December 7, 2014, Advent 2 – Prepare Ye the Way Every Day
There is no recording available for this sermon.
John the Baptist is a huge figure every year as we enter into the new liturgical year. Every year we read about this strange wild man, who moved out into the desert and ate locusts – insects – and wild honey, and wore a camel’s hair robe belted with a leather belt. But the very wildest thing about John the Baptist was that when he preached, people were changed. People were drawn to him, wild and weird as he was, and they came out into the wilderness to hear him, came out by the thousands, to hear him and to be baptized and to have their lives turned upside down.
Because that’s what John came for. God sent him into the world just a few months ahead of his cousin, Jesus, to get his people ready for an earth-shattering change. The old Covenant of Moses, the Law and the Commandments, and worship in the Temple, everything they had known, everything they had been taught from the day they were born about being the people of God, was about to change with the coming of the Christ.
They were about to find out that the Old Covenant had only been the first stage of God’s work in this world – that the nation of Israel had been the seed with which God had first planted himself in his creation. But now the time had come for the plant – which was the kingdom of God – to break out and burst into blossom. John’s message was to prepare the people for the dawning of the New Covenant, which was going to look as different from from the Old Covenant as a glorious lily looks in comparison to the dry wrinkled bulb that it sprouted from.The new covenant was going to be completely new because it had to do not just with the outside of people, practicing obedience and performing rituals and keeping yourself away from anything unclean. The new covenant was going to deal with the insides of people, with their hearts, and not just their actions. It wasn’t new for God – he had always cared about who people were on the inside. The prophet Samuel wrote that God doesn’t look at people the way people look at people. People just see the outward appearance of a man or woman, what they look like, what they do or say; but God looks deep inside, at their heart.
So the seed of the new covenant of the heart had been there all along, but now that Jesus had been born into the world it was ready to spring up and burst into full bloom. And it was John’s job to get people ready, to prepare the rough terrain of their hearts, to soften and break it up like a farmer tills the hard-packed soil for the spring planting. And as you might expect, God sent John at the perfect season; the people were so hungry for John’s message that they poured out of the cities and towns, out into the wilderness, to hear him, and to be baptized by him.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing for the Jews. If a person converted to Judaism, baptism was a part of the ritual. There would be a time of studying the Law and if you were a man you would have to be circumcised, but all converts had to be baptized as a rite of purification. And so when John baptized the people that came out to him, even though all of them were already Jewish, it was a sign that they were being converted to something new – not a new religion, but a new kind of life. And John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, because repentance is the only way into a changed life. We often think of repentance as just feeling sorry or guilty, but repentance is much more than that. Repentance, which in Greek is called metanoia, doesn’t just mean feeling bad about something you’ve done; it doesn’t mean making an apology – it means having a change of heart, a change of mind, even a change of feeling, so that your life is transformed by it.
People came out to John, and they truly repented. He prepared people’s hearts and minds for the radically new relationship with God that Jesus was coming to offer us – no longer a distant and fearful awe, but the loving relationship of father and child. John – the other John – wrote in his gospel “to everyone who received him he gave the right to become children of God.” Having lived in bondage to the Law as well as their own human failings, only repentance – only a complete change of heart and mind and feeling – could open them up to receive that gift. And they did – they repented and were baptized, and many, maybe most of them, went on to follow Jesus and to become the first Christians, along with lots of others – Jews and Gentiles both – who heard the Good News preached by the apostles and other disciples.But that wasn’t the end of the repenting, for them or for us. Like so many things in our lives, like washing the dishes or making the beds or walking the dog or exercising; like eating or sleeping, repentance is not a once-for-all-times thing. Those Jews standing by the Jordan River listening to the powerful voice of John were changed. Their lives were truly changed forever, their hearts were softened, their consciences were waked up to those things in their lives that were displeasing to God, their spirits were made newly hungry and thirsty for a deeper knowledge of him. They went home, changed. But they were real people, just like us, and a day later or a week later or a month later, but probably sooner rather than later, they found themselves falling back into old habits and old ways of thinking and old attitudes, so that once again they needed that metanoia, that turning around, away from the old familiar course, and back into the new and straight and good course that leads to the Father.
Repentance is not a once-in-a-lifetime moment of revelation and confession for sinners in need of saving. Our coming to God happens in a lot of different ways – there are probably as many ways of finding and being found by him as there are people in this room. Some people meet God with a classic, dramatic road-to-Damascus experience of repentance. But other people met God shyly and bit by bit; they met him in small but joyful surprises and in gentle moments of revelation. And still other people can’t remember a time in their lives when they didn’t know that God was their loving Father. Not everyone began their Christian life with a crushing expose of their dreadful sinfulness. BUT everyone who becomes a child of God finds that they are in need of repentance, because we can’t help but recognize our imperfection when we come near the perfect goodness of God. In fact, the better we come to know God, the more clearly we see him, the more we will find that we realize our need to repent.
But repentance isn’t a matter of shame and blame. Sometimes part of repentance is to confess to wrongdoing on our part, to admit our hateful thoughts or our selfish actions or our dishonest habits. That’s a crucial part of repentance, because if we don’t cast off what is dragging us down we can’t get free of it. And if we don’t learn to despise what is ugly we can’t learn to love what is good and lovely. But the ultimate purpose of repentance isn’t to feel guilty. Simply feeling guilty doesn’t draw us any closer to God. Wallowing in guilt is entirely the opposite of repentance. Because guilt and shame just keep us stuck, looking at ourselves, and dwelling on all that we hate about ourselves. And guilt and shame keep us looking backwards, at what we have done and who we have been and how much we wish we could go back and change it all. Haven’t you been trapped in all that? I think we all have.
Repentance is the opposite of that, because repentance is about getting free of all that. Repentance, metanoia, is about changing course, like a ship’s captain that takes his bearings from the stars, and finding his ship strayed from the right way he charts a new and better course that brings it nearer to its true destination. Repentance means leaving behind what is separating us from God and cutting ourselves loose from what is hindering us from growing to be the person we were created to be. Repentance is about honesty, but not about shame. And repentance is about humility, but not about condemnation. Shame and condemnation are poisonous; they will stunt your growth; they will keep you from hearing the voice of God; and if you were left to deal with them on your own, they would kill you. But repentance is a gracious gift from God that sets us free, from sin and from shame. It is essential for our pilgrimage; for navigating our way through this world. Just as surely as we will be hungry again even though we ate, and we will be tired again even though we slept, so surely we will stray from the right path again, even though we sincerely repented. We will struggle with old habits and old addictions and new enticements. We will, we do, from time to time give in to those things and sometimes we will find ourselves farther off-course than we ever thought possible. And at those times, the prophets are here to tell us that repentance will get us back on course.
In the collect for today we prayed that we would heed the warnings of the prophets who preached repentance for our sakes, so that as we focus on the coming of Jesus this Advent – not only his coming in the future, but his presence with us now, today and every day – we may greet him with joy. That prayer, that we might every day heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, is a signpost to us of the way of abundant life. Because the purpose of repentance is to turn us away from all those things that separate us from God and rob us of the perfect joy of knowing him. John the Baptist came to lift up what was low and to make straight what was crooked and to smooth out what was rough and to bow down what was lifted up, so that nothing would stand in the way of the One who came to make the Father known to us.