December 8, 2019 / Advent 2 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10; Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13; Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
When John the Baptist stood in the Jordan River, baptizing all those who came to him, he was standing on a significant boundary. In Israel’s history, the Jordan was the boundary between the wilderness (where the Hebrews had wandered for forty years) and the Promised Land. Moses preached his final sermon on the far bank of that river, instructing the people on how they were to live in the land that God was giving them. For Israel, the Jordan represented the border between their lived history up to that point in time (their centuries of slavery in Egypt and their decades in the wilderness) and their blessed future with God. To cross that river meant crossing from a difficult past into a new and redeemed life with God.
As John preached to the crowds who came out to him, he urged them to cross a spiritual boundary – between sin and forgiveness. John’s call was to REPENT: to turn from self-serving sin and turn toward God. Stepping into that river to be baptized was the outward sign of that repentance.
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As he went about his ministry in the wilderness, John was fulfilling the mission which had been revealed shortly after he was born. Moved by the Holy Spirit, John’s father, Zechariah, said this about what was in store for his son:
and you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
John’s task was to prepare the way for the coming Savior. His preaching lifted up the hope of salvation. He called upon people to take stock of their lives, to repent of their sins, and to turn to the Lord. He pointed to the light that was coming into the world.
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As we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, John the Baptist is not an especially attractive individual. He wore animal skins for clothing and ate bugs. He probably lived in a cave. John was not polite – he was brutally frank. He called the religious leaders who came to see him “sons of snakes”. He spoke ominous words about an unquenchable fire. Picture John as that rather odd and cranky relative you would prefer not to include in your Christmas party. He would likely upset people by his appearance – and his strong language.
Face it – John is a bit of a downer. Who wants to be reminded of their sins at this time of year? The whole notion of repentance is a rather dreary theme – out of sync with the holiday spirit. We might prefer to leave John out of the picture. Yet John the Baptist is prominent in all four gospel accounts. And in his time, all kinds of people went to a lot of trouble to go and see John, to listen to him preach, and to be baptized by him.
We might be inclined to think: Who needs John the Baptist, we have Jesus! And yet, Jesus and John are closely linked. John the Baptist loudly proclaimed: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus announces: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” The messages are identical.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus inaugurates his ministry with the proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Like John the Baptist, that word “REPENT” doesn’t inspire a lot of warm feelings. It sounds more like a stern warning or an ominous threat.
But what if we heard the call to repent not as a threat or a demand – but more like an invitation, an opportunity for new life? The wonderful news is that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. God is not a remote, far-off God, but one who is coming close to humanity, coming to live among us. This new reality does not pose a threat – it presents an opportunity.
The news is that a change is coming. The call to repent is an invitation to embrace the change, to become part of the change, to be willing to be changed. In one sense, to repent is to be sorry for what you have done, what you have been. It’s acknowledging your own guilt. However, the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means turning around, heading in a new direction, a kind of reordering and recentering one’s life, a change of heart.
The message of both John and Jesus is not about feeling sorry for the past but rather about recentering our lives on the Kingdom of God. It’s an invitation to change our priorities, change the direction of our lives. The thought of changing is both exhilarating and troubling. It’s exciting to imagine a life that is something more, something better. At the same time we can get comfortable in our familiar rut and be reluctant to consider any real change.
The religious leaders at that time were more of that second mind. They felt that the religious system that was in place was holy and good – and that they were as well. No need for change! However, to the poor and the outcast, the prospect of real change was very appealing.
This much we know for sure: Neither John nor Jesus was interested in blessing the status quo. Their message was not: The Kingdom of heaven has come near; keep doing whatever works for you! The call instead is to repent, re-orient, re-order, re-center your lives. After all, why do we need a Savior? If we are fine just the way we are, who needs to be redeemed?
To be redeemed is to be changed. To repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of God has come near to you in Jesus Christ. To repent is to shift from “business as usual”, and recenter our lives on our Savior. No matter how comfortable or content you and I may be with our lives, the call to repent is addressed to each of us. We are invited to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” – fruit that includes things like joy, love, peace, justice and mercy. Repentance is challenging work – yet it can also be joyful work.
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Repentance can lead in many directions, taking various shapes and forms. One direction is suggested by our First Reading from Isaiah. Isaiah shares a glorious vision of God’s promised peaceable Kingdom. It is full of images of harmony and peace:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb . . ”
“The leopard shall lie down with the kid . . .
“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”
How will this vision come to pass? “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Certainly salvation is God’s doing, not ours. In God’s time and by God’s grace the kingdom will come in all its fullness. Yet you and I can be part of the change that God is bringing. How? By increasing our knowledge of the Lord. When all is finally as God intends, the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. How full are you? Wouldn’t you like to be better acquainted with God? Would it not be a blessing to have more knowledge about, a better understanding of God?
My initial motive for going to seminary was not to become a pastor – it was to learn more about God – and over those years I certainly did! I’m not suggesting that everyone should enroll in seminary. However, in my ministry I have been surprised by a wide spread lack of curiosity about God. Persons don’t come to me asking to know more about God. After Sunday School and confirmation, many Lutherans make no further effort to increase their knowledge of the Lord. They stop learning at age 14. There are many avenues for learning and growing in knowledge of the Lord: Bible studies, books, devotions, online resources. How might you choose to change and grow?
The Kingdom of God has come near. This is not a threat. It’s a holy opportunity. You are invited to repent: step out of the status quo and step into God’s coming Kingdom.
So, what will repentance look like for you?