December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a
A few weekends ago, Patrick and I attended the OH Conference Pastor-Spouse Retreat at Mohican Lodge. This takes place every other year in November and the Elders generously agreed to send us again this year. I really look forward to it because it is a time to focus on our marriage relationship. When you work together professionally, as Patrick and I do, and you spend most of every hour of every day together, a lot of time is spent focusing on your professional relationship, but not necessarily on who you are as a couple outside that work relationship. This weekend is a chance for us to be intentional about not focusing so much on who we are as Co-Pastors Patrick and Christine, but instead focusing more on who we are as husband and wife (an important thing for all who are married).
This year, Ervin & Bonnie Stutzman were our speakers. We knew Ervin & Bonnie from when we lived in Harrisonburg. Ervin is now the executive director of our denomination, and Bonnie has been a chaplain over the years. The more I hear Ervin speak or preach at various events, the more my respect for him grows. I am so thankful that he is leading Mennonite Church USA. But that’s enough background!
There were many helpful and significant things Ervin and Bonnie shared with us at the marriage retreat. And I want to share a couple things they said that stood out to me that relate to our theme of repentance.
The thing that spoke deepest to me was when Ervin talked about how at some point in his life, when he was much younger, he was going to make a list of his sins. I don’t remember what it was for, but he shared that he really couldn’t think of much to put on his list. He went on to say that as he has grown older, that has changed. He has become more aware of the sin in his life, and if he were to make a list now, it would be really long.
Ervin told us that the apostle Paul’s experience was similar. He traced Paul’s life journey chronologically through Paul’s letters—how Paul saw himself in the beginning to how he sees himself by the end. In case you didn’t know, Paul’s letters aren’t in chronological order in the NT, they’re organized from the longest to the shortest. Well, in his earliest letters, which were I & II Thessalonians, he says “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.” (I Thess. 2:10) Sounds quite arrogant, doesn’t it? But by the time he gets to his last letters—I & II Timothy, he says this, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (I Tim. 1:15) He goes from being holy, righteous and blameless, to being the worst among sinners.
WOW. What humility before God. What incredible growth. Not a beating himself down or being enslaved to guilt, but a recognition of his need for repentance, with eyes open to the infinite grace of God.
When Ervin shared what he did about the list of sins, I recognized that younger version of him in myself—a tendency to see myself as having it pretty much together, not being able to think of much to put on my list of sins, feeling rather spiritually mature.
I think for me, part of it has to do with not wanting to go back to old ways of looking at sin, where you carry these feelings of guilt and shame, or that to be truly aware of your sin means you see yourself as despicable (as one song I know says it, I’m a wretch, I’m a worm, I’m a no good sinner). Or there’s the belief some have that links sin to the painful experiences in our lives. I have learned that it is not helpful, or godly, to carry these feelings or view ourselves this way. God sees us as his beautiful children, without spot or blemish.
But, we can react so strongly to the way we’ve typically heard sin addressed that we shy away from addressing it at all. When we read passages in the Bible that list sins, we all the sudden become speed readers, so we can get to the “good part,” the ”happy ending.” Or we fail to see the sin in our own lives, but can easily point out how wrong or un-Christlike someone else is.
But as Ervin also told us at the retreat, if we can’t admit our sins, salvation doesn’t mean very much.
I started reading a book called God in a Brothel. The author is a police officer who worked as an undercover investigator in sex trafficking rescue for 4 years. He worked in more than a dozen different countries, documenting cases of human trafficking, and his efforts resulted in the rescue of hundreds of women and children, as well as the successful prosecution of many traffickers.
He tells the stories of many of these women and children, some of whom he was able to rescue, some of whom he was not. Human trafficking is the fastest growing international crime, and commercial sexual exploitation is the most common reason for human trafficking. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that stretches around the globe, from the U.S. to Asia and everywhere in between.
Most of the women and children who work in brothels and as prostitutes are victims of this criminal network. They are coerced, tricked or abducted, and forced into modern day slavery. Many at the age of 12 or 14 or 17 or 20. One little girl I just read about the author estimated was 5 or 6 years old. He was never able to rescue her. It is a horrifying reality and the lives of these women and children are full of despair.
