The Thing About Change

MATTHEW 3:1-12

 

THE THING ABOUT CHANGE

john the baptist

 

 

I knew it was coming. I had fair warning that this unstoppable force was about to invade my life and turn my world upside down. I resisted with all my might but as the Borg from Star Trek say, “resistance is futile.” Finally, I had to give up and let the Wookie win, as they say in Star Wars. Finally, I had to let the tidal wave crash into my life and turn things around.

Of course, I am talking about when my mommy came to visit me several weeks ago. Many of you have already met my mom, she has visited Pierceton twice now. Part of me, the insecure part, suspects that some of you love my mom more than you love me. I don’t blame you. Let’s admit it, I have many attractive traits, but being a soprano is not one of them. I love my mom and I was glad to see her. And when she told me she was driving to Michigan for work in a rented SUV and would stop by with some things for my house I thought, “how bad could it be?”

Some of you may have already gathered that spatial reasoning isn’t a strong suit of mine. What looks like chaos to you is often fine by me. I always say that I am not a very sentimental person. You wouldn’t catch me watching HDTV.

My mom on the other hand, well she is my mom, need I say more? And when she arrived Friday night with a SUV full of stuff my stress level rose several magnitudes. After the drapes, and the rugs, and the pictures, and the tables, I finally just had to say, “Mom you need to stop!” My nice disordered pastor pad had been disrupted and I didn’t like it one bit. And as I sat in my rocking chair and beheld the wrath of interior decorating that my mom had wrought upon me I had two thoughts;

  1. I am really angry at my mom right now for changing everything
  2. Before my house was just a house. Now my house looks like a home.

Though I was angry at my mom for changing things I could not deny that the fruit of her labor, the fruit of the change was good.

The thing about change is this, people change, but not if you want them to. We are all changing. We are all getting older, we are learning new things. Beliefs we had as a child, we don’t have any more, and who knows who we will be tomorrow. Not all change is good, not all change is bad, but usually when change comes, we all resist it, your pastor included.

Knowing this, it is a surprise to me that John the Baptist is getting such big crowds in this passage. John’s not Jesus. Jesus tells people to repent, to change as well, but at least Jesus has the healings and miracles. It just seems like John is saying, “something is wrong with the way you all are living your life and things need to change right now.” He’s not saying you are beautiful no matter what they say, or haters are going to hate, or express yourself don’t neglect yourself, or live your best life now. John is saying I am here to make you uncomfortable. So much so that I am going to dress in uncomfortable clothing, and deny myself fine food just to make my point.

As we pass through the season of lent, as we pass through this season of mourning, reflection, and repentance, John tells us that if we expect the power of the resurrection we must first make room for the power of repentance. If we want new life we must first put to death the old life. I think that John the Baptist presents five main points about change to us today.

  1. Before real life can come we must make straight the way of the Lord.
  2. Making straight the Lord’s path means being willing to be lead into change
  3. Change requires repentance
  4. Repentance produces fruit
  5. A lack of fruit leads to death.

I: BEFORE REAL LIFE CAN COME WE MUST MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD.

John is telling people to repent because, “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John is not saying that everyone who is listening to him is about to die and face God in heaven. Instead he is saying that the Kingdom, or reign, or rule of God, is about to begin. In future sermons we will discuss more what the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God, as the other Gospel writers call it, entails. But for now it is enough to say that the Lord’s prayer summarizes John’s and Jesus’ message. The Kingdom of Heaven is wherever God’s Will is done on Earth as it is in heaven.

But to have the Kingdom of Heaven appear John tells his listeners that they “must make straight the way of the Lord.” What John is referring to here is a practice of the ancient world to welcome royalty. In the ancient world there wasn’t necessarily a government agency to constantly maintain roads. So when the Roman Emperor, or other royalty came to a region, the local population would go ahead of the ruler, and repair the roads, filling in holes, and leveling out hills, to make the Emperor’s journey smoother. It isn’t that the emperor doesn’t have the power to fix the roads himself. It is that out of respect for the emperor and fear that the emperor would not feel honored, the local population fixes the roads. The emperor may bring gifts and prosperity to the province he is visiting but first his way must be made straight.

II: MAKING STRAIGHT THE LORD’S PATH MEANS BEING WILLING TO BE LEAD INTO CHANGE.

            When change comes there is usually someone leading it. You don’t see many movements succeed without strong leadership. Take for example, the occupy Wall Street movement of several years ago. The anger against Wall Street and the financial collapse of 2007-2008 was so great and the movement so popular that I even met a guy in my hometown of Harrisonburg, VA who was “occupying” court square. Harrisonburg, is a college town, and is more a college party center than a financial center or a center of power. And yet, because they had no leadership, the movement has largely dissipated.

