Old Testament Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Epistle Romans 15:4-13
Gospel Matthew 3:1-12
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“In those days, John the Baptist appeared ...”, as if all of a sudden. God’s saving work rarely happens all of a sudden. Since creation God has been calling humanity to be reconciled with the Divine. John’s beginnings were no less abrupt. John’s birth was announced to Zechariah, who was then struck silent. He could not announce to the world what God was up to, in juxtaposition to the message John himself would later proclaim. And John began pointing to Jesus even in the womb, with amniotic acrobatics as his pregnant mother encountered a pregnant Mary. From conception, John knew who he was, to whom he belonged, and to what he was called. A sign points to something. A symbol participates in that to which it points. John was a symbol of the coming of the kingdom to dwell among us.
More than a symbol, John was a real human being, appearing from the wilderness and looking the part. He appears as a wild man, wearing camel’s hair and leather, and eating wild locusts and honey. This did not stop seekers from Jerusalem and all of Judea from going out in the wilderness to meet him, to confess their sins, and receive the cleansing baptism of repentance. The wilderness is a scary, uncertain place, far from the Temple, the assured place of God’s presence. Those who go into the wilderness might get lost, but the people headed out to the wilderness to find their way.
John’s message, his participation in the coming of the Messiah, is simple. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is present tense ... ‘has come’. it is proximal, even attainable ... the kingdom is ‘near’. John’s is a uniquely Advent message of anticipation, longing, and preparation. The preparation is repentance, which is an active turning away from that which leads us astray, turning around, and turning toward God. Turning around, turning toward God, is the constant movement of salvation.
John offers us the true character of repentance. Repentance is the willingness to turn one's life around in the sense of a complete reorientation. Confession of sin accompanies true repentance. Our anticipation in Advent, and all year long, should be accompanied by self examination, confession, repentance, and preparation for God’s presence.
In admonishing the Pharisees and Sadducees, John also expresses what repentance is not. Repentance is not empty promises. John suspects the religious elite have come for the show, participating in a ritual cleansing, only to go back to their practice of strict adherence to the Law, without practicing the spirit of the Law, to love God and love one another. Repentance must be followed by right behavior. It is much easier to repent of sins that we have already committed, than to repent of those we intend to commit. John predicts the Pharisees and Sadducees will not have a change of heart, an open heart to the coming of the kingdom, and John was right.
Repentance is not an act of bargaining or convenience when in trouble. Two men were stranded in a life raft, adrift on the open sea. Frightened and with waning hope, one began to pray, “O Lord, I’ve broken most of the commandments. I’ve got some pretty bad habits ... I drink, I curse, I steal, I treat people like dirt. But if my life is spared, I promise that I will change, that I will never curse again, that I ...” Suddenly his friend cried out to him, “Wait Jack! Don’t go too far, I think I see a ship!”
Repentance is not a ritual practice, that once performed obliges God to wipe our slate. The strict followers of the Law believed if we say the right prayers and make the right sacrifices, God must declare us righteous. John dismisses the coveted covenant of the people of Abraham, for God can create Sons of Abraham from a lifeless stone. This is expressed in the expanded call to confession in our worship, “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God.” John declares we must bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Repentance is changing course and accepting God as our GPS. Repentance is loving others, loveable and unlovable alike. Repentance is discerning and doing as God directs us to do. Repentance is knowing others are also human, imperfect, sinners, yet kneeling next to them at the altar rail anyway ... and by God’s grace they are willing to kneel next to us. Repentance is a plea from the heart of humanity to the heart of God to transform us.
A Rabbi was teaching his students a lesson on preparing for death and on repentance. One of the students asked, “Rabbi, when should a person repent?” the Rabbi responded, “ Repent the day before your death.” His students were confused. “How can one know the day of their death?” they asked. His answer, “One cannot, and since any of us may die tomorrow, it is all the more necessary to repent today.”
John participates and punctuates the coming of the kingdom by pointing to Jesus. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, calling God’s people to respond to God’s new, saving activity, which is God’s eternal action of love for what God has made.
Paul sets the redeeming work of God in Christ against the whole history of God's dealings with us, from creation onwards, to show that God faithfully, persistently, inexorably moves His saving work forward. Paul toils away in many of his letters at the question of how God's old work and new work relate. In particular, how God's old covenant with His people relates to the new promises made to all, in Jesus.
We are challenged to long for and recognize the presence of Christ, and constantly turn toward the Light of Jesus’ life. John offers us a unique and particular Advent message, which urges us to anticipate God among us in Jesus Christ. But rather than waiting in line for our ticket to the big event, marking the days off on the calendar, 17 days until Christmas, we are called to marinate in this season of examination and repentance, to get ready, to discern how Christ will enter our lives and hearts anew and fill us with God’s presence. No matter how we practice and participate and observe and repent this Advent, our directive is clear ... “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Amen.