December 8, 2013
A fellow preacher told a story about one of the earthquakes in California. In a residential neighborhood, a crack formed right down the center of the street. The residents, because they live in California and they experience different levels of earthquakes on a semi regular basis, weren’t as upset by this as you would expect them to be. They were outside looking at this enormous crack in their street, chatting, laughing. It was more like a neighborhood block party than it was a response to an earthquake. Even the kids of the neighborhood were getting into it. They got their bikes and they were racing toward the large crack and making their bikes jump over the gap.
A policeman came and saw what everyone was doing, and he started to shout at them. “What is wrong with you people? Don’t you know that we’re going to be out of power and without water for who knows how long? Take this seriously!”
As we’re quickly learning in our own state, earthquakes happen when the plates that form the earth meet and create a fault line. When those plates at the fault line move, we experience an earthquake. One commentator described John the Baptizer as the person who stands at the fault line.
Biblical scholars see John as a man with his feet in two worlds. His dress, his diet, his speech are like the prophets of old. He comes out of the wilderness. He looks strange, wearing camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locusts. He doesn’t waste breath introducing himself or trying to establish his street cred. He jumps right in and tells the people the glaring truth. They need to repent. The kingdom of heaven is upon them. One is coming who is going to shake them up and change everything. John looks like a prophet out of the past, but he points to the future. He is the like the policeman admonishing the complacent neighbors. He stands at the fault line and tries to make the people understand that the past and the future are about to meet in Jesus Christ. And just as the earth shakes beneath our feet when those tectonic plates move against each other, so will our world be shaken and moved when the Son of God comes. This isn’t a festival or a celebration. The kingdom of God is upon us. Repent!
John is a man of the past pointing to the future. His message to all who will listen is that they need to make the necessary preparations for this future which is bearing down upon them. This future will bring judgment. This future will bring salvation. The most important preparation they can make is to repent.
Repentance is a word we hear used often. We hear it, obviously, from John. We hear it in other contexts throughout the Bible. We may hear it or think about it when we pray our corporate prayer of confession. But do we really think about what it means?
Repentance or metanoia in Greek is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It’s not really about feeling remorseful or apologetic for past mistakes, errors or hurts. To repent means to turn around. It means that you’re heading away from God, so you need to repent and turn back to God. Repentance means to realign yourself with God and with God’s purposes. While we may associate repentance and judgment with negative feelings and actions, that’s not how Matthew would have understood it. Judgment in the gospel of Matthew is a good thing. Matthew believed that judgment is necessary because it brings us back to God; it turns us around, realigns is and puts our lives back in God’s hands. Judgment shakes us up and pulls us back onto the right path. So judgment and repentance work hand in hand.
We are shaken up. We are realigned. We turn back to God. We repent.
There’s just one problem. It’s Advent, and I don’t want to hear about repentance. If it were Lent, that would be fine. I can repent during Lent till the cows come home. But Advent is supposed to be happy and sweet and joyful. This is supposed to be the pleasant time of year. Just look at the ways we prepare. We create fairytale-esque scenes with lights and decorations. We light candles. We count down the days until Christmas with specially designed calendars; some of which include chocolate. There’s music everywhere we go. We buy presents for one another and wrap them in colorful paper and bows and ribbons. If you’re like me, this time of year makes you want to bake. And there are some cookies and other goodies that I only bake at Christmas because they’re special. This time of year is special.
So save your repentance and your judgment for Lent, John. Come see me then. I’ll be happy to jump on that repentance bandwagon then. But that’s missing the point isn’t it? If repentance is to turn around, to be realigned and judgment is a shaking up in the most positive sense, then what better time to repent than right now, in Advent. What better, more appropriate preparation can we make for the in-breaking of God than to turn around? What could shake us up more than God being born among us?
That’s really what we’re preparing for isn’t it? God among us. This isn’t just about a baby being born, although a baby being born is a most wonderful event. The divine and the human are about to meet. God becomes one of us, born just as we are born into this messy, chaotic, broken world. How can we not be shaken to our very core at that prospect?
Into these days Jesus comes. The Biblical scholars I refer to consider the beginning of this narrative about John the Baptizer a bit awkward. It’s an awkward transition; “In those days.” In the chapter before we read about Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ narrow escape from Herod’s death warrant. We also read the terrible tale of Herod’s massacre of the innocents; a tragedy that sadly seems to be repeated over and over again. Yet the only transition from the heartache of Herod’s evil to John’s prophetic words about the coming of the Messiah is “In those days.”
In those days, John stood before the people and announced that the Messiah they longed for and the kingdom they waited for was right there, in their midst. But before they could fully grasp and appreciate what was happening all around them, they had to repent. They had to turn around and realign themselves before God. They had to reorient their priorities and their lives. If they wanted to experience and accept this new world, this new beginning, then they must repent.
In those days. The people who gathered around John – those who came from every walk of life, from the city, from the country, from places of honor and prestige, from the lowliest of the low – they weren’t so different from us. They lived in a different context, but they experienced the same fears and anxieties and worries that we do. They wanted a better world for their children, and they feared there may not be one. They needed a word of hope. They needed a word of peace. They needed a word of promise. They needed a new beginning.
In these days don’t we long for the same thing? We too need a word of hope and peace and promise. We too need a new beginning. I believe that’s what repentance offers us. It’s a chance to turn around and start anew.
This past week I sat around a table at a Bible study and I asked this question, “When have you experienced a new beginning?” Every person at that table, including me, spoke of some moment in their lives when they were given a new beginning. For some those moments were dramatic; a radical turn from the lives they were leading. For others, that moment was recognized more from the perspective of hindsight rather than what they could see in the immediacy of those days. But for all of us we knew that at some point we had been offered a new beginning. We were offered a chance to repent, to turn around.
What was even more powerful was the recognition that we had been offered that new beginning more than once. For some of us, we realized that we were in the midst of a new beginning right now in these days.
What is your new beginning? When have you been given a second chance or a third or a fourth? When in your life have you heard the words, “Repent. The kingdom of heaven is upon us. It’s right here. Turn around. Repent.”
Isn’t that what really happens at this time of year? Isn’t that what we’re actually preparing for during this Advent? Our chance at an extraordinary new beginning. A new beginning that will shake us up and turn us around. In these days we make ready for the coming of God in our midst, the meeting of the holy and the ordinary, the divine and the mortal, our new beginning. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”