused too much on Santa Claus and not on Christmas. If you are worrying about there is too much to do than maybe it is time to look for a miracle.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
My mother told me this story from World War I many years ago. Christmas 1917 was coming, but because her brother Archie Clikeman was missing in action and presumed dead, the family was not going to celebrate.
The townspeople of Parker, South Dakota, always joked that the small-town postmaster read all the postcards whenever the mail train came into town. On that Christmas Eve, he lived up to his reputation.
The family was always grateful that the postmaster, instead of waiting for the rural mail to go out the day after Christmas, called my grandmother and told her that Archie was being held as a prisoner of war. Archie even wrote on the postcard that he was well.
Of course, my mother said, that turned out to be the best Christmas ever. Archie came home after the war and lived to a ripe old age. —Kay Johnson, Parker, South Dakota (https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
Many years ago, when I was making 75 cents an hour, my three children asked for bicycles for Christmas, but I couldn’t afford them.
So that January, I put three bikes on layaway. I paid all through the year, but a week before Christmas, I still owed $14.50. The Saturday before Christmas, my son Ricky asked how much I needed. When I told him, he asked if he could pour the pennies out of the penny jug we kept.
I said, “Son, I don’t care, but I know there’s not $14.50 worth of pennies in there.”
Ricky poured them out, counted them, and said, “Mom, there’s $15.50 worth of pennies.” Ecstatic, I told him to count out $1 for gas so I could go get the bikes.
I’ve always thought of this as our little Christmas miracle. It was as blessed a Christmas as anyone could ever have. —Dot Williams, Canton, Georgia (https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
At Christmastime, in 1961, our family was on the way from Seattle to a new assignment on the East Coast, and we checked into a motel in Watertown, South Dakota. It was not the best time to travel with young children, who were concerned about Santa finding us on the road.
We headed into town to find a store, and as our car approached an intersection, there was a Santa right in the crosswalk! He held up his hand for us to stop, and we rolled down our windows.
Santa poked his head through a window and said to our kids, “Oh, there you are! I was wondering where I’d find you tonight.”
Naturally, the kids were thrilled to pieces. They made sure we told Santa which motel we were staying at, so he could find them. My wife and I had tucked away gifts for the trip, as we knew we wouldn’t have time to shop along the way.
The cartop carrier and out-of-state license plate might have been a giveaway, but whatever it was, that Santa really made Christmas 1961 a memorable one for our kids. —Dave Grinstead, Bellingham, Washington (https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
During the hustle and bustle of Christmastime 1958, we told our children, ages 3 and 4, about the beautiful Christmas tree we would have in a few days. On Christmas Eve, at the bakery we had recently purchased, we counted the receipts, cleaned the shop and headed for home with our two sleepy children.
Suddenly, we remembered we had not gotten a tree. We looked for a vendor who might have a tree left, to no avail.
About a mile from home, we stopped for a red light. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew, and something hit the front of our truck. My husband went out to investigate.
The next thing I knew, my husband was throwing a good-sized evergreen into the back of the truck. He went into the mom-and-pop store at the corner where we were and asked the proprietor how much he wanted for the tree. He said he wasn’t selling Christmas trees that year.
It was a Christmas miracle! We never did find out how the tree got in the middle of the road, but somehow, we feel we know. Incidentally, it was the most beautiful tree we have ever had. —Gertrude Albert, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
I was with a small group of young guys and gals caroling on Christmas Eve, in 1942 San Diego, California. We wandered downtown to Broadway, the main street, and stopped at a block of green grass with a fountain on the plaza.
The streets were streaming with aimless servicemen, all missing the joy and solace of being home for Christmas.
We began singing familiar Christmas songs, and in a short time, the volume increased markedly. I climbed up onto the rim of the fountain to an astonishing sight—a sea of servicemen on the plaza singing with all their hearts. When a song ended, I started another, just beginning the words, and it was immediately picked up.
