Isaiah 40:1–11; Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13; Mark 1:1–8

Unless you are just arriving back from several weeks in Timbuktu, you have been watching quite a drama being enacted daily on our TV screens and in the newspapers. The chief executives of the Big Three automakers came to Washington looking for emergency financial help to keep their companies from going under. That alone was quite an event—industrial titans now reduced to begging for help simply to survive.

You remember how Act I of the drama played out. Those three CEOs made just about every wrong move they could. When they appeared in congressional hearings they couldn’t answer the most basic questions, such as how they arrived at the figure of $25 billion they were asking for, or whether that amount would actually keep them from going under. They couldn’t say how they would spend the money if they got it, and there was no indication that any major restructuring had been planned.

And unsurprisingly, they met a great deal of skepticism. These are the leaders of corporations, members of Congress said, who allowed the quality of their cars to drop well below that of their foreign rivals, who refused to be serious about innovating to bring out better cars, who resisted every effort of the Congress to legislate fuel standards that would force them to make smaller, more efficient cars and instead kept producing more and more of the gas guzzlers America loves.

Then it got personal. You heard the word “arrogance” a fair amount, pointing, for example to the fact that each CEO flew in on his own corporate jet, “like wearing a white tie and tales to beg for money in a soup kitchen,” one Congressman said. They came expecting the quick fix, the bailout, they thought they deserved. Instead what they got were anger and judgment. “Let them go under,” many politicians and columnists argued. “Until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money,” House Speaker Pelosi said.

This week the three CEO’s have been back for Act II. Only this time things were strikingly different. They drove from Detroit this time—in fuel-efficient hybrids. This time they came with specific numbers and plans. They were talking about painful decisions to restructure their companies and renegotiate contracts. They even announced that they were willing to forego their own multi-million dollar salaries.

Those CEO’s had first come to Washington looking for a bailout. Now they were talking about a turnaround. They had wanted an easy fix to be able more or less to keep business as usual. But they finally faced the reality that everything had to change from top to bottom. And as they began to see how radical the actions would have to be, a new Act III became possible—the hard work of building stronger, better companies.

Turnaround. That’s a word in the air a lot these days, as this brutal economy is threatening just about everyone. Corporations and organizations, like individual people themselves, get comfortable, especially in more prosperous times. They like the familiar way they do things. They don’t want to adapt. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, has recently written a book called The Art of the Turnaround, talking about the hard work it takes to refocus a struggling arts organization. It takes fierce attention to their core work, strong leadership, a willingness to let go of sacred cows, and a determination to offer the highest quality programs possible.

We’re getting close to Christmas—just two and a half weeks off. The Christmas lights are up, Christmas music is drifting off the radio and in the grocery. But here in church we sing those somber, restrained Advent hymns and won’t let you sing carols. Blame it on John the Baptist. The church won’t let us get to the child in the manger without first dealing with this tough prophet. John is here to prepare the way. He’s out in the desert, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts. And his favorite word is “Repent.” “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says. Confess your sins. Change your ways. Later he’ll be calling his listeners a brood of vipers and talking about God’s purifying fire.

This isn’t the soft and gentle God we think of at Christmastime. You don’t hear much about repentance, judgment, or the wrath of God these days. People like sermons about a God who forgives everyone, whose love is unconditional. You hear a lot about God being gentle and encouraging, wanting us to think positively, to discover our best self.

But John says that before you can get to the God who meets us in a manger, we’ve got some work to do. God may take us “Just as I am,” someone has said, but God won’t leave us “just as we are.” John is saying that if we are going to grow in knowing God, we are going to need a turnaround ourselves.

That’s what “repent” means—literally, to “turn around.” It means you’ve been heading in the wrong direction and you need to get back on the right path. It says that there is hard work to do if you want to grow. John was demanding that his listeners change their lives in order to get ready for the Messiah to come, and he used tough, vivid words and images to wake them up from the fog they were living in.