As I read these stories, my reality is shaken—my comfortable reality…..of security, safety, convenience, enjoyment of life; my comfortable reality…..of hope, faith and love. My eyes are opened to incredible suffering, hopelessness, to the living dead who must shut down completely in order to survive.
This is what poverty does to people—it leaves them vulnerable to be preyed upon, desperate to meet the needs of their family.
And I am faced with the humongous gap between the rich and poor—between me and the majority of the world. And I realize that it is only because I was born into the family I was born into and into the nation I was born into that I have wealth and privilege and opportunity. And that unsettles me….disturbs me even. And I cannot say that it is because of the grace of God. For why would God’s grace extend to me, and not to so many others?
I cannot explain why it is the way it is. I cannot understand it. But I can repent of my part in it and of so much more. So I repent….of my complacent lifestyle that so often is oblivious to the suffering of others.
I repent….of the decisions I make that feed the unjust system of this world.
I repent….of how I get so caught up in my own life that reality becomes distorted.
I repent….of my victim mentality that tells me I always have it worse than this person or that person, or that someone always has it better than me.
I repent….of being blind to the blessings God has given me.
I repent….of the words of complaint that are so often at the front of my thoughts and on the tip of my tongue.
I repent….of the attitudes I carry about you.
Our focus statement this morning, which is printed at the top of your bulletin, is this: Repentance raises valleys, lowers hills, and challenges the ways we’re accustomed to living. Are we ready for things to be different, to let God’s coming alter the landscape of our lives?
Perhaps we hear or read stories such as the ones I’m reading in God in a Brothel—stories that challenge the way we’re accustomed to living—and our response is, “I try not to think about those things too much because I don’t want to get depressed.” Or perhaps we think, “well, there’s nothing I can do about it” or worse yet, “I’m glad that’s not me.” Heaven forbid we take on the pain of someone else—we’ve got enough of our own to deal with, right?
Lord, forgive us. We repent of our selfish, apathetic attitudes.
We know that it is our responsibility as Christians, our calling as followers of Jesus, to care for the least of these. To be aware of the injustice experienced by so many in the world. To suffer with these women and children who are enslaved and defiled. To suffer with those who are abused. To suffer with those who are treated as if they are worthless. To suffer with those who have no parents and live on the streets. To suffer with those who endure horrific violence. To suffer with those who have no opportunities, so they join a gang just to survive. To suffer with those with bloated bellies and empty stomachs.
To suffer with because God suffers with.
To put ourselves in their shoes and educate ourselves on their reality so that we are moved to action. For true repentance leads to a change in heart which leads to a change in action.
Are we ready for things to be different, to let God’s coming alter the landscape of our lives?
This is not the world God intended it to be. The world is not right. As Peter says, “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” Righteousness refers not only to moral purity, but also to justice, and righteousness is not at home in our world. We don’t have to look far or hard to see all kinds of evil and injustice. It looks as if God is completely detached from our world. And some people believe he is.
This was a critique the early church faced as well. The early church thought that Christ’s return would be coming soon. They waited and waited….and nothing. And they endured the taunts of others who said Christ’s coming was never going to happen—obviously, the second coming was a fallacy.
So Peter encourages the believers, helping them to understand that there is a difference between human time and God time. What looks to them, and to us like God being slow in moving, or God being apathetic, is actually God’s mercy in action. No, the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as we may think of slowness, but he is patient with us, not wanting any of us to perish, but all to come to repentance.
What looks like tardiness and indifference is actually mercy. God’s salvation is for all and God wants everyone to come to repentance.
So as is the theme of Advent, we wait. We wait for God to come and rid the world of evil and make things new. And in the meantime we live in a world that is unjust, but we are to live in this world as if we were already citizens of the new world where righteousness reigns. For as followers of Jesus, we are citizens of a different world—a world where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, where righteousness and peace kiss each other.
So we open our eyes to injustice and hate and we speak out against it. We act against it. We pray against it.
In the Mark passage we heard that people went out to John the Baptist, were being baptized by him and confessing their sins. May our awareness of how we sin against God and against others grow. May we be willing to face the sin in our lives. And as we open the dark parts of our hearts to God, he will transform us and move us live righteous lives—striving for justice no matter what the cost, so that all may know the salvation of the Lord. AMEN!!