Advent 1A’s gospel implores us to, “keep awake, stay alert.” Advent 2A’s gospel tells us what staying awake and being alert is all about. John makes it clear with one word, “Repent!”
Matthew 3:1-12 gives the account to us as,
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (NRSV)
Seems we might as well admit that John is not our kind of clergy person. We are so quick to dismiss the message on account of the messenger. I’ll bet the same is true for people 20 centuries ago.
John is our ultimate turn off.
Just look at his presentation style! He raves. He rails. He calls people a “brood of vipers.” We’d bounce his ass out of the seminary/candidacy/call process faster than I can sip this three ginger tea!
A what of his appearance?!?! Camel’s hair thrown all over himself; a leather belt to hold the camel’s hair in place.
And his fad diet?!?! Crispy grasshoppers with a dash o’ honey.
Let’s face it, no one would want this cat to be their neighbor much less their preacher! Aren’t many of us looking for a slick looking guy or gal in skinny jeans, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer glasses, pulling off that hipster look, giving the appearance of the intellectual hottie-in-residence? Aren’t we hoping this intellectual hottie will also come complete with a smoking hot spouse whose charms will whip our jello and casserole small group ministry into high gear? And, come to think of it, where are those picture perfect kids who we can lift up to our own as we declare, “Repent, the kids of the preacher have come near!”
Let’s own it, John is just not our guy. He is clearly disinterested in impressing us and that is probably because, instead, his keen interest is in preparing us. The business of making a dashing impression and the business of making a dashing preparation are not the same. One is rooted in the art of image and the other is rooted in the art of authenticity. And the truth is, image is just about everything to people; just ask realtors, cosmetologists, and self-help authors. Authenticity is pretty much the last thing the art of image embraces. In fact, more often than not, the authentic gets rebuked, repulsed, and replaced.
But John cares nothing for the art of image, of making a dashing impression, for John’s first word to us is, “Repent.” And it seems that Jesus must be about this same business as John for, “Repent,” also turns out to be the first word of Jesus to us. (Matthew 4:17) It’s a message no one liked in 1st century Judea and it is equally unpopular now, and regrettably, it’s unpopularity is resident in Christ’s Church. Preach, “repent,” around human sexuality matters and you’ll find yourself in the company of John. Preach, “repent,” around financial matters and you’ll find yourself in the company of John. Preach, “repent,” around matters of confession and you’ll find yourself in the company of John. In fact, preach “repent” at all and you’ll offend someone somewhere whose pet matter, or outright sin, is precious to them, so precious to them that they’ll use their push and pull to land you in the company of John. But, should you opt to not preach “repent,” you risk not presenting an authentic message of John, and by extension, you also risk preaching an inauthentic message of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Life Together,
“Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”
Martin Luther says in The Ninety-Five Theses,
“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.”
Soren Kierkegaard says in his works,
“Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”
One cannot honor the commanding call, “Repent,” of either John or Jesus until one is honest about who & what they are, even if who & what they are is a “brood of vipers.”
And repentance is something that requires the Holy Spirit to effect. God’s Spirit reveals who we are to self and others. It’s God’s Spirit that gives us knowledge of sins, knowledge of grace—we do not come to these on our own. And it is God’s Spirit who repents us.
God Spirit repents us through John—unsightly, ill-mannered John. We are sent one who preaches repentance, to open our eyes to who and what we are, to see the reality of self, to receive knowledge of sin and knowledge of grace—and this is being given through John by God’s Spirit through the office of preaching. John preaches repentance. Jesus preaches repentance. So then for us it comes down to this—“What shall we preach?”
On a note card written in his own hand, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., says,
“Repentance—The true meaning of repentance in the O.T. is expressed in the verb shuv, which means to turn or return. Repentance is not the mere passive act of feeling sorry about sins. it is the active turning away from it to a new goal and direction.”
The preparation John seeks to effect through repentance is the moving of people from feeling sorry about sin to making an actual about-face from sin, an intentional move in another direction, a change that is more than words alone. Anyone can play the “repentance game,” the game of saying “sorry, I’ll try to do better,” then going right back to living as one did before they ever opened their mouth. My father-in-law would say to such a person, “Try? Try is all a steer can do.” Luther opens the 95 Theses with these words, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance…such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.” Is there truly a great deal of ambiguity in this statement? Luther expects our life to do a bit better than a steer, which is to say, “Don’t try! Do!”
John’s repentance is a three part creature:
Part 1: Get real—-“Face the facts of being what you are”
Part 2: Turn in a different direction.
Part 3: Bear fruit
Getting real means that the Spirit empowers us to apprehend who we are, and empowers us to turn in another direction than our current course, then the Spirit bears fruit through us.
Apple trees bear apples. Pear trees bear pears. And repentant people bear repentant fruit. The apple tree does not will itself to bear apples. The pear tree does not will itself to bear pears. The repentant person does not will itself to bear repentant fruit. Apple trees bear apples because it’s what they do. Pear trees bear pears because it is what they do. Repentant people bear repentant fruit because it is what they do. It’s a natural process, a natural extension; that out of what one is, one does.
Where there is authentic repentance there is fruit. Where there is no fruit there is no authentic repentance. Fruit is the product of repentance. It is not the evidence, but the product.
The business of making a dashing impression will get the Christian nowhere with God but the business of making a dashing preparation will do quite the opposite. And it all starts with one word, “Repent.”