Granted, the word “repent” brings some baggage with it. It sounds like you’re supposed to be down on yourself. We associate it with groveling, acknowledging how rotten we are, that we are sinful, selfish, prideful people. But all that misses the point.

John is talking about a turnaround for us. He’s saying we need to stop fooling ourselves the way those CEO’s were, and acknowledge that a lot of things aren’t working now and we’re ready for the cleansing, healing, freeing work that God wants to do in us. It’s time to restructure our personal and public lives.

But of course we would prefer a bailout, to have new life without the cost. We want new life, without changing the old. We want Christ to come, but not to move around the pieces of our life. We want a spiritual life, we want to draw closer to God, as long as God doesn’t ask for some time in our day, or some nights to grow in this faith, or some ways to learn to meet Jesus where he said we would find him, among the poor and struggling.

We want a healthier nation, without the cost. Think about our country just now—the mountains of expectations being piled on our new President-elect. Rescue the economy, at last fix healthcare, get us on a path to responsible care for the earth, solve the education crisis, respond to global hunger—oh, but don’t change things. Don’t raise taxes, don’t ask us to pay more for gasoline, don’t ask us to use public transportation, or to risk any problems by supporting universal healthcare. Americans want a bailout.

But the hard truth is that we need a turnaround—not just for General Motors and Chrysler, but for this country, this world, and for you and me. Turnarounds are demanding. You have to acknowledge that things aren’t working the way they ought to for us personally, and fundamental things have to change. You have to be ferociously clear about who you are and what your mission is. You have to be unrelenting in aligning what you’re doing with your mission. You have to be willing to let go of things you can’t imagine losing when they don’t support your core mission. You have to live every day keeping your eye on the main thing.

Right now my sense is that the main thing most of us need to repent of is fear—our sense that things can only get worse for us. We are living in a culture of fear—frightening headlines, warnings about our health, anxieties about terrorism, knots in our stomachs about our savings and home values, wondering where it is all going.

I even think we live with a fear or anxiety that hangs over the holiday season. Polls tell us that at least two-thirds of Americans dread the onset of the weeks before Christmas, because it simply adds more stuff to their lives. Now, of course, there’s the weight of the economy hanging over the holidays. Writer Bill McKibben describes the way a group of Methodist churches in the Northeast started a campaign called Hundred Dollar Holidays to persuade people to celebrate Christmas a little differently—with homemade gifts and gifts of service and time. They started the campaign as pious environmentalists hoping to rid the world of all those batteries for the gadgets. But the campaign took off because so many people were eager for permission to celebrate Christmas in a new way that fit better what we actually need for the holidays.

Especially in this season we need time with friends and family, we need quiet for reflection and peace, and we need connection with a broader life, in nature, or even the city. We don’t need more gadgets. Our days are filled with those. We don’t need to hand around big expensive gifts that in many cases will go on the shelf of someone’s closet never to be used. Sometimes we tell ourselves the holiday season needs a bailout—if we just had a few extra days to get all the shopping done… But the season needs a turnaround—a complete rethinking about what matters in this season.

Turnarounds don’t happen over night. They take commitment and discipline over the long haul. There’s no quick way out for the auto manufacturers, and there isn’t for our country, or for us. It will take living the way of repentance, of turning around day after day, of focusing on the basics of a hope-filled life, of every day making decisions that pull us closer to God, closer to needs and demands that matter most, closer to being able to be grateful for our lives on this earth and determined to spread the goodness around.

So, let us prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Let us name the ways we are stuck, what we fear, what is keeping us from being fully and freely alive, even in this hard time. Write out your own God-given mission statement. Look at your priorities. Create space in an over-stuffed life. After all, God is seeking in this Advent season to prepare a home in each of us—a place where he can come and dwell.

Just look at our nation and our world. Look at the burdens and fears of our own hearts.

It’s time for a turnaround.

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