Second Sunday in Advent — John the Baptist’s Call to Repentance


A sermon preached on December 4th, 2016 – the second Sunday in Advent. 


During Advent we hear a lot from people in the Bible who are called “prophets.”  Who were the prophets?


Sometimes people today think of a prophet as somebody who predicts the future, but that misses the essence of what prophets were about.  They were by definition people who came from outside the prevailing power structure, the status quo.


In the Hebrew scriptures, a true prophet wasn’t appointed by kings, or commissioned by the priests. They didn’t receive a salary.   They are called directly by God to speak God’s word.  In some instances the words involved judgment, calling out the worship of false idols like wealth, and naming injustice — the neglect of the poor; the weak and powerless.


In other instances, the prophets spoke words of comfort when violence and despair was abroad in the land; when, for instance the country had been overrun by other conquering powers.  They would tell people that God wasn’t impressed by fancy worship rituals; what the Lord wanted to see what people doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their God.


The prophet Isaiah is featured prominently in Advent.  Last week we heard him speaking of a day to come when swords would be beaten into plowshares, and people would study war no more.  In this week’s passage God’s spirit moves in Isaiah’s imagination to conjure a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb; when the predators will stop eating the prey, when the dog-eat-dog world we know will cease to be and instead we will have a world safe for all children to grow up healthy and whole.   This vision of Isaiah is often referred to as God’s “peaceable kingdom.”


The overall sense we get from the prophets is that God’s ultimate will for this world is that human beings should live in peace and harmony, actively caring for one another.


There had been a time in Israel’s history when prophets were common, and in your Bible if you look in the Old Testament you will find several books devoted exclusively to recording the words of prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel being the largest of these books.


For a period of 400 years, however, there hadn’t been any prophets — at least any prophets who were recognized as such — and that seems to have been because the dominant form of religious life among the Jewish people was the one characterized by the Pharisees, involving an obsession with keeping the 623 laws of the Torah.  It was a rather rigid expression of the spiritual life that didn’t allow much room for the Spirit to move and for a prophet to arise and be heard.


So there were no prophets for 400 years — that is until this strange man who becomes known as “John the Baptist” appears.  As is the way with prophets, we don’t hear about John getting his start in either the king’s palace, or in the Temple with the priesthood; no, we first hear of John out in the silence of the wilderness.  Standing apart from the system, he can see things others can’t. Away from all the noise John hears the voice of God.


The Gospel writers understood John as the fulfillment of certain of Isaiah’s prophecies: John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord:  make his paths straight.”


There were prophecies that indicated that before the messiah would appear, a great prophet of old named man named “Elijah” who hadn’t exactly died but instead been carried off directly to heaven in a chariot would appear to prepare the way.  In the eyes of the early Christians, that is precisely who John is — he is Elijah come to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.


So before we hear about Jesus, we hear of John the Baptist and his message is pretty simple:  it is time to repent. He leaves the wilderness to come to the Jordan River where he begins baptizing people as a sign of repentance.


Now for many of us, “repentance” can be a distinctly unappealing word — one we recoil from for good reason.  We associate the word with a certain sort of Christian — the sort leaning in the direction of the Westboro Baptist Church — people with hate in their hearts who seem to derive a certain delight in the idea of an angry, wrath-filled God punishing others who fail to live up to their idea of a godly life.


So “repentance” often sounds to our ears like somebody is pointing a finger at us and telling us we are awful people and that we should grovel in guilt and shame. The story we heard of the appearance of John the Baptist lends some credence to this image because John was quick to call out people for being what he calls “a brood of vipers.”


In Luke’s Gospel John calls everybody gets called “a brood of vipers”; here in Matthew’s Gospel John directs the term for specific groups of privileged insiders — the Pharisees and the Sadduccees — people who assumed they were excluded from the need to repent, who were, nonetheless, in subtle ways treating others with neglect and cruelty.


There is the capacity for being viper-like in all of us.