We sang every traditional song I could think of and didn’t leave the servicemen until near midnight, carrying a beautiful memory with us. —Winnie Phillips Stark, Modesto, California (https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
“Away in a Manger.” “Silent Night.” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” These names are probably what come to mind when you think about traditional Christmas carols. As classic as these songs are, they’re not that old—and definitely not as old as the first Christmas carols.
Christians have been celebrating Christmas since at least 375 A.D. (that’s supposedly when the Church first recognized December 25 as Christmas Day), but “Hark!” came around more than 1,300 years later in 1739. Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” in 1818, and “Away in a Manger” was written even later in 1882. (Here’s why we sing Christmas carols in the first place.) So what did people sing before these classics?
Technically, they sang hymns, not carols. Hymns are more solemn, religious songs, while carols were considered dances accompanied by music, according to NPR. The first of these Christmas hymns was likely “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”), written by St. Hilary of Poitier in the 4th century.
As far as more familiar Christmas carols, those still don’t appear for centuries. “The Friendly Beasts,” a carol about the animals present at the Nativity, probably originated in France in the 12th century. Fast-forward 500 years, and the world got “Adeste Fideles.” (It was translated in to English as “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in 1841.) Just a few years after “Adeste Fideles” came “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” around 1760.
Now when you hear youngsters call Christmas carols by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra “old,” you can smile to yourself. They don’t even know the half of it.(https://www.rd.com/culture/oldest-christmas-carol/)
If you’re a single mom struggling to make ends meet, getting into a car crash the week before Christmas is probably the last thing you want to do. So, when Kim Kerswell rear-ended Sherene Borr on her way to get some last-minute presents, she had plenty reason to curse life out, big time. Only it turned out life was dealing her an unexpected favor. Not only was Borr not angry about the damage to her car, but she was so upset to hear Kerswell might have to forego her kids presents in order to pay the insurance company, that she offered to step in and buy them for her.
Think about that for a second. Some people freak out if you so much as look at them the wrong way. Go smashing into their car and there?s no telling what might happen. But Borr not only didn’t get mad, she went out of her way to help this clearly stressed-out woman provide a Christmas for her kids that would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances. It just goes to show that, even in our rough-and-tumble world, people are still capable of the most heart-warming actions. (https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-amazing-real-life-christmas-miracles.php)
Not all miracles involve people surviving against impossible odds. Sometimes they simply involve getting something you didn’t even know you needed. When 21-year-old Leanne Carter was hospitalized with severe stomach pains on Christmas Day, it was for what she thought was a particularly painful period. She’d felt bloated for most of the month, but there had been nothing else to indicate she was anything but a regular young adult in reasonable health. Hospital staff ran some quick tests on Carter, and the results gave her the shock of her life. It turned out she was not only pregnant, but also about to give birth. Like, right then and there.
Let’s back up for a moment and explain exactly how unexpected this was. Carter had had literally no physical symptoms of pregnancy in the whole nine months (which means she lucked into every pregnant woman’s ultimate pipe dream fantasy.) Her period had carried on as normal, and she’d felt nothing to suggest she might be carrying a whole new life in her. But there it was: within hours of being hospitalized, Carter went from “sick and frightened kid” to “happy-yet-surprised new mother.” Her baby was born healthy, happy and was apparently? the best Christmas present ever.? Amazing doesn’t even begin to cover it. (https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-amazing-real-life-christmas-miracles.php)
The very ordinary people who hear the voice’s cry in the wilderness—the soldiers and tax collectors—come with great expectations. They sense that they might become new. Like us, they aren’t self-satisfied; they are not as impressed with their current life as they would like to be. They want to become new but haven’t known how. John assures them that newness is an action of the Holy Spirit. There will be this great thrashing and the goodness in us will come out by way of repentance, through the action of the Holy Spirit, when we confront the Messiah.
How do we become new? We become new by taking God at God’s word and dressing ourselves in hope. We accept God’s invitation and way of looking at the world. We turn towards it and away from our worries and fears. It is as simple and as complicated as turning around, what John calls repentance.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”
When we go through the thrashing because we have been touched by the Messiah’s great expectations, we return to an original self in time. We are restored to our creation.