John the Baptist, at least from his description in the scriptures, doesn’t seem to be the CEO type. He doesn’t seem to be the type to manage a major organization, in fact he seems sort of reckless, perhaps a little mentally unstable, the type of guy who might loose his cool, which he does which results in him loosing his head, literally. And while we don’t have many folks these days who would say they are followers of John the Baptist, John is clearly a leader in this passage. John knew the difference between management and leadership, though sometimes we forget that there is one.

To quote Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus’s article entitled, “ Management Vs. Leadership.” “The problem with many organizations, and especially the ones that are failing, is that they tend to be over managed and underled. The may excel in the ability to handle the daily routine, yet never question whether the routine should be done at all. There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. “To manage” means “to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge or responsibility for to conduct.” “Leading” is “influencing, guiding in direction, course, action, opinion.” The distinction is crucial. Managers are people who do things right, and leaders are people who do the right thing. The difference may be summarized as activities of vision and judgment-effectiveness- versus activities of mastering routines- efficiency.”( pg 41) John may not have been very efficient, who knows how long it took him to dunk all those people in the Jordan. But he certainly was effective, he certainly had a vision about what was coming and how to make room for something and someone new, that being Jesus Christ.

III: CHANGE REQUIRES REPENTANCE

            If we are willing to be lead into change, if we are willing to let our Heavenly Father, our Holy Mother, come into our house and rearrange things for the better, then this requires repentance. As we have talked about before the Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Meta meaning above or beyond (think of metaphysics) and noia meaning “mind”. So to repent means to go above one’s own mind. To see things from God’s perspective. We can compare the Greek word metanoia with our modern word paranoia, which is almost a direct transliteration of the Greek . Para meaning against, and noia meaning mind. So to have paranoia is to be against one’s own mind while to have metanoia is to move beyond one’s own perspective, to see the world, to see yourself, as God sees you. This does lead to grief, for our sin is revealed to us, but it also leads to joy, when we start living not just to get into heaven but to let heaven get into our lives.

IV: IT IS CLEAR FROM SCRIPTURE THAT REPENANTANCE REQUIRES FRUIT

            It is clear that repentance, in John’s understanding, and in Jesus’ understanding, isn’t simply about saying the sinners prayer. It is about “bearing fruit worthy of repentance,” as John puts it. Repentance suggests an outward change in behavior that other people can observe. As Dallas Willard, author of “The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God,” puts it, we must be wary of what he calls “Bar-code” faith. To quote Willard, “ On a recent radio program a prominent minister spent fifteen minutes enforcing the point that “justification,” the forgiveness of sins, involves no change at all in the heart or personality of the one forgiven. It is, he instead, something entirely external to you, located wholly in God himself. His intent was to emphasize the familiar Protestant point that salvation is by God’s Grace only and is totally independent of what we may do. But what he in fact said was that being a Christian has nothing to do with the kind of person you are. The implications of this teaching are stunning.

The theology of Christian trinkets says there is something about the Christian that works like the bar code. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner. Perhaps there has occurred a moment of mental assent to a creed, or an association entered into with a church. God “scans” it, and forgiveness floods forth.” (pg 37). Willard continues by saying;

“The current situation, in which faith professed has little impact on the whole of life, is not unique to our times, nor is it a recent development. But it is currently at an acute stage. History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message. Or it is included only marginally. That is where we find ourselves today.

Once we understand the disconnection between the current message and ordinary life, the failures just noted at least make a certain sense. They should be expected. When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of individual sins. On the left it is the removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.” Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment to moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living.” ( pg 41). To put it in lay man’s terms John is saying that if you are going to talk the talk you need to walk the walk. This applies to even frail and failing sinners like us. Jesus had a similar expectation in the Gospel of Matthew. He expected that we could exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees who were hypocrites. In Jesus point of view sin is part of our fallen nature but that doesn’t mean we have to be hypocrites.

V: FINALLY A LACK OF FRUIT LEADS TO DEATH

            Finally, John tells his listeners that being “Sons of Abraham” will not necessarily save them from the wrath to come. Being of the right family, the right church, knowing the right theology, doing the right things, is not enough. To quote William Douglas Chamberlain, author of “The Meaning of Repentance,” “ Repentance is to have a two fold issue: reformation in conduct, and transformation of mental outlook. John demanded conduct worthy of men who have reoriented themselves in their relations to God. Instead of finding a sense of security in their racial privileges, as the seed of Abraham, they must face the fact, that in the Messianic age, each man shall stand or fall by his personal relationship to God. “ (pg 52)

The thing about change is that people change but not if you want them to. The thing about change is if we don’t change God is not restrained, for perhaps the rocks are more willing than our hardened and prideful hearts to do God’s Will. The thing about change is we know we need it though we hate to admit it. Billy Graham once said it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin and our job to love them. So I am not going to tell you how you need to change. That’s not my right. But I am sure if you ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you need to repent, where you need to go beyond your perspective to God’s perspective,I am sure she will convict you and turn the empty house of your heart into a humble yet beautiful home for Him.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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