But repentance isn’t primarily about feeling guilty, though at times it can involve that.  Its primary meaning is a change of direction.  The assumption is that we’ve been walking one way, without God, and now we need to walk in a different direction, with God.


So John shows up here in Advent challenging us to examine our hearts, and the direction in which our lives are moving.   He challenges us to ask ourselves what needs changing in our lives and in our world, particularly in light of the coming of the Lord.


As I thought about what repentance might mean in our lives, a story came to mind told to me by a middle aged woman in my first church.


She described how when her son was a teenager he had gotten involved in some destructive behaviors, including drug abuse and other troubling activities. She harassed him about it, threatened him about it, and punished him when she found proof of his bad behavior. But it didn’t seem to help; rather she just seemed to be pushing her son away, and his behavior just got worse.


Somehow it occurred to her that she needed to change how she was relating to her son. In part this involved letting go where she simply wasn’t in control.  The fact was, when her son left home to go to high school, she couldn’t control the choices he made, in particular, the choices of what substances he put in his body.


But she realized that what she did have some control over was what he put in his body before he went off to school. So she made a point of getting up well before her son went off to high school, and taking some care in making him breakfast (you know what they say about breakfast being the most important meal of the day.)  Having made clear her deep concerns about the choices her son was making, she stopped the badgering and the nagging.  She focused on expressing her love for her son and her desire that he be whole.


The son appreciated the breakfasts, and as time passed, something shifted in their relationship, and his behavior improved.  At some point further down the road her son referenced the change in his mother’s behavior — how it had made an impression on him. Looking back, he realized that there were certain ways in which had been acting out in response to her nagging.  With his mother’s shift in the way she was approaching him – in particular, her clear, concrete expressions of love and care — he hadn’t felt the same need to fulfill for her the image of the rebel, the hell-raiser.


Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t times when what is called for is coming down hard on somebody, especially when that person is harming the people around them. But it is to raise the basic question of what behaviors help the situation, and which behaviors simply make things worse.


Thinking about her story, the words of the prayer that folks at AA pray daily came to mind:  God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.


Maybe this prayer can give us some guidance in discerning what repentance might look like in our own lives, and in our response to a broken world.


Where are we doing the same thing over and over, trying to change something, but the situation just seems to get worse?  Could there be a way in which our approach to the problem is contributing to making things worse?


Perhaps the problem could involve a broken relationship with a significant person in our lives.  Maybe we obsess about what needs changing in the other person, but we can’t change them; we can only change ourselves.  How might we approach the person differently that might shift the dynamics of the relationship in a positive way.


The world at large isn’t the way God wants it to be.  There is much injustice in division.  In some instances what repentance might mean for us in relationship to this world is to stop the endless complaining about what we are powerless to change, and to focus instead on certain things we can do that can make a difference in the world.


It occurs to me that partly what I’m talking about is sensing where the Spirit is moving and trying to align ourselves accordingly — to cease expending excessive energy going in directions where the Spirit isn’t moving.  To go with the wind of the Spirit, not against it.  Where have we been doing the same thing over and over, leaving us with the feeling  we’ve only been hitting our head against a brick wall?  Perhaps it’s time to try something new.


Discerning where repentance is needed involves paying attention in ways we haven’t been to the directions our lives have been moving.  It involves taking a step back to get some perspective on what we’re too involved with to see.  It may require that we set aside some time to enter our own personal wilderness of silence to listen to still, small voice of God.


Despite that this is the season of the year in which we are all supposed to feel especially loving and joyful, the fact is many of us find Christmas difficult.   I won’t ask for a show of hands, but it might well be that there are certain ways in which this might include a majority of us.   We get stressed.  Old wounds with relatives reopen and conflicts replay themselves. Perhaps we find ourselves focusing on who isn’t present, or what isn’t happening, and the joy we’re intended to feel is distinctly absent.


So here is the question I leave you with:    how might you do Christmas differently this year so that your experience leaves room for joy to make an appearance?