William Butler Yeats says,
“An Aged Man is but a paltry thing.
A tattered coat upon a stick
Unless soul clap her hands and sing
And louder sing for every tatter in her mortal dress.”
You don’t have to be stylish to be new again, and you don’t have to be young to be new again. The frumpy and the aged have a chance at the kind of renewal God provides, thank God. Repentance is for all kinds of people, even the tax collectors and even the soldiers. The Messiah has come to restore us all.
Clarence Jordan, the founder of the world renowned KOINONIA is said to have come to faith through an experience with the hymn “Love Lifted Me.” He lived in a small Georgia town. He was deeply moved as a man a few rows ahead of him in church one Sunday sang “Love Lifted Me.” That night he couldn’t sleep. He wanted faith like that man’s. Then he heard an awful sound coming from the small jail down the street in the town. He went outside. The same man who had sung with vigor and depth was beating a prisoner in the jail. The singer was white; the prisoner was black. Jordan’s life changed that day: he joined Isaiah and Jeremiah and the many prophets who said you just can’t do one thing on Sunday and something else on Monday. When we speak of all things becoming new, we aren’t talking about the appearance of all things becoming new. We’re not talking about a better look for my house or image. We’re talking about justice, truth, love, peace, and hope. We’re talking about soldiers being fair, like jail keepers ought to be. These are the things that win out in the end. That’s the point.
The Jordans were dismembered (a Baptist word) from their small Baptist Congregation for speaking out about the beating going on in the local jail. When the meeting happened to remove them, and they knew what the vote was going to be, Mrs. Jordan was ready. She seconded the motion. She told her former friends and betrayers that she didn’t want to be a part of a church that only looked like a church. The repentance offered in the wilderness is the real thing: it leads to real salvation. The Messiah comes to really change things.
Our short passage is summarizing a whole salvation history. It is telling us that the new has already come in the Messiah and Savior. This one will have the real baptism, which takes us from the death we now know to a new life. We might think of this new-making Messiah as a riddler, the one who rotates wines to prevent sediment. What is spiritual sediment? It’s like living a clouded life, a veiled life. Our brains are so full of the worries and anxieties of the day that we forget to imagine the beauty of the world. The worry takes up all the space. We live at the bottom of the lake in the gunk, the “tamasek” is what the Buddhists call it. It is a sledge. A deep sleepiness. Jesus comes to stir us up and wake us up to the fact that all things in the end are going to become new. The crying will be over. The wars will be over. The trivia and positioning will cease. We will be thrashed so well that our chaff will disappear.
Many of us covet what Marcus Borg calls, “The ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend on their factuality.” (Marcus Borg, Reading The Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally)
Can I prove to you that the new savior has come and that the old will pass away? No, I cannot. But I can ask you to imagine the truth of the antique, the truth of aging and becoming more beautiful. How? By living now as though that will happen. This is not Pygmalion or the fruits of the Serial Renovator’s work. This is the work of the riddler, the Messiah, the one who rotates us towards the future, out of the past.
This is also the culture of Christianity, the very water in which we swim, the very time in which we fish. We’ve heard a lot about how the “culture” of NASA may have led to recent failures in the sky. Indeed similar cultures, invisible assumptions, dominate most of our lives. Like “nothing will ever change.” Or “money decides.” These are very powerful sentiments. The way to become new is to replace such sentiments with the powerful sense of this man in the wilderness. Jesus will soon be born. He will be the real thing.
I was at the Whitney Museum in New York for an exhibition of international artists who composed pictures of how they see the United States. Artist Danwen Xing, from the Guangdong Province, Southern Coast of China, brought photographs of 102 million dead computers. It would be hard to describe how graphic these pictures are. The pictures show piles and piles and piles of junk. We send these old computers to China and there people set up what is called towns around them. There is HP Laser Jet Town and Inkjet Town and the like. On the same site where the dead computers crowd, people are roasting circuit boards over charcoal...to melt out the lead...and using nitric acid to free the gold. These people are finding the use in the old, finding the good in the dead, they are performing an act of resurrection. I know it is a startling image to think about such things, in certain ways more appropriate for Easter than Advent. But John is announcing resurrection through baptism.
