Luke 3:7-18; Philippians 4:4-7
I want to talk to you today about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. The where you are part is easy. You’re here. You’re right here. You’ve chosen for whatever reason to spend these 60 minutes right here right now in church. So I want to talk to you today about where you’ve been – and where you’re going. And I think in light of the events of Friday in Connecticut – it’s important that we do both. Before we look to where we go from here – we need to examine where we have been.
SO let’s talk about where you’ve been first. To do that, I want us to look at our Gospel reading today – our reading from Luke chapter 3. Now—here he is again – John the Baptizer. And his message – quite frankly – doesn’t sound like it’s a word of hope or encouragement – certainly not the Good News that – well, that you and I came here to hear today. In fact, it sounds downright judgmental.
I mean, how many of you would come back here again – if I were to start out every one of my sermons with the words, “You brood of vipers!” Yeah! Like that’s going to endear people to Jesus, right?
So John’s preaching sounds harsh. Judgmental. And who needs that! But let me suggest to you that in John’s preaching there is a message – of judgment, yes – it’s there – BUT also one of opportunity. I want you to look beyond John’s message of judgment – and listen to his message for the good news that it is.
You see, John’s message was not just a word of judgment, but a word of hope. And today you and I – we need to know that there is hope. But – and this may surprise you – but that hope was wrapped up in that one word that we so often associate with John. That one little word “repent.” Now – as I told you last week – we know that we need to repent. You know that. I know that. And we don’t like to hear that word repent. Just hearing the word “repent” makes me feel guilty. Even when I have nothing to feel guilty about! You know? That’s just what that word does. Repent! Repent! Repent!
OK, feeling guilty already? Have I said the word “repent” enough? Now I can’t help whether you feel guilty or not when you hear that word. It’s like the time many years ago – I think it was sometime in the 90’s – I ran into one of the members of this church – and I don’t even remember who it is anymore – I really don’t – but it was someone who wasn’t coming to church very often – and I ran into them – out and about somewhere – Wegman’s maybe – but I remember the conversation. This person said to me, “How come whenever I see you I feel guilty?”
I know! I just have that kind of effect on some people. And I think – I hope – I answered her by saying, “Well, what can you do so that you won’t feel so guilty the next time you see me?” And then it happened again just this Friday at the Post Office. I kid you not? I ran into someone who hasn’t been here in a number of months, and I told her how much we missed seeing her here. And she said, “I know, I know. We’re wanting to get back – get the kids into Sunday School. We’re just so busy.” And then she said, “I haven’t been Catholic in quite a while, but seeing you, all that Catholic guilt just came back and hit me again.”
Folks, listen! When you hear the word “repent” – or you run into me somewhere – let me suggest that instead of allowing that word to conjure up guilt feelings – that you look at repentance as an opportunity. When you look at where you’ve been – and IF there’s something there that you want to let go of – you need to let go of – but you haven’t yet let go of – I’m here to tell you today that you don’t need to hold on to that any longer. You do not have to let some word – some action – some experience in your past define who you are today.
What John was telling the people who came to listen to him was that they did not need to stay as they were. His message to you today is that you don’t need to stay trapped in your past. Get over your failures. Actually – I would suggest that failures can be a good thing IF we learn from those mistakes – those failures and move on. You can start over. You can always start over. The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ – the God we believe in – the God we worship – the God whom we serve – is the God of the second chance.
You know, I’d hate to live in a world where I was never given a second chance. In my marriage – well it never would have lasted if Nancy and I had not learned and practiced what it means to give each other second chances. I wouldn’t want to be in a marriage – heck, I wouldn’t want to live in a world – where there are no second chances – where there is no possibility to repent. That to me would not be living.
But thank God, God has given us this gift. He’s given us the gift – the chance – the opportunity – the motivation to repent. It is a gift! We can start over. We can begin again. We can – to use our definition of repentance from last week – “Back up, and turn right.” In other words – God is giving us a second chance – again, and again, and again, to back up, turn around and go in the other direction – the direction that leads us back to Him.
