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Sinners Anonymous
based on Luke 3:1-18
by Richard Gehring

            Ride on the transit system of any major city in the country long enough, and you're sure to run into one of them:  a street preacher loudly proclaiming that Jesus died for your sins.  Sometimes at largefestivals, there is someone in the middle of this huge crowd of thousands of people, someone with a megaphone trying to convince them of their sinfulness and their need for repentance.

            Every time that I've experienced someone like this—every time I've heard such preachers loudly proclaiming the gospel, or at least their version of the gospel—not once have I ever seen anyone approaching the preacher to receive Christ or to be baptized.  Almost everyone in the crowds, myself included, simply ignores the preacher.  If anyone doe approach him or her, it's usually to argue or to chastise them for "disturbing the peace" or "forcing their ideas down other people's throats."

            It amazes me, then, to read about the preaching of John the Baptist.  Like these street evangelists of today, John preached a message of repentance from sin.  He didn't mince any words.  He took on the self-righteousness of the crowds and challenged them to change.  Unlike the street evangelists, though, John didn't go where the crowds were.  He went out into the desert, away from the cities and villages, and the crowds came to him.  It amazes me that people would actually travel several hours to find this strange man who wore camel's hair and ate locusts, and they would listen to him as he denounced them as a "brood of vipers."  And then they would actually respond to him and be baptized as a sign of their repentance.  John built up quite a following in those days as people from all walks of life came to him and heard his message.  It is a message that we must also hear in this advent season.

            Advent is the time of year when we remember those who waited the coming of Christ for many centuries.  In doing so, we are also reminded that we, too, are waiting for Christ to come again to fulfill his mission and redeem the world.  Last week, I spoke of this experience of waiting and how our society finds it difficult to wait.

            As we wait, though, we are also reminded that we have been waiting for many centuries already, and it may be many centuries again before the waiting is over, before Christ brings an end to history as we know it and establishes the Kingdom of God in all its fullness and glory.  In the meantime, we must do more than sit by idly and wait for God to act.  We are called to participate in God's work as well, both as a response to the work that God has already done for us and in anticipation of and preparation for the work that God will yet do for us.  The question for today, then, is "What must we do to prepare for the coming Kingdom?"

            In answering that question, we begin by looking back several centuries before the birth of Jesus. At that time, a prophecy recorded in the book of Isaiah foresaw the coming of one whose mission it was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  All four gospels quote this prophecy from Isaiah and identify that one as John the Baptist.

            In preparing for Christ, the message of John the Baptist was a very simple one, "Repent from your sins and be baptized."  The simplicity of the message may be deceiving, however, for the actual act of repentance is no simple matter.  Repentance involves a complete turning away from sinful things. Repentance is a total change of attitude and lifestyle.  repentance is a continuous, ongoing process of renewal in which we recognize our own sinfulness and bring that sinfulness before God, allowing God's unending grace to enter in and purify us. 

            True repentance is not simple. It is often hard work to transform our old ways and begin a new lifestyle—just ask anyone who has gone through any sort of process such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous or any of the dozens of similar groups that have become so popular in the past number of years.  People who enter into these groups begin a long process, 12 steps in all, to lead them out of their addictions.  

            Sometimes I think we might benefit from following a 12-step meeting format for our church services, a sort of Sinner's Anonymous.  While I've never been to an AA meeting, I understand that time is given for anyone to share if they want to.  And each person is to begin their sharing by giving their name, first name only (that's why it's called Alcoholics “Anonymous”).  Their name is then followed by the words "and I'm an alcoholic."  That is the first step on the road to recovery, admission that the person is powerless over alcohol, or gambling, or overeating or whatever the addictive substance or practice might be.  

            Can you imagine what would happen if, at the beginning of the time of announcements, blessings and concerns, I would get up and instead of welcoming everyone to the service would say simply, "Hello, my name is Joe, and I'm a sinner."  You probably wouldn't know how to respond.  Well, the people in an AA meeting would simply respond, "Hello, Joe."  And then I would go on to share my story with you.  In that simple act of response, though, there is a welcoming, an inviting, a recognizing that this person is one of the group. For all are present for the same reason, addiction to some particular practice.

