2nd Sunday in Advent
December 4, 2016
What was the incident in your life that changed you so completely that you began to realize that you’d become a different person? A wedding? A baby? A divorce? An illness? Maybe more than one time in your life something happened to you that made you realize that you’d crossed over some important boundary and you would never be the same again. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John the Baptizer, a dude so weird even in his own day, that all the Gospel writers tell us what he wore and what he ate. His message was clear, and people heard it. Something new is coming at last, get ready by washing away the old and claiming the new.
We are so used to thinking about repenting as the prelude to forgiveness; you say you’re sorry for your sins and then you receive absolution, the assurance that God forgives you for your failure. With your heart and mind at ease, you can go on to do the things you are called to do as God’s people in the world. But what if repentance is more. What if we were to think of repentance as re-orientation, regrouping, stepping into a new part of our life? What if repentance included crossing one of those before/after boundaries like getting married or becoming a parent or losing a spouse? Your sense of yourself is changed, you are not the same person as the single woman, husband and wife duo, or husband. You have to recalibrate all the things you do.
This is what John is talking about. He’s expecting that once you wash off the old, you will wake up to something more. Better vision, richer life, bigger dreams, greater hope. That is the world we have been baptized into. In our baptism we were promised that we are part of something new that changes everything. Sure, we are still living in a world in which brokenness and evil seem to be in control, but at the same time, we live in a world redeemed by God’s love and grace shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We live in a world in which hope for more than the ordinary is our birthright. John says, “I can wash you to clean you up, but the one who is coming can change your world.”
What are the changes in ourselves and our world that we long for? If you could ask for anything for our world, what would it be? I think the reading from Romans gives us an idea of what a re-oriented world can look like. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “What was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” He imagines that Jesus himself became a servant of those who were outside of his religious tradition so that they might be included in glorifying God, and becoming part of God’s family, too. The joining of Pagans with Jews in one believing family was as radical as Christians and Muslims joining into one faith. The very idea that Pagans were on God’s agenda was so offensive to the religious leaders of his day, that Jesus was targeted for elimination. But that is the community that Paul is gathering and creating. It is a community in which each is aware that he or she has been invited and embraced by God’s love and transformed to see anew. It is a community re-oriented by hope for something radically new and loving. That community was not always peaceful, but it struggled for loving each other. That community was not always safe in the world, but it was faithful to following Jesus, and unafraid to break the status quo.
It is the same for us. Now what God hopes for becomes what we hope for. Repentance becomes more than a personal confession and forgiveness. It becomes a new way of seeing the world we are part of and the systems that might serve us differently than it serves people of color, refugees, the indigent. Our repentance becomes an opportunity to dream big about a world in which our message and our actions challenge narrow-mindedness and self-serving behavior. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We are the heralds of this new kingdom, which is already among us. The message of John the Baptizer is now entrusted to us. Together we can hear the blessing of Paul, one of the loveliest in Scripture. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”