I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope...for hope.
…and wait without love…for love
There is yet faith but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Do not think for you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be the light
And the stillness the dancing.
(From “Four Quartets” by TS Eliot)
Consider the butterfly. These insects know all about becoming new. They are a marvelous symbol of the resurrection. It happens when we remember that all things will become new. Even if we are dying. Even if we are grieving. Even if our back hurts. Still, and anyway, all things will become new.
“A bag of goo crawls on a leaf, obsessed with eating. It hangs upside down. It becomes something else. A butterfly is born, a bit of blue heaven, a jazzy design. It is a gesture of beauty almost too casual.”
Becoming new is a gesture of beauty almost too casual. Just like baptism, it is as simple as simple can be—and yet the whole world changes. It is not interior decoration so much as interior renewal. It is about style but not just style. It is not about how old we are or how young we are. We are the right age for renewal, no matter our age. Becoming new comes from the inside out, from the place that God heals and restores. John the Baptist announces it and Jesus Christ is born to seal the truth of it. (quoted material from An Obsession With Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair With A Singular Insect, Sharman Apt Russell)
John the Baptist predicts an apocalypse, and in response the people ask what they should do. His response is so simple that we often miss it. Care for the poor; be honest; do your job with integrity. Following the events of September 11, 2001, which seemed at least to the people of New York to be apocalyptic in nature, many people asked the same question. Without needing to be told, people came down to Ground Zero to make food, brought socks and gloves, gave blood at hospitals; they spent more time with their families, even changed professions to jobs that seemed to have more meaning.
At the very end of the final episode of Ric Burns’ masterful PBS documentary about the city of New York, former Governor Mario Cuomo comments on how he hopes people will memorialize the events of September 11, 2001. He calls us to attend to two Hebrew concepts, tzedakah and tikkun olam. Tzedakah is essentially loving your neighbor as yourself. Tikkun olam means to make whole the universe. Both are daunting and difficult in conception and action, which is perhaps why John talks about our baptism in Jesus involving fire.
Secondhand Lions is a film illustrating the importance of having great expectations, something that gives purpose and meaning to one’s life. When the adolescent Walter is dumped onto the Texas farm of his two uncles and left there by his pleasure-seeking mother, the two old men are sitting around waiting to die. Their immediate pleasures are fishing for catfish with shotguns and using those same guns to scare off the salesmen who stop by. Walter learns that his Uncles Garth and Hub had once led adventuresome lives in Africa, but now, as one confesses, they feel useless as old age overtakes them. They are not interested in this son of a niece whom they had never seen, they having been absent from the country for the past 40 years. However, as they get to know the boy and see how lonely he has been because of his gold-digging mother who had dragged him from place to place in her quest for a man of wealth, their family-feelings are aroused. At one point, when Uncle Hub suffers a heart attack, the desperate Walter tells them that they must stay around for more years, that he needs them. Young Walter is no John the Baptist (though his moral fiber is as tough as that of the Baptist’s in the scene in which the boy resists the plan of his mother and her crooked boyfriend to steal his uncle’s treasure cache!), but his plea to his uncles awakens them to their responsibilities and new calling, even as John’s preaching led his audience to ask “What then should we do?” Desiring to see their nephew, whom they now cherish, grow up, the two old codgers are filled with “great expectations,” and thus a new lease on life.