Another way to describe repentance is in a phrase that we like to use around here. “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much you let you stay that way.” That’s the God of the second chance, and why repentance – when seen as an opportunity – really is very good news. So this word – repent – really is a very lovely word. It is a word that our Heavenly Father gives us to describe what returning to the Father looks like.
So now that you know how to deal with where you’ve been – how about we take a look at where you’re going? Where we’re going? What would you say if I told you, you were made for joy! Now there’s a good news word if ever I heard one. You were made for joy! Not worry. Not guilt. Not regret. Not fear, but joy!
Listen! I know that a message on joy is a difficult one to hear after what we witnessed on the news these past two days. And I know that we worry about our kids. We worry about their safety. No matter how old you are. No matter how old your kids are. You never stop being a Mom. You never stop being a Dad. This has always been the case with every parent for every child in every age. And quite frankly, an event like this might lead us to live our lives in fear. But we were not meant to live in fear. That’s no way to live either. I do not want to live in a world of fear, do you?
Sometimes it seems that we get to a point in our lives and realize that we’ve spent so much time fretting over so many things, complaining about this and that – and all the while, life is passing us by so quickly. So let me say it again: You were not made to live in fear. You were made for joy. You weren’t made to fret and worry. You were made for peace and love and light and joy. We cannot let one man’s actions take those away from us. Yes – we do live in an evil world. But there is so much good, too. So much good.
That’s why I like so much what St. Paul has to say to us today in our lesson from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So let me ask you. What’s stealing your joy today? Huh? What are your joy stealers? What is it that robs you of your joy? Is it guilt about your past? Is it worry? Are you worried about your future? About your kids’ futures? Are you afraid? Guilt and worry and fear will suck the life right out of us. We were not meant to live with these joy stealers. Guilt, worry, fear. No. You were made for joy.
How many of you remember advice columnist Ann Landers? “We’re told that Ann Landers used to get about 10,000 letters a month about people’s problems. She was asked, what is the number one problem that people have? She said the number one concern of most people is anxiety. She said people are afraid of losing their health, afraid of losing their wealth, afraid of losing loved ones. She said people are afraid of life itself.”
There are so many things that rob us of our joy. But do you remember what the angel Gabriel said to Mary when he announced to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah? “Do not be – afraid – Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Do you remember what the angel said to Joseph? “Do not be – afraid – Joseph to take Mary as your wife.” And to the shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night? “Do not be – afraid – for behold I bring you good news of…” What? “…great joy.” Great joy! Yeah, you know that one.
As you look at where you’ve been, don’t let guilt from the past rob you of joy. And when you look at where you’re going – don’t be afraid. Don’t worry – don’t be afraid of the future. Do not let one man’s actions take your joy away from you. God is the One who holds the future. Maybe all it takes for us to overcome the joy stealers of guilt and worry and fear is for us to trust more and worry less. Love is stronger than fear. Joy is stronger than fear.
Well, I wish there were some way I could convince you that you don’t have to live with guilt when you look at where you’ve been – and you don’t have to live with worry or fear when you look at where you’re going. Not when you were made for joy! And the reason I can say that is because of the very thing that we celebrate every year at this time of year. It’s all because a Savior has been born. It’s all because of Jesus.
And by the way, let me also say that the next time I run into you at Wegmans – or the Post Office – I don’t want to hear any of you say to me, “Pastor – why is it that whenever I see you, I feel guilty.” No – I want you to look to Jesus – I want you to turn and look to the God of opportunity – to the God of the second chance –– to God – who wants your life to be filled with peace and joy.
My blessing for you today is this. May your life be blessed – may you live in hope – filled with joy. May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s why Jesus came the first time. That’s why Jesus comes to us now – in this very moment. So that in spite of tragedy and loss, we can still come to a place – even if it’s out there somewhere in the future, but to a time and a place where we can still say: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say Rejoice!”