— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Here is this week’s sermon in four words: positive change is possible. This reading from Luke reminds us that our lives, communities, countries can be better, more whole, more true, more loving, more faithful. Our rough places can be made smooth and our valleys raised up and our hills brought low. Fundamental to this message is that human beings … we… are capable of changing, of living our lives in a new way that is more wholesome and generous. We have it within us to repent, to turn and move more and more in the direction of truth, love, justice, and peace.
When John the Baptist started preaching in the desert and people started coming to him for baptism, the Scripture is reminding us that people can change. When John shouted for the crowds to repent, to turn from sins, because there was forgiveness in the turning, John based his whole approach to the people on the fundamental belief that change was possible. Human beings have agency. Human beings make choices. Human beings do not have to keep making the same self-destructive, unrighteous, death dealing choices. Human beings can repent, receive forgiveness and chart a new way in life.
One of the questions that has come to me over the time of my ministry in the Presbyterian Church, USA is what do I think about “predestination”? My United Methodist friends are particularly interested in what I think about it since I came from that denomination into this one. Some people think of predestination as a striping of human agency in the world. Some believe that predestination means there is a script written by God and we all play our parts and act out our roles whether or not we know what the script is and what our role is.
There’s the old joke…
A Methodist falls down a set of stairs and he picks himself up and says “I’ll have to be more careful next time.” A Presbyterian falls down a set of stairs and he picks himself up and says “I’m glad that’s over.”
Now, I don’t dismiss predestination out of hand. Presbyterians want to focus on God’s grace. Presbyterians do not want to tie our ultimate salvation to anything we do, any decisions we make; rather, we are saved by grace and grace alone. I don’t mind that so much, but people can take it too far such that everything we do on this earth is without choice, without agency and known only in the mind of God. I do not buy that notion. I think predestination is mostly about highlighting God’s grace, a check on human pridefulness, and trusting God with what happens to us after we die. God is in charge of what happens to us after we die, and since I do believe in God’s grace and love and forgiveness, I can leave that to God. Today and tomorrow I want to make choices that bring God’s love more clearly into the world. I can make choices that do not make God’s love more evident and so can you. But for today’s sermon the point is we can make positive choices. We can change. We can choose to do well and to love and be loved, to be forgiving and merciful and committed to the well-being of our neighbors near and far. Positive change is possible.
I heard someone say, “Change is not a hobby.” For followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, change is ongoing. All of us – no matter how good our behavior has been, no matter how bad our behavior has been – can change for the better. If we live in peace, generosity, and love then the peace, generosity, and love can go deeper and wider. If we live in turmoil, selfishness, and enmity then we can open ourselves to the peace, grace, and love of Christ. All of us who listen to John the Baptist on the Second Sunday of Advent and all of us who follow Jesus recognize that change is a constant part of the daily living into God’s shalom, God’s grace, forgiveness and peace. John reminds us and calls us to change!
So does Ebenezer Scrooge call us to change… Charles Dickens, I should say. Remember the sermon in four words: positive change is possible. That four word sermon is the underlining principle of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge… Ebenezer encounters his old partner Jacob Marley as a ghost enchained. Marley has come to warn Scrooge that he is forging a chain even longer than his by all the meanness he is showing to his neighbors and his employee, poor Bob Cratchett. Marley comes to call Scrooge to a new life. Marley is Scrooge’s John the Baptist. And Marley warns Scrooge to avoid his fate of “unending repentance.”
Marley is in a perpetual state of repentance — which in and of itself is not so unlike our state of being in life and in the church. Here’s what I mean — every Sunday we confess our sins. Every Sunday we ask for God’s forgiveness. To be in a constant state of repentance is part of who we are as fallen creatures before God because no one is perfect. For Marley, however, as Charles Dickens tells the story, he is in hell because he is in a state of unending repentance with no hope for change. He comes to Scrooge to call him to change while he has time. I guess I’m not giving anything away to say that Scrooge heeds the call and becomes a new man who loves life and neighbors and who keeps Christmas well.
The message of John the Baptist,
the message of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge,
is that positive change is possible.
Two brief stories that came to my attention this week that make the point that positive change is possible for individuals, communities, nations. Both stories are nearly 30 years old. The first story involves one of Washington D.C.’s most prestigious churches, the church of Presidents, St. John’s Episcopal Church. One Sunday in 1989 a homeless man sitting by the doors of the church asked then President George H.W. Bush, who was on his way into church to worship to pray for him. To President Bush’s great credit he stopped and said something along the line of — “Come in and let’s pray for each other.” And they did.
And that homeless man, William Wallace Brown, became one of the most faithful members of the 8:00 a.m. service at St. John’s Church. So faithful was he — and every week he put a dollar in the offering plate — that when he died and it was discovered that he had no family, the 8:00 a.m. congregation claimed the ashes of William Wallace Brown as his “spiritual next of kin” and buried his ashes in the columbarium of the church. For the most part, those buried in the columbarium are wealthy and well-known, but now the ashes of one William Wallace Brown are there. And those ashes should remind us all that God is about the work of opening eyes to the truth that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The story also invites us to embrace the truth that positive change is possible in individuals and in churches (NPR, Weekend Edition, 12/2/2000).
Second story… When Judy Heumann was an infant in 1949, she got polio. When she was old enough to start her education, her New York City school rejected her. They told her a girl in a wheelchair would be a fire hazard, but her mother fought and Heumann was able to attend. She went on to college and earned a degree in speech therapy to help children with disabilities. But when she tried to become a teacher, the New York City school system again told her the wheelchair would be a fire hazard. A frustrated Heumann moved to California, where she became a leader in the new disability civil rights movement — ending the exclusion of people with disabilities.
Years later, Heumann, the woman once thought too disabled to go to school or to be a teacher, became President Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of education, in charge of special education.
This journey for Judy Heumann was aided to a large degree by the Americans with Disability Act signed into law by President George H. W. Bush during the summer of 1990. The ADA has been one of the United States’ most successful exports. Not only has it been a major Civil Rights success in our country but in addition 181 countries since 2000 have signed similar measures banning discrimination based on disability in employment, government services and public accommodations (NPR, July 24, 2015).
It is glorious good new that positive change is possible!
We as individuals, as communities of faith, as a country
can turn, turn, turn into new life!
It is glorious good news that positive change is possible!
It is the best of all possible news
that one thing will never change, never alter, never diminish,
God’s love for us will never change!