Mrs. Watts, in Horton Foote’s beautiful play and movie, Bountiful, is a good example of what the apostle Paul means in his exhortation to the Philippians to “rejoice always.” She lives in rather miserable circumstances, forced by economic necessity to live in a small apartment with her grown son Ludie and his tyrannical wife Jessie Mae. The old woman longs to be able to return to the small town where she grew up, the town which gives its name to the play: Bountiful. Jessie Mae is always finding fault with her mother-in-law, the latter holding her tongue and keeping her hurt feelings to herself for the sake of her son. She is a woman of deep faith, and it seems to be this which sustains her. Whenever she is alone she sings her favorite hymns as she goes about her chores, and later on the bus going back to Bountiful, she is able to summon up an appropriate Psalm to comfort a fellow passenger. This is a woman whose life, despite her difficulties, is suffused with a form of quiet praise and rejoicing.
John was a rather blunt person, apparently not too worried about how people would react to his words. A clergyman in England, however, learned that there can be a price to be paid for being too blunt and honest. During December last year, the vicar of the St. Mary’s Church in Maidenhead declared during worship that “Santa Claus is dead.” He went on to explain to the children present how it was a physical impossibility for one person to deliver presents to all the world’s children on one night. Apparently, the Reverend Lee Rayfield was speaking about something he had read on the Internet, where it claimed that in order for Santa to reach the 91.8 million homes in the world in 31 hours, his reindeer would have to travel 3,000 times the speed of sound. Based on that speed, the reindeer would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, and Santa would be crushed by 4,315,000 pounds of force. After parents voiced their outrage at the vicar’s comments about Santa, he wrote a letter to the families apologizing for the incident.
John the Baptist certainly was not shy about warning people of the coming judgment. Cities across the United States are beginning to rethink what the best way is to warn people of approaching dangers. Several urban areas have begun revamping the old air-raid sirens. Voters in Oklahoma City this year approved an increase in their sales tax, which would include $4.5 million for 181 new sirens. During the Cold War era, the federal government paid for outdoor siren systems across the nation. New York City installed sirens on every fifth lamppost. Washington, D.C., had 400, and Los Angeles 225.
The essence of repentance is taking our faith and putting it to work in our lives to make the changes that need to be made. Alabama Governor Bob Riley considers himself to be a faithful Christian. As a result, he decided that he needed to make a change in his stance on taxes. As a Republican, he had previously opposed higher taxes. But citing his Christian faith, Riley announced this past summer that he would be calling for a $1.2 billion hike in taxes. In his plan, the bulk of the new money would be collected from the wealthier taxpayers and used for the benefit of the poorer ones. The governor noted that under the current tax structure in Alabama, families earning less than $5,000 a year have to pay state income tax, and those who earn less than $13,000 end up paying a much larger percentage of their income in taxes than do those at the top end of the income ladder. Voters in Alabama, however, decidedly rejected the governor’s plan in an election that took place in September.
It’s one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another thing to actually do it. A number of theologians from Europe were visiting Mother Teresa in Calcutta to witness firsthand the kind of work she was doing. At one point she turned to the academics and said, “If you try to do what I am doing, then you will be able to enjoy what I am doing.” She then picked up a youngster at one of her child-care centers who was playing in the dirt and gave the child a kiss. She then waited for her guests to do likewise. They did not.
It seems that it’s increasingly difficult to get people today to take their sins seriously. Toward the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I designated seven deadly sins: anger, pride, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and greed. Gregory’s list was a revision of a fourth century list of deadly sins complied by a monk named Evagrius of Pontus. He named eight: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Gregory added envy to the list, and combined vainglory with pride, and merged acedia with sadness and renamed it sloth. Earlier this year a group of French chefs sent a petition to Pope John Paul II asking him to remove gluttony from the list.
Instead of recognizing sin as the cause of wrongdoing, some people today want to point the finger of blame at genetics. A young man is on death row in Pennsylvania, having been convicted of murder. His father also was a murderer who spent time on the state’s death row. The young man, however, has petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give him a new trial so that he might argue that his genes fated him to follow in his father’s footsteps. In his original trial, the judge refused to allow experts to testify that he was genetically predisposed to violence. If the jurors had been aware of that fact, his attorney contends, they might have been more lenient in dealing with his client. Under Pennsylvania law, jurors in a death penalty case are supposed to consider both aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and they can choose to be lenient if they believe that a person’s actions were motivated in part by factors beyond their control. Criminal defense experts admit that while it is fairly common for death row defendants to introduce evidence about an abusive upbringing, it is rare to assign the blame on bad genes. The appeal process is expected to take several years.
