Hear again the first two verses of our Gospel text from Matthew 3… In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In his 1976 dark hit movie “Taxi Driver,” young Robert De Niro plays a character who finally is driven over the edge by all of the evil and violence he sees and encounters, and he decides to respond in like manner.  In one scene he stands in front of a mirror practicing a number of tough guy lines he plans to use when he takes out the bad guys.  The most well-known line from that scene and that movie was: “You talkin’ to me?”

We might want to respond to John the Baptist’s verbal attack, one in which he was calling—perhaps screaming—for repentance with that line: “You talkin’ to me?”  The bad guys need to repent… like those Scribes and Pharisees John attacks with these words: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance...  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Is he talking to me?  Is he talking to you?   Yes, I believe he is.  We must repent.

The word repent involves two things.  First, it involves sorrow and contrition.  To repent means we recognize the depth of our sinful brokenness, being honest with ourselves, with one another, and—most importantly—with God.  In 1 John 1 we hear these familiar words:  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   First, we acknowledge we are sinners, then we confess our sins, and then we receive grace, the forgiveness of all of our sin.  However, the cleansing us from all unrighteousness continues.  That is an ongoing process.

Repentance doesn’t stop with contrition and confession.  Repentance literally means to turn.  So to repent means we strive to head the opposite direction of our sin.  Of course, the direction we want to go is toward Jesus.  Our goal is to become more and more like Jesus each and every day in all that we think, in all that we do, and in all that we say.  And ultimately this leads us to being grace-centered servants.  If that is not our goal, then we definitely need to repent! 

The primary motivation for this change is to be gratitude... gratitude for grace; it is to be love, not fear.  That is what you hear most from this preacher/teacher.   We recognize our substantial need for grace, we understand God’s grace is amazingly infinite, and then we are filled with thankfulness for that gift, and in thankfulness we respond in worship AND in service.

Now, this morning I am going to challenge us to think about the adequacy of our response, of our service.  And I am going to do so by returning to everyone’s favorite theme: stewardship.  Warning: what I am about to say will be uncomfortably challenging...  but hang in there, you can always count on me returning to grace.

I am not going to address the evil we think or say or do, but instead the good we perhaps fail to do.  Here’s what I want us to think about (we’ve thought about this before, and will need to think about it in the future): how Christ-like is our stewardship, our managing of the blessings of time, talent and treasure God places in our hands?  Are we heading the direction of truly sacrificial living, of whole-hearted, even radical, discipleship? 

Jesus gave it all for us, and St. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that, in view of God’s mercy, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.  Is that happening?  Are we at least moving that direction?  Or have we grown a bit complacent, comfortable with our religious contributions and activities, which perhaps often end up being whatever time or talent or treasure is leftover after we’ve done and bought everything else we want?  Am I being too radical?  Or do we really need to repent?

Let’s push this a little further.  As you know, I don’t even preach tithing, not because I think it’s too much to ask or expect, but really because it is too little.  I’d rather we focus on the biblical teaching that everything and everyone belongs to God, and we have been given the privilege and responsibility of managing the blessings God places in our hands in such a way as to reflect the mind of Christ.  Sacrifice.  It’s about sacrifice.  We are blessed to be blessings.

But let’s use the tithe for the sake of illustration.  The average household income for Wellington in 2013 was just over $73,000.  Zion is comprised of roughly 60 “giving units.”  If all of us did tithe, our yearly contributions would be $438,000.  The budget we have set for 2017 is a little over $120,000, which is quite a bit more than we expect to collect in contributions this year.

We are called to bear fruit as followers of Jesus.  John the Baptizer warns his listeners: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   How adequate is our fruit-bearing?

Boom!  I’ve just done it.  I’ve hit us with law.  No, not in order to increase our giving and our doing.  No way!  I’ve done this to make us aware of our ongoing need to repent.  And if you’re like me, you feel like crawling under a pew right now, and wish you’d stayed home today.  Let me make this perfectly clear: my own fruit-bearing, my own stewardship, my own discipleship is all woefully inadequate.  In comparison to God’s love, my love pales.  In comparison to God’s generosity, my generosity, my stewardship of time, talent and treasure is a joke.

You see, that is what God’s law does.  God’s perfect law makes it perfectly clear: we all fall short, far short, of anything resembling perfection.  As a result, we don’t need a little grace, a little forgiveness.  We need a lot.  And the Gospel comes to us right where we are, right as we are, and covers all of that sin—all of it!--with grace… the evil we have done AND the good we have failed to do.  Amazing grace… grace that saves a wretch like me. All we need do is repent.  If we confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins.

So I urge us to repent... change direction, to seek an ongoing transformation, a cleansing from all unrighteousness.  Why?  Out of guilt?  That is not at all what I’m trying to say.  When I speak of ongoing repentance, I am urging us to let the Holy Spirit of God continue to transform us, to fill us with ever-increasing gratitude, with a love-based desire to serve God and others. 

This is not about fulfilling the Law, which is impossible.  This is not about getting a legalistic preacher off our back, or trying to appease an angry God or to earn His favor and blessing.  And this is certainly not about trying to meet a yearly church budget or to increase volunteerism.  We are not volunteers, anyway; we are disciples.  Disciples don’t have to try to earn love, they know they are loved unconditionally, and as a result, they seek to live love, to demonstrate a love for God and gratitude for grace that’s reflected in how we live our lives… freely, joyfully, lovingly, meaningfully.

When we live our lives under grace, when we seek an ever-deepening love relationship with God, we bear fruit.  It happens organically.  And as we more and more fully live lives that reflect Jesus, lives of compassion and radical generosity, not only do the lives of others get better, so do our own lives.  We discover meaning and purpose.  It’s the best way to live. 

I’m going to close with some words St. Paul wrote in the 9th chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians: “Each of you must give [let’s insert “manage the blessings received from God] as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”  Let’s repent… let’s keep moving that direction, in the power of God and to His glory!  Amen.

   April 2019   
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