December 8, 2013 – 2nd Sunday of Advent
“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
So I want to talk about repentance.
We progressive Christians are not too big on repentance. We tend to think of it as the purview of those other kinds of Christians who stand on street corners with signs and hand out tracts or those other kinds of Christians who make a big deal about hell fire and damnation.
But what we hear in Matthew’s gospel is there’s no way to get to the realm of God without repentance. Maybe you thought Lent was the only time of the church year where we had to talk about repentance. But Advent, too, is a season of repentance. (That’s why the color of Advent is often purple–like the color of Lent. Although it is also liturgically appropriate to use the color of blue for hope during Advent, as we do at Central.)
John calls us to make the paths straight for the way of the Lord. The words “way and path are metaphors for God’s will and purposes.”1 With the realm of God–the kingdom of heaven–coming near, John the Baptizer calls us to turn around and do God’s will, to live in God’s purposes.
One scholar says, “To repent signifies…our receptivity to God’s purposes.”2 Repentance is not about feeling bad or guilty about what we’ve done. It’s not a feeling. It’s an action. The word repentance has a literal meaning of turning around. You’re headed in one direction and in repenting you turn and go in a different direction. The call of the prophet to repent is a call to “abandon [our] lives of unfaithfulness, injustice, and false allegiance, and to turn back to faithful living in the covenant”3 with God. It is a reorienting of our lives.
Even if we wouldn’t characterize our lives as grossly unfaithful, unjust or falsely aligned, aren’t there pieces of that which do mark our lives–the ways we fall in line with the world’s values instead of God’s?
John calls us to repent and live within the purposes of God and the one God has sent to show us God’s ways.
Unlike some Christian traditions that look for a single act of repentance, John the Baptizer calls for a life of repentance: an “ongoing reformation [or re-forming] of individuals and communities into the body of Christ.”4 Like the Reformation phrase “Reformed and always being reformed,” the repentance to which we are called is an ongoing experience. Not because we feel guilty and morose but because we know the truth of our lives and how we fail to live in God’s ways. How we fail individually and how we fail collectively.
Now the great thing about the on-going nature of repentance is that the invitation is always open for us to renew this commitment. The invitation is always open for us to change our lives. And the good news is that our lives can be changed. We are not stuck or doomed or destined to a life apart from God. John’s good news is that we are invited and “can live in the power of [God’s] kingdom.”5
There is no charade, no false humility, no sweet “everything’s all right” in John’s call to repent. Even as there is “that of God in all of us” as the Society of Friends say, all of us squander and deny and cover up the divine light in us and together we have squelched it in others. And for that we are called to repent. To turn away from our self-serving, ego-stroking, I’m always right, way of being. And turn toward God’s way of righteousness and peace, God’s compassion and joy.
I find something refreshingly honest about the invitation to repent. Because truly, we know we live in a broken world and we are broken ourselves. That is not to say there is not also beauty and grace in the world–neither all brokenness nor all beauty is the whole picture. This morning John the Baptist invites us to face the brokenness in us and around us, what we have done to others, what has been done to us by others, individually and collectively and to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, that we might find the strength and courage, the insight and grace to amend our lives, to turn around and walk in a new way. To walk in God’s way.
Now our repentance does not usher in the realm of God. Sometimes we Presbyterians get nervous about repentance being seen as works righteousness: the idea that what we do makes God do something in response. It’s actually just the opposite. Our repentance is in response to the coming near of the realm of God. It’s not as if God is waiting for our good behavior before showing up. No. Even when we had turned away from God’s purposes, God comes near to us first through the prophets and then in Jesus. Repentance opens us up to be receptive to what God is doing in the world and enables us to participate in that work of grace and freedom.
Repentance is our response to the Good News of the Gospel–that God has come near to us in Jesus and invites us, and all the world, to be free and whole.
So what does repentance look like? John tells us: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
In other words, if your life doesn’t give evidence of living in God’s ways, what good is it?
Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of [God].” (Mt 7.21) We have to live our lives in a way that embodies God’s will or we’re just fooling ourselves. This isn’t about belief or saying the right words. It’s about living a life “that bears witness to the reality of God’s reign”6 in the world–to that reality that God has come near.
As John the Baptist says: Bearing fruit worthy of repentance. One contemporary commentator says, “If you are free, you act free.”7
If we have received God’s grace, we act graciously. If we have received compassion, we act compassionately. If we are forgiven, we forgive others. If we are loved, we act loving. If we have have received generously, we act with generosity. If we are healed, we act with healing. If we are just, we act justly. If we are humble, we act humbly.
“The final act of God’s grace,” one preacher said, “is to make us gracious.”8 “Repent” said John the Baptist. “The kingdom of heaven has come near” and God wants us to live as if that actually makes a difference in our lives and in the life of the world. Because it can and it will.
And so…I wonder, in this season of Advent, will you let the Good News of God who comes near to us in Jesus transform your life again–or maybe, even for the first time?
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1 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins – A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 94.
2 Ibid., 93.
3 Ibid., 93.
4 Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew – Proclaiming God’s Presence, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 19.
5 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 28.
6 Saunders, 19.
7 Long, 29.
8 I read this quote from Fred Craddock years ago.