Some wrongdoers in Britain are able to avoid the punishment of imprisonment if they agree to apologize personally to their victims. The program of “restorative justice” seeks to pay more attention to the needs of those who have suffered loss. In addition to offering an apology, the criminal is also required to tell the victim why they committed the offense. The plan is to use this model of justice for various acts of anti-social behavior, not for violent crimes. The hope is that this system will lessen the burden on the formal court system, while at the same time addressing the needs of the victims.
In The Word before the Powers, Charles Campbell cites an incident that happened to Ted Wardlaw, who served as pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. While Wardlaw and his wife were on vacation in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, one afternoon they sat down for some refreshments at an outdoor café. At a nearby table was another couple, obviously Americans. To amuse themselves, that other couple motioned for some of the children in the nearby square to come over to their table. The children were quite evidently from impoverished families, and they were attempting to sell candy and other trinkets to tourists in order to make some money. The Americans told the children that they would pay them so many pesos for every lap they ran around the square. Immediately the children took off and frantically raced about the square. All the time, the couple laughed at them and taunted them, “Faster! Run faster!” Since each lap that the children ran was costing them the equivalent of only a few American pennies, they reveled in the power they wielded over those children. Wardlaw and his wife walked away shocked and dismayed at what they saw. In John the Baptist’s preaching to the crowd, he primarily addresses people in positions of power over others. His ultimate demand is that they act responsibly toward those who are weaker.
Sometimes people wait to the very end to repent. An old codger in Medford, Oregon, was a reclusive millionaire who was known far and wide for hating children. Many times he chased kids off his land at gunpoint. When he died earlier this year at the age of 87, the community was startled to learn that he bequeathed his entire estate to the construction of a youth sports park. Wes Howard was known for being frugal. He used an outhouse throughout his entire life, refusing to spend money on an indoor toilet. Likewise he shunned modern kitchen appliances and cooked his meals over a wood stove. A neighbor said he gained his fortune when he won a lawsuit. Howard, a former carpenter, had fallen off some scaffolding and fractured his leg.
How willing are we to share with others? In a poll conducted in November 1995, the Washington Post found that the average American believed the country spent 26% of the nation’s budget on foreign aid. According to the survey, most people thought that 13% was a more reasonable figure. The actual amount of foreign aid at that time was 0.5% of the federal budget—only 1/52 of what people thought it was.
In Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ron Sider observes that the United States acted with rather great generosity in the aftermath of World War II. At the height of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, America annually gave 2.79% of its gross national product. But by 1960 the amount of foreign aid had fallen to 0.53% of GNP, and by 1993 it had plummeted to a mere 0.15%. Sider observes, “The richer we have become, the less we share with others.”
Do we really want our sins named as openly as John named them? A family in New Mexico is suing the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and one of its priests over a funeral mass earlier this year in which the priest allegedly said that the deceased was only a so-so Catholic and would be going straight to hell. Apparently 200 people attended the funeral where the priest made those comments. The man had regularly attended church throughout his life until he was too ill to attend during the last year before he died. One of the family members said she is seeking damages because people in town have been staring at her, assuming that her father really is in hell. The complaints also alleges that as the priest walked to the grave, he made comments about the deceased that were laced with profanities. Church officials deny the family’s charges.
Drawing close to God does lead people to make changes in their lives and display God’s love. A study conducted this year by the National Opinion Research Center found that the average American performs 109 altruistic acts per year. But those who regularly participate at a house of worship—whether a church, synagogue, or mosque—report an average of 128 good deeds each year. In contrast, people who say they never attend worship services report only an average of 96 kind acts a year.