            Likewise, we all share a similar trait:  all of us are powerless over sin.  We are simply unable to keep ourselves from sinning.  In the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Rome, "I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."(Romans 7:15) Once we admit, like Paul, the powerlessness we have over sin, we are ready for the second step. 

            For someone in AA, the second step is really a statement of faith.  It reads, "We came to believe that a Power Greater than Ourselves could restore us to sanity."  Now for those of us who recognize our powerlessness over sin, we must also come to see Jesus as that Higher Power who is able to restore us to purity.

            From this beginning, the 12 steps continue on through a process of conversion, confession, restitution and prayer.  Each person in the group is somewhere along the way, working through the 12 steps.  Not all follow the steps in the same order, but all are striving to complete them.  You won't hear someone in AA speak of themselves as a "former alcoholic."  They are "recovering alcoholics."  By using this label, they recognize that, even though they are no longer drinking, they are and always will be addicted to alcohol, and can only stay sober with the help of a Higher Power.

            Likewise, those of us who are powerless over sin are somewhere in the process of repentance. We are, so to speak, "recovering sinners."  We remain personally powerless over sin, but we rely on the grace of God, our Higher Power, to help us refrain from sin as much as possible.  In doing so, we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord.

            John's message of repentance goes beyond simply a change of one's personal attitudes and behaviors.  He called for social change as well.  Listen to his words to the crowds, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  To the tax collectors who made their living by overcharging people, he says, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."  To the Roman soldiers who were in Palestine as a police force to keep order, he says, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."  Later on, he criticizes even Herod, the ruler in that area, for his corrupt rule.  It is this sort of outspokenness that eventually gets John killed.

            Each of these examples show that repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ must include social transformation as well as individual change.  Once again, the 12-step program is helpful in seeing how this step is taken from the individual to society.  For the 12th and final step reads as follows, "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."  That is probably one of the best definitions of evangelism that I've ever seen.  After all, what is evangelism but carrying our message of repentance to others and practicing the principles of repentance in all of our affairs?

            Those of us who are preparing ourselves for Christ's coming through a process of repentance are also compelled to share with others this message of repentance through both word and deed and to invite them to join with us in working through that process together.  We as the church today are called to not only live out John's message of repentance in our own lives, but to follow his example in bringing that message to the world around us.  Having received God's grace through the process of repentance, we are compelled to offer to others this gift of grace as well through acts of justice and mercy and through respectful invitations to become part of our "Sinners Anonymous" group.

            I'm not suggesting that we go out to the street corners and preach like the people I mentioned at the beginning of this message.  What may have worked in Palestine 2000 years ago won't necessarily work in the US in the 21st century.  Most people in our society have heard this message, that they are sinners and in danger of God's judgment.  It is a message to which they have become deaf.

            What people in our society are looking for is not an escape from judgment.  They are looking for love and intimacy.  They are looking for a place to belong.  The individual who stands in the midst of the crowd loudly proclaiming judgment distances him- or herself from the people.  She or he gives the impression that they are somehow different from everyone in the crowd, that they are former sinners, that they have attained a degree of perfection and no longer are in need of the ongoing process of repentance.

            Rather than practicing these individualistic approaches, our Sinners Anonymous group should invite others to become part of our group as recovering sinners working through the process of repentance together.  Let us approach others not as experts, as ones who have worked out all the answers, but as ones who are somewhere along the road searching for perfection.  In so doing, we continue to recognize our own powerlessness over sin, and our continuing reliance on the Higher Power of God's grace to make us whole. 

            We can then become not merely a group of individuals who gather in the same place to worship every Sunday, we can become a true community that is working together.  We can be a small part of the Kingdom of God that is preparing ourselves and our world for the coming of the King.