The Great Migration of the Heart
Luke 3: 7 - 13
At Westcott House in Cambridge, where I undertook my academic training for the priesthood, we spent much time learning about homiletics….which is basically about giving a good or at least satisfactory sermon …..a sermon that is …if not exciting…. is at least about the Good News and in line with Holy Scripture and the message of love we have been given.
Sounds easy but I promise you it's quite a task…every week….especially if you want to do more than provide accurate guidance…if you want to engage people, move them, inspire them, challenge them and comfort them.
The bible is also pretty clear - don't misrepresent the Good News - don't get in the way of people coming to faith….in the Letter of James we have this cheerful line…..’Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’.
One of the main messages I remember from the training at Westcott House was that everyone likes something different and you can’t please everyone all of the time. ….so true and such great advice.
If I was to ask you what are the key features of a good sermon…after saying the short ones…you might come up with the same list I have been given …when it's appropriate include humour…make an emotional and perhaps personal connection with the readings, explain and make relevant sometimes difficult to understand passages… ….encouraging people and supporting people in coming to faith and in keeping and deepening their faith.
I think it fair to say John the Baptist has a different view….he starts with insults and accusations…likes a threat or two and has no time for anything less than radical transformation.
How would you all feel if I started a sermon by calling you all snakes and vipers!!!! Not very Radio 4 Anglican ear tickling thought for the day approach is it? If I'm ever asked I may consider it as an opening line…just to wake some folk up!
John means business and he makes it clear the stakes are high…. Get your house in order because the Messiah is on the way.
The key to John's message is repentance….. repentance means turning to God …. Turning away from the stuff, the thinking, the behaviors that keep us from God ….. and instead turning to God… leaving all that other stuff behind on the path you were on …..
According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has as many as 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts.
I don't know about you but that sounds about right. My thoughts and even my dreams are so often like an endless heaving sea of worry, concern and preoccupation….
All of those thoughts….so many of them negative and unhelpful…am I getting fat….too old…too short…too bald…am I getting forgetful…is that arthritis….I want this…I want that….he thinks this…she thinks that…..on and on….and how much of our thinking …that 20% bit that is left is about goodness, the light…love and the Good News?
John, in part is saying STOP…how are you really living your life……step away from the path of darkness, all these thoughts of fear, unrequited desires and all those behaviors that come from this….the desire for wealth, being right, not forgiving, getting what we want ….
…and instead turn to God…free yourself from hatred and dissatisfaction and walk the path of Christ….but first you have to turn…you have to decide and you have to keep turning if you are to keep on that path.
It's a bit like Sat Nav…you may have this in your car or on your phone…. You need to be clear where you are…..and you have to set a destination……now you might miss a direction or there might be road works on the way, but the Sat Nav will simply redirect you….. keep asking you to turn until you get back on track…as long as you listen to the instructions and keep turning you won't get lost. You’ll get home.
Repentance is like this…. Its ongoing work that I believe has a deep spiritual purpose.
Repentance you see keeps our hearts soft and open to the voice of Christ....when we reject this idea of repentance.... We can create a crust on our heart...our heart becomes hardened and we can’t hear his voice and respond to his Word...repentance is not just sorrow (more on that in a bit).....repentance means being open to a life in Christ… We are saying my direction has changed....I’m turning around......to face the Son.
Repentance is not necessarily about sorrow for sin and things we have got wrong…..in turning and getting onto the right path there can of course be great sorrow…sorrow for what we have done…sorrow for what we failed to do…but sorrow and the request for forgiveness isn't the purpose or mechanism of repentance. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. Sorrow and the need for forgiveness just often come along as necessary companions with the process of turning.
John says God will deal with every single person individually.
The crowd in our text asks John what they should do….and we hear echoes of the later teaching of Jesus…. Live your life differently…go in a different direction.
Real faith and real repentance you see is an attitude of heart, with accompanying actions, that should mark the whole of a believer’s life. We should feel and we should act differently. Put simply others should look at us and see something distinctly Christian.
John says simply be kind, share what you have, don't exploit others….
John is so compelling…the crowd starts to wonder if he is the Christ….
John makes it clear he is not Christ….that Christ is coming. He is not worthy to do the most humble of acts….and when he comes the Christ will baptise in Spirit and Fire.
Think about Peter…full of himself…the first of the apostles…always there with answers….and claims on the night of Jesus's arrest he will never deny Christ and what happens a few hours later, full of fear he has denied him three times.
Then at Pentecost, in the book of Acts, also written by St Luke, we see this baptism foretold by John of Spirit and Fire…..and what happens to Peter and the others….they are transformed. This is the promise of God…the promise of power to serve…to speak….to heal and to call the lost and broken hearted. Peter proclaimed this Good News to thousands of people in the very places and to the very people that had just killed Jesus and to whom Peter had denied Jesus out of fear. This is what baptism in fire and Spirit means.
From denial to proclamation of the Good News.
From fear to life.
The great migration of the heart.
We need this gift today…we are so physically concerned …but are we spiritually prepared? Do you think about this baptism in your life….in our ministry here…can we feel this …are there signs in the way we live our lives…in the power of our Christian ministry?
Have we forgotten to keep turning…are we still on the path?
Do you need the Holy Spirit's power in our lives….the answer of course is yes….we all do and and we just have to turn and ask.
Finally, through faith we also have the wonderful grace of God. There to heal, there to support and guide…there always welcoming us home. Paul's words of gentleness in the wonderful letter of Philippians we also have today reminds us of this grace and love.
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 guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The great migration of the heart.