Going the wrong way
Lectionary blog for Dec. 8, 2013
The Second Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10;Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19;
Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
By Delmer Chilton
A few years ago, a pastor friend told me that he had met God on the highway. He said that he and his wife were traveling north on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading south. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.
As the truck drew closer my friend saw that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. A question came to his mind; “If God is going south, what am I doing going north?”
John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed south and everybody else was going north, headed the wrong way.
The key word in John’s preaching was “repentance.” In Greek the word is “metanoia.” It means “to turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way, but it is used to mean much more than a mere “change of mind.” It invokes a total reorientation of one’s personality.
If God is going south and we are going north, what should we do? Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like: “God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but – I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.”
Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance: being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.
Another popular response when finding that we are going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at someone riding with you and say, “You told me to go this way,” or “Going this way was your idea,” or, “It’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way. How was I to know?” (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple.” “Well, you gave it to me.”) Or you could blame the map or Google or the guy at the gas station.
People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.
John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees strike at the root of the matter. The text says they were coming for the baptism of repentance, so why did John reject them? It is because he recognized that they were coming to join the crowd. They were not coming as people who knew they needed to change, nor were they willing to change. “BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE[CMS1] !” John thunders at them, and what he means is pretty simple: “Let me see some evidence of a changed direction in your life.”
Are we on God’s side? If God is going south, why are we going north? If the kingdom of God is at hand, what must we do to be ready? John’s word to us today is that God is coming, and we need to get ready. The kingdom of God is at hand. Listen again to Isaiah’s version of the promise:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
That is the kingdom that is coming; that is the world that Jesus brings with him; that is the side of the road God is traveling on. God is traveling south on the side of peace and justice and the poor. It is not for us to debate whether that is the side God is on or whether God should be on that side. God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only questions for us are: “Are you ready to follow?Are you ready to repent, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads?”
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.