John the Baptist says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)
Let’s expand on this just a bit.
Take an honest look at your life. No excuses. No edits. No spin. Look at your behavior, your motivations, the thoughts and the feelings you have hidden. Now consider where a life like this is heading.
Some people will say something like this. “I have no regrets. If I hadn’t done all of those things, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
If the point of living were to make ourselves into something we’re satisfied with, we might be able to stop right there. For some people, that is precisely life’s point. We are the author of our own lives and the only critic that matters is us.
But followers of Jesus look at life from a different perspective. The point of life is to love God with every fiber of our being and to love our neighbors as if our own life depended upon their well-being.
To put that a different way, we are practicing to live in the kingdom of heaven. That’s the point of all that we do: practicing to live where God is close enough to touch and where no one’s dignity is ever diminished.
The Baptizer is saying this. The kingdom of heaven is actually emerging right in the midst of the blemished, beautiful, shattered, tender, horrifying, breath-taking world we inhabit. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent. Learn to recognize and nurture the kingdom right before your eyes. Learn to live a new way so that you can welcome the new heaven and the new earth that God is already making of our world.
I’ll illustrate what I mean by means of a piece of literature especially appropriate for this time of year.
As we inch our way toward Christmas, some of us will pull Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from the shelf to read to our children or maybe tune in to one of the several film versions scheduled by the cable networks. It’s a familiar story about a changed life, a redeemed life. The life of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The vehicle for Scrooge’s transformation is time travel of a sort. And well it should be. That’s because, at it’s core, transformation is about how our past relates to our present and to our future. Dickens makes the point in the person of three spirits who visit Scrooge in succession: The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
Guided by the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge sees himself as a younger man. A vastly different man. Filled with joy, surrounded by friends, and deeply in love. Faced with the choice between love and financial gain, Scrooge chooses to pursue career advancement at the cost of everything else, including affection, compassion, and belonging.
The Ghost of Christmas Past left Scrooge to regret what might have been.
The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the warmth and gaiety of the family gathering from which he excluded himself and the hunger, want, and untreated illness that Scrooge’s own greed has visited on the honest, hard-working Cratchit family.
Seeing the truth about his own life, Scrooge realizes his own deep loneliness and finally feels a profound guilt at the damage his own miserliness has caused those around him.
The turning point comes from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge foresees his own death. We all die, and the fact of his death was not the catalyst for change. Instead, it was the manner of his death and the world’s response to it. Scrooge died alone. Friendless. Leaving his riches behind for strangers to scavenge and not one soul to mourn his passing.
Upon seeing clearly the trajectory of the life he had been leading, Scrooge makes another fateful decision. From that moment forward he would live to make the world a better place for his fellow human beings instead of making a better place for himself in the world.
He reconciled with his estranged nephew, became a generous benefactor to the Cratchits, and committed himself to eradicating want and misery wherever he found it. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence became his business.
The key, you see, was not that Scrooge decided to make himself a better man. Instead, he decided to devote himself from that point on to making the world a better place.
You might think that his commitment to the well-being of others made Scrooge a better man. And maybe that is Dickens’ point. But it is not the point of the Gospel. The point of the Good News is never what we do. It is what God has done, is doing, and will do.
God loves us. It all starts there. When we follow Jesus, everything else is a response to God’s love. We do not make ourselves better so that God will love us. Instead, God loves us in his son Jesus, so now we can draw on that love to care for our neighbor as ourselves.
That is the essence of repentance: to love one another as a response to God’s love for us. God’s mission is to redeem the fractured creation. God places us on this planet to join him in his mission.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can each do this in our individual lives. But God wants us to do more. He has called us into communities, into congregations, to pursue his mission of love and mercy and justice as a Body.
And that mission is not just far away in Africa or South America. It’s down the street and around the corner. No congregation exists for itself, for its own membership. God has gathered Redeemer and every congregation in order to send you into the world as his hands and feet.
Scrooge discovered God’s mission by learning to see what was right in front of his face: his fractured family and the desperate conditions of his own employee’s family. Right here in Ruston there is want and misery. God has placed you here to listen and to respond.
Put on your walking shoes, hit the streets, and listen to the stories of your surrounding community. Do not wait for the Ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas present to sweep you off your feet. The Holy Ghost is already stirring within you. He will show you the truth and give you what you need to respond in the name of the God who became a man, the incarnate God who died and rose again.
When God calls us to repent, he is not telling us to change our lives so that he can accept us. Instead, he is inviting us to let him change our lives by joining him in changing the world.
As it turns out, following Jesus gives us a life with no regrets. Our past—whether storied or checkered—does not define who we are. God’s love for us makes us who we are each day, and that same love assures us a future that only God could have dreamt and that only he can make come true.
This sermon was preached at Redeemer in Ruston, Louisiana.