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Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
"Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven Is Near!"
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Repentance is the response to grace that overcomes the past and opens out to a new future. Repentance distinguishes Christian life as one of struggle and conversion and pervades it, not with remorse but with hope. The message of Jesus is not “Repent,” but “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.”
Let me tell you a secret: I am usually not all that excited about the Second Sunday of Advent. But that is not because I don’t want to celebrate communion or because I don’t like the liturgy of the Advent wreath. No, I typically approach the Second Sunday of Advent with some trepidation because I know it is the first of two Sundays of John the Baptist sermons, and the Baptizer and I sometimes have a rather strained relationship.
After all, just listen again to the way Matthew talks about him: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” But not only was he dressed in the clothing of Elijah the prophet, subsisting on a starvation diet, he also yelled at his congregation, called them names (“brood of vipers”), and seemed to preach a sermon familiar to those of us who grew up in the South: you’ve got to turn or burn.
Frankly, Matthew’s description of John the Baptist reminds me of a street preacher who has been out in the trenches a little too long for anyone’s good, including his own. He’s scary and unpredictable. He does not care whom he offends, and his emotional IQ level is low. Even gentle poet-preacher Barbara Brown Taylor called John the Baptist the “Doberman pinscher of the Gospel.” She gave him that moniker because he sinks his teeth into us, shakes our souls around, and will not let us go (Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Cure for Despair,” Journal for Preachers, 1 January 1997, pp. 16–18). It is no wonder John the Baptist never shows up in the nativity scenes that some of us collect.
But today we cannot avoid him. There is no getting around him. Every single Gospel writer begins talking about Jesus by talking about John (Taylor, “A Cure for Despair,” p. 16), so there must be something of God in the watch dog, the messianic guard dog called John the Baptist. “Repent,” he bellows, in all of his messy, unpredictable, on-edge personhood, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Yet I must admit that for once I am honestly glad to see him, our Doberman pinscher of the Gospel. For to me, at least this year John’s call to “repent because the kingdom of heaven is near” sounds more like an invitation than a threat. John’s call to “repent because the kingdom of heaven is near” feels more critical, more necessary, more like new possibility than it has in a long time.
Now, I know that in some church circles, perhaps the ones in which some of you were raised, the verb repent is tied closely to God’s eternal judgment, the “turn or burn” theology that frankly, has done immense damage to our Christian witness. And I am sure that part of that linkage is due to the way Matthew records John’s words to the religious authorities that day by the river. Those authorities—the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two groups who, by the way, were rarely on the same side of anything—became allies in that moment as they went to check out what was going on. They must have hoped to figure out the threat they could already smell in the air—the threat against religious and political business as usual.
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” John spat out when he spotted those he knew were already aligned against what God was doing in that new day. And though it discounts the context of his words, I imagine John’s clear disapproval of the religious authorities’ motivation has fueled the theology that equates the spiritual discipline of repentance with the eternal judgment of God. Turn or burn.
If that was not your tradition, then perhaps you have come to believe that the verb repent is primarily meant to convey the need to say to God that you are really, really sorry and you will never do it—whatever it is—again. Or maybe you have some early Martin Luther in you and you approach the verb repent with fear and trembling. You, like young Luther, associate repentance with a sole focus on just how bad we human beings really are and how we will never honestly get any better. Now, both of those last two approaches highlight the importance of being honest about our failings, and that honesty is why we have the liturgy of confession each week. But the acknowledgement of our mistakes, or the sense that we always fall short, is really only a small part of what repentance is all about. So let’s dive deeper.
About a decade ago, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote a book called The First Christmas. In that book, they spent some time with the biblical history of repentance. They point out that in the Old Testament, the verb for repent is deeply shaped by the Jewish experience of exile. They link it to all of the prophetic calls to “prepare the way of the Lord,” a quote from Isaiah you heard repeated in our Gospel reading. To repent means to return from exile to the place of God’s presence. To repent, to return, is to follow the prepared way that leads out of our separation or estrangement back into a reconnection with the One who made us and loves us beyond our comprehension.
This Jewish root of repentance is one reason why John’s location in the wilderness was so important for Matthew and the other Gospel writers to emphasize. The people of Israel had spent decades in the wilderness and in exile as they made their way from oppression or estrangement back into freedom and reconnection with their creator. Already, just with that additional linguistic fullness, we might begin to hear “Repent” more as invitation than as threat. Repent, the prophet cries, come home. Repent, God calls, turn to me. Repent, we hear, walk into your freedom.
The New Testament meaning of the word adds an additional nuance. In the New Testament, the root of the Greek word translated as repent means to go beyond the mind that you have. To repent means to begin seeing differently, to begin thinking differently, both of which lead to acting and living differently. In the New Testament, to repent is to change, but not for the sake of change itself. Rather, we change, we start to live differently, because, as we enter into the new mindset or as we develop a new way of seeing, we become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for all creation.
