ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                  DECEMBER 4, 2016



            Isaiah 11: 1 – 10; Romans 12: 1 – 3; Matthew 3: 1 – 12

Rev. Sabrina Ingram


Today is the Sunday the Church designates to celebrate “peace”.  Recently I’ve been watching the series “Homeland” on TV.  It’s a show about the CIA’s role in insuring homeland security in the USA.  In order to gain information the CIA, as well as intelligence officers from other countries and within terrorist organization, finds “assets” – people who are able, because of their ability to get close to those in power, to spy, report or do things for them.  They recruit many of these assets through manipulation, black mail, seduction, emotional or physical abuse.  They use people, endangering their lives; many end up dead.   As well the show portrays the self-serving ambitions of everyone and the machinations, deals, cover-ups, lies and moral compromises that are made.  The show exposes the complex politics of the world around us which may help to prevent terrorist attacks at home.  It presents quite clearly the reasons peace is so difficult to attain.  What keeps the machine running are ideologies, resentment and retaliation.  It seems to be an endless, self-perpetuating cycle.


Looking at the world it’s hard to imagine the peace Isaiah proclaimed.  Sharing God’s promise to the exiled Jews in Persia in 730 BC, Isaiah spoke of the coming of a righteous, faithful Saviour from David’s line. This Messiah will champion the poor and the meek and bring judgement upon the wicked.  He’ll usher in a new reality where enemies peacefully coexist and nothing causes harm. This is God’s promise not only to Israel but for all people: “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.” (vs. 10)


Before that Saviour appeared 700 years past.  The remnant of Israel returned home in 539 BC.  They were conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and by the Romans in 63 BC.   Israel was like a tree that would begin to grow, only to be chopped down again.  In spite of God’s promise they were caught in a hopeless cycle.    Then around 26 AD another prophet appeared on the scene – John the Baptizer.  John came preparing the way for Isaiah’s promised Saviour.   He warned people of the coming day when the wrath of God would be set loose.  The term “wrath of God” conjures images of thunderbolts and white-hot anger.   John’s version of God’s wrath was the condemnation and annihilation of sin, which defiles creation and destroys human dignity, by an all-holy, all-loving God.   Divine love is fierce in judgement for those who ignore or resist God’s will.  God’s wrath brings the destruction of evil, “…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.”  (Matthew 3: 10).   God’s condemnation is the flip side of his gift of salvation.  In order to escape condemnation and destruction John prepared the people for the coming of the Messiah by calling them to “Repent” (vs. 2) and by baptizing them in the Jordan River in a rite of cleansing.   God’s promised peace enters the world as individuals repent and welcome Jesus, who will  “baptize withthe Holy Spirit and fire” (vs. 11)


Repentance is a main theme of Advent.  In Hebrew the word “repent” means “to turn” – repentant people reverse the direction of their lives by confessing their sin and adjusting their behaviour.  In Greek “repent” has a different meaning.  The Greeks understood “repent” as a call “to change one’s mind in a radical way.”  Paul affirmed the importance of this, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12: 2).    Cognitive therapists agree that our thoughts impact our choices and behaviours.  The ways we think shape our souls and our world.   For instance, because people want revenge when we’re attacked, we have war instead of peace.  Jesus thought we should love our enemies (Matthew 5: 44).  Personally, if we focus on life’s disappointments we miss our blessings becoming bitter people instead of grateful ones.  Repentance isn’t only saying the right words or doing the right things; we’re transformed as we think in different ways.  It’s easy to be stuck in thinking patterns and not know it.  If I asked “what colour is the sky?” you’d likely say “blue”.  Yet the night sky can be black, navy or grey; the northern lights make it green, yellow, purple or red; in the day it may be blue, mauve or grey; and at sunset it’s a glorious mix of pink, orange, gold, violet, red and yes, blue.  When we’re stuck in our thought patterns, we miss the abundance of life Christ desires for us.  In what ways does your mind need to be renewed?


Ever since Luke Skywalker became a Jedi Knight, the idea of “unlearning” what we have learned has become popularized.  Let’s look at some of the things we might need to unlearn in order to repent and be transformed.   To begin, all of us have thoughts which undermine our expression of the gospel.  Sometimes we’re unable to forgive and our anger causes us to wish the other person ill or to take action to hurt them.   Our pride can keep us from admitting we have needs and receiving care from others.  We can be envious rather than generous.  We can be critical and negative instead of encouraging and hopeful.  We might view someone as an idiot, instead of thinking of them as better than ourselves.  Or we may have thoughts that lead us away from Christ.  We might read the Bible for information instead of transformation or apply what we read to others rather than ourselves.  We may believe we’re saved by our goodness rather than God’s grace.   Worship might be bottom instead of top of our list.


Renewing our minds may include shifting our expectations of ourselves and of others.  When our grand-daughter was diagnosed with severe autism, Terry’s son wrote of the need to shift his dreams for her – education, marriage, a career and a home were suddenly off the table.  People, including ourselves, don’t need to be perfect to be loved by God or to be valuable.   Neither do they need to share our opinions.  Just because someone holds views we think are ignorant doesn’t mean we need to condemn them as completely wicked; they likely have good qualities too.  This is where they’re at right now and their thoughts don’t need to threaten or change us; we can still love.   We all hold biases.  Do we need to replace a sense of entitlement with valuing the rights and freedoms of others?  Stereotyping with honouring individuality?  Crazy with compassion for the ill? Stigma or shaming with kindness? Like the sky, we think of flesh tone being the colour of our skin.  As we relearn flesh tone, we learn all people are equal and beautiful in the eyes of God – racial prejudice diminishes.


We can also renew the way we think life should be, or needs to be before we can be happy.  What if we changed – “I’m forever damaged by my past” to “I am more than the things that happened to me”; “It matters what people think of me” to “God’s thoughts about me are the only ones that matter”; “If all my wishes came true, life would be perfect” to “There is so much to be grateful for now”; “Beauty/ Success/ Money equals happiness” to “Life in Christ equals happiness”.   Or perhaps we need to renew our approach to the things life throws at us.  Problems can become opportunities; Fate becomes choice; failure is a step along the way to success; conflict leads to better relationships.


There are many ways we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Repentance of this nature is as personal as our individual thoughts and beliefs.  If you’ve had an “Aha” moment this morning recognizing some way your thinking needs to change, that’s great.  If not, I’d challenge you to pay attention to the messages you tell yourself and the places these false truths lead you so  you can renew your thinking, change your approach to life and be transformed.  Our Saviour comes to bring peace – peace of mind; peace with our neighbour and peace with God.  Peace comes when, one by one, the Holy Spirit leads us to repent taking on “the same mind as Christ.” (Philippians 2: 5) 


It’s hard to believe peace is possible.  Just as the world is caught in an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of war, so we’re caught in thoughts, patterns and behaviours which are difficult to shake off.  We feel buried in the despair of life. Take heart. There is hope.  We have a Saviour.  Two years ago a beaver gnawed down a small oak tree that had sprung up on our property.  We thought the tree was done, but the following year it came back with several living shoots; its roots were still alive.  Isaiah foretold the Messiah would descend from David’s line, A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  By the time that happened there was only a remnant of God’s people left.  One wouldn’t have thought it possible and yet Jesus came, a shoot from a decimated stump.   When we’re in a dark place, doubtful that renewal is possible, we may think we’re buried, chopped off, done.  But the Saviour comes bringing life to our roots and we discover we’ve actually been planted so something new can spring up.  Transformation is always a possibility.   Unlearn, for the kingdom of God is coming.