John the Baptist didn’t allow anyone to rest on their laurels and assume that their position of power would ensure them a place in God’s kingdom. In 1989 Zita, the last empress of Austria, died. For her funeral, a procession arrived at the grand west doors of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna with thousands of mourners lining the streets and thousands more waiting inside the church. The empress’ chief attendant approached the closed church door, loudly banged on it, and shouted, “Open these doors for Zita, Empress of Austria, Princess of the House of Hapsburg, Mother of Kings!” But from inside the church there was nothing but silence, and the doors remained closed. A second time the attendant pounded on the doors and bellowed, “Open these doors for Zita, Empress of Austria, Princess of the House of Hapsburg, Mother of Kings!” Still the doors remained shut, with no reply from within. Finally the attendant lightly rapped on the door and said, “Please admit the earthly remains of Zita, a poor sinner who desires the mercy of God.” Immediately the doors flung open and the funeral procession was welcomed in.
The general consensus among many people is that something is right if the majority says it’s right. But John the Baptist challenged that notion. He challenged the way that many of the powerful people of his day excused their sins because their wrongdoings had become accepted and expected by most of the public. Just because an idea has a majority behind it doesn’t mean the idea is right. Slavery and segregation became deeply entrenched in American society through constitutional legal procedures, whereby majorities of legislators in various states voted to endorse and perpetuate those social evils. It eventually took other voices from outside the official seats of power to speak up and change the status quo.
“Who errs and mends, to God himself commends.” (Miguel de Cervantes)
“To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.” (Stanley Hauerwas)
“To him who still remains in this world no repentance is too late. The approach to God’s mercy is open, and the access is easy to those who seek and apprehend the truth.” (Cyprian)
“Repentance is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.” (John Milton)
“How inconsistent it is to expect pardon of sins to be granted to a repentance which they have not fulfilled. This is to hold out your hand for merchandise, but not produce the price. For repentance is the price at which the Lord has determined to award pardon.” (Tertullian)
“To move across from one sort of person to another is the essence of repentance: the liar becomes truthful, the thief, honest.” (A. W. Tozer)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Rejoice! Rejoice and celebrate, for the Lord is near!
People: Let us sing songs and let joy fill our hearts! Let us cast aside all our fears!
Leader: Look to God with all Your heart, and with Your prayers put Your trust in the Lord!
People: May God’s peace come to us! May God’s peace fill us as we look forward to that day when we will be together with God!
God of the future, You offer us new life, the life that never ends. But instead of taking hold of that precious gift, we cling to the old life. Rather than embracing mercy and forgiveness, we cling to grudges and resentments. Instead of pursuing justice and equity, we persist in our bigotries and apathy. Rather than acting generously toward others, we remain self-centered, focusing on our own wants and desires, ignoring the pressing needs of those in the world around us. Merciful God, with our words we say that we want to be Your followers. By the gift of Your Spirit, grant us the ability to live our lives in such a way that we put those words into action. In the name of our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen.
Giver of joy, it is with thankful hearts that we bring our offerings before You. Take our gifts and use them to accomplish wonderful works in Your name. May they bring joy to the downcast, and may they bring new life to a weary world. We ask these things in the name of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Heavenly Father, at this time of year we prepare our homes and our communities for the coming of Christmas. We string lights, we decorate trees, and we hang wreaths as a sign of how important this season is to us. But enable us to look beyond all the tinsel and glitter and make the inward preparations that we so often neglect.
Renew our hearts, O Lord, with a glow that radiates not just at this time of year, but with a fire that burns for You throughout the entire year. Touch our minds, dear God, and lift up our thoughts so that we concentrate on the higher, heavenly ways that You want us to pursue. Direct our steps, Faithful One, so that our pathways may be not merely of our own choosing, but that each movement we make might be focused in the way that You want us to go. Fill our entire being, now during this Advent season and always, so we may live as the new creations that You have called us to be. In the name of our Redeemer we pray. Amen.