Pictures of God’s desire, God’s vision for our world, are splashed all throughout scripture. We heard one illustration of God’s desire in the Isaiah reading—God desires for the world to be a place in which peace and equity, rather than fear and hatred, rule the day. God desires for the world to be a place where we view each other with compassion and with love, where no one is hurt or destroyed ever again, where all of creation is full of the mercy and the shalom of God.
It is a desire that John himself expresses with the phrase that always comes after the verb repent. He does not just yell “Repent” and then stop. Rather, John always links the call to repentance with the why of repentance: the kingdom of heaven has come near. Though even John himself does not fully understand just yet, as we continue on in this Gospel of Matthew, we will come to see that it is in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. We will see in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is the full embodiment and expression of the peace, love, and mercy that God wills for all people, for all of the cosmos (Tom Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion). For those of us who follow God in the way of Jesus, Jesus is what defines our new way of seeing, our new mindset, our way back home into reconnection. Deciding to try to live and love like Jesus is what Christian repentance is all about.
John’s call for us to repent for the kingdom of heaven is near is not about some ominous threat of impending judgmental doom. He is actually offering us an invitation, and it makes me wonder if I have always gotten the tone of John the Baptist all wrong. Now, I am not talking about the “brood of vipers” piece that he directs toward religious leaders like me. That definitely carries a tone of confrontation. I am talking about the way he addresses the crowd, before the Sadducees and Pharisees even show up.
What if he was yelling “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” with an emotional intensity of compassion and possibility? What if his eyes smiled as he said it? What if the people who heard him preach down there by the river actually heard his words as God’s invitation to come home, as a way of moving back into reconnection with the One who made them and who loved them beyond their comprehension? It could be that messy, unpredictable, always-on-edge wild man John was not yelling with the tone of threat and doom but with an equally intense tone of hope and summons. It could be that John’s call for repentance was based on a deep trust he had that God’s goodness is always more powerful than any of our badness and that God’s power to heal us and make us new is always stronger than our power to mess up or to stay stuck.
Would that shift of tone change how you hear John’s words for you in your life, in this Advent season? Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. Get ready, see if you are headed in the direction of God, of home, of good. If not, then guess what: you get to change direction. If not, then incredibly enough you have the healing opportunity for a change of mindset, a new way of seeing, a new way of living, that fits into God’s desire for the world.
I want us to take John’s invitation to repentance seriously today. I am greatly indebted to theologian David Lose who challenged us preachers to ask our congregations three questions this week. If you, like me, always feel like your mental file folders are full, you might want to write these down. First, Lose instructs, take the time to daydream what God’s vision might be for you. When was the last time you did that? What do you think God wants you to be and to do? Now know that daydream is a purposeful word, because God invites us all to dream something beyond what we can presently see. It is that change of seeing we’ve been talking about. Also know this daydream is not a goal to be achieved, but, as Lose writes, it is a dream by which to set a course. God does not ask us if we are there yet, but rather are we headed in the right direction. (David Lose, the blog “In the Meantime,” www.davidlose.net.)
Second, in light of that, choose one—just one—element of your life of which you would like to repent, to take advantage of the healing opportunity to change direction, hearing it said with the tone of invitation and possibility and name this season of Advent as a time to do it. For example, in this post-election season, is there a relationship that has been broken that you want to work on? Is there a habit or a spiritual practice that you feel nudged to take up that might make your life feel more abundant for you and for those around you?
And third, can you identify one element of our communal life that needs repentance and prayerfully discern how you might contribute to that. For example, Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Corps, based here in Chicago, told me that in this post-election season IYC is getting a lot of interest in their work that brings together college students of different religions for cooperative mission. Or recently, perhaps due in part to the state budget impasse, attendance at our own Sunday Night Supper has increased to new levels, which brings challenges and opportunities for our church. Or know that Cure Violence, an effective program to combat gun violence, has lost most of its funding in Chicago and has had to shut down, even though the shootings continue to rise. That is what I mean when I say communal life: it is the life of our larger community, not only limited to church, but the larger life we share together.
Is there a communal issue to which you feel God is nudging you to direct your time and action to contribute to change? It could be something as simple (not simplistic) as getting to know someone who is quite different than you are—ethnically or politically or generationally—and acting to build a more robust community with the establishment of a new friendship across all of the lines.
Your responses to these questions are between you and God. But take advantage of this set-apart season to ask them. God has a profound respect for human freedom. God never forces God’s self on anyone, so open yourself up for God’s movement in your life.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,” John the Baptist preaches. And in this year of increased anxiety and rancor, unsettledness and wariness, I’m sure glad to see him, because I think he is inviting us to come home and to be the people God has created us to be. Amen.