Sermon: “A Change of Heart” (December 13, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Change of Heart” (Luke 3:8)
December 13, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A recurring theme in Advent is repentance—turning away from sin, turning back to God. In the Second Book of Homilies (1571), a collection of sermons that was a hallmark of the English Reformation, repentance is defined this way:

Repentance is a true returning unto God, whereby men, forsaking utterly their idolatry and wickedness, do with a lively faith embrace, love, and worship the true living God only, and give themselves to all manner of good works, which by God’s word they know to be acceptable unto him (Book of Homilies 537).

Repentance was the central recurring theme in the preaching of every single Old Testament prophet, and the central theme in the preaching of the primary New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. Scripture describes John the Baptist as “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” who “ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:4), and who “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).

Crowds of people were leaving town to go into the wilderness to listen to John the Baptist preach, and the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully because people were repenting of their sins and being baptized in droves. And as we see in today’s gospel lesson, John did not mince words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John preached—and in response the crowds asked John a straightforward question—“What then should we do?”

John the Baptist responds by citing examples of such “fruits worthy of repentance”—“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He also exhorted the dreaded tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” and the equally dreaded Roman soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

One of my favorite Christian singer-songwriters is Glenn Kaiser, who since the early 70’s has lived and worked with Jesus People U.S.A., a Christian commune on the north side of Chicago that for over four decades has dedicated itself to preaching the gospel and ministering to the poor and needy. In the early 90’s he recorded a song called “Great Change Since I’ve Been Born” that describes in very simple terms what fruits worthy of repentance can look like:

Great change since I’ve been born
Been a great change since I’ve been born
Things that I used to would do, I don’t do no more
Lies that I used to would tell, I don’t tell no more
People I used to would hate, I don’t hate no more
Great change since I’ve been born
Road that I used to would walk, I don’t walk no more
A new song been sung since I’ve been born
Been a great change since I’ve been born
(on the 1993 album Slow Burn by Kaiser/Mansfield)

Think about your own life for a moment…are there things you are doing in your life that you know dishonor God, hurt others or hurt yourself—things that you don’t want to do anymore? Are there lies you still tell? Are there people you hate? Are you walking down a road that you know leads to disaster? Do you long for a new song in your heart? Or going back to John the Baptist—are you sharing your extra clothes and food with the needy? Are you satisfied with your wages?

There are two stories that pop up every year during the holiday season, both of which portray characters who bear “fruits worthy of repentance,” who demonstrate great change in their lives—Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch and Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

In 1966 one of the most beloved animated Christmas specials ever, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! aired, with Boris Karloff narrating and singing. Based on the 1957 book the story features the bitter Grinch’s efforts to ruin the Christmas season for all the “Who’s” in Whoville:

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not!
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now please don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason.
It could be perhaps that his shoes were too tight
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Later Boris Karloff sings these hilariously dark lyrics about the Grinch:

You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch, with a nauseous super “naus”!
You’re a crooked dirty jockey and you drive a crooked hoss.
Mr. Grinch! Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with
the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled up knots!
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch. You’re a nasty-wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks. Your soul is full of gunk.
Mr. Grinch! The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote,
“Stink, stank, stunk”!

The Grinch proceeds to steal from Whoville all the trappings of Christmas—every tree, ornament, present, decoration, candy cane, all of it. Yet, on Christmas morning the Grinch discovers that his efforts to ruin Christmas for Whoville failed:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small
Was singing without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow
Stood puzzling and puzzling. “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”
He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!
And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

The Grinch had undergone a change of heart—and because his heart that had been “two sizes too small” had grown “three sizes that day” the Grinch went on to bear fruits worthy of repentance, giving back everything he had stolen and joining Whoville in celebrating Christmas—standing hand in hand, singing a new song.

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, features Ebenezer Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner…hard and sharp as flint…secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” He is obsessed with his money and enjoys overworking and underpaying his clerk, Bob Cratchit, who has a seriously ill son named Tiny Tim. Like the Grinch, Scrooge could not stand the Christmas season, famously dismissing it, “Bah! Humbug!”

But on Christmas Eve Scrooge is given a glimpse of what will happen if he does not change, if he does not bear fruits worthy of repentance. In the wee hours of the night he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his deceased former business partner, and three additional ghosts—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge views the reality of his past hurts, the misery of his present condition, and if he persists in his self-centered ways, the dire consequences of his future –and that of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

Scrooge is shaken to the core—but Scrooge is given a second chance, and when he awakens, he is overcome with joy and relief, as Dickens writes:

The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in… He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears… (He cried out) “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!”

Scrooge is beaming as he encounters Bob Cratchit Christmas Day, “A merry Christmas, Bob!…I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon.”

Dickens then proceeds to describe how Scrooge went on to bear fruits worthy of repentance:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh… His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Like the Grinch, Scrooge had undergone a change of heart—his “hard and sharp as flint” heart had been softened and filled with generosity and laughter.

Repentance does not begin with “fire and brimstone” preaching or guilt trips. Repentance, “a true returning unto God,” begins with a change of heart—and it is this change of heart that in turn enables us to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

Repentance is inspired by the visit of a different Ghost, the Holy Ghost. Scripture tells us that it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Romans 2:8). Repentance is a response to the unconditional love of God, who loves us in spite of our sinful deeds, in spite of our hate, in spite of our lies.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John preached. And many people did.

And among those who were listening to John the Baptist preach and were baptized by him was none other than Jesus Christ, who did not need to repent of anything, whose heart was already overflowing with love for everyone “in the good old world”—so much so, that he went on to give his life on the cross, the tree that once and for all bore the fruit of repentance because it bore the loving, forgiving Son of God.

On the cross Jesus atoned for all the “disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable” in every heart “full of gunk,” in every heart “hard and sharp as flint”—including mine, and including yours. Jesus “did it all, and infinitely more.”

And that means that the time before you is your own, “to make amends in”—to walk down a better road, to sing a new song. You have been given a second chance to repent, to turn back to the One who has never turned away from you.

Amen.