Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Things about John the Baptist both draw me to him and push me away. “You brood of vipers.” Those words leave a bad taste in my mouth. “You are children of the snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.” If John was a teenager in our house, and he said that to me, John would be grounded forever.
At the same time, there is an almost visceral attraction to John. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Why? Because John knows that the world in which we live is a hard place – sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, death. People who are homeless and hungry. Kids that talk back. The stocks so carefully set aside for old age have lost value every month. An Indiana manufacturing plants closed and left people out of work. A series of tornadoes ripped thru Kentucky and left many people homeless. Hospitals are reaching capacity again with Covid, flu, and respiratory infections.
John believes that God is bringing a new world. A world of forgiveness, justice, community, love, peace, and life. John is in the wilderness to bring a word of hope. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus Christ is God’s agent bringing the new age.
But between the present world and the new world is a great judgment. “Even now, the axe 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.” Run your finger down the blade of the axe. Feel how razor-sharp it is? Can you hear the roar of the flames? Smell the smoke? Feel its heat?
John, of course, is using figures of speech to alert the crowd to the coming of the last great judgment. A moment in life when the evil that people in the world do catches up with them, and they suffer the consequences. Not everyone today, myself included, believe that there will be such a single, dramatic moment of judgment. Nor does everyone today believe in a punishment of unquenchable fire. But buried deep at the center of John’s preaching is a conviction that is as true today as when John spoke it: Our attitudes and behaviors bear consequences. If we go along with dishonesty, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death, we can expect our personal lives, and our social worlds to be stained by dishonesty, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death.
The crowds in the wilderness want to avoid this judgment and to live towards the new realm of peace, justice, and love. So do I. When they ask John a question, it is my question, also. And if you have felt the pain of brokenness in this life, and the longing for a better life in a better world, I’ll bet it is your question, too. “What then should we do? How do we bear fruit worthy of repentance? How do we repent?”
I once thought of repentance as feeling bad, feeling sorry and remorseful. While repentance in Judaism included feeling sorry, it involved much more. Repentance is the act of turning away from collusion with the old age and of turning towards the new world that God is bringing. Even more, an act of repentance is a sign of commitment to living in God’s ways and it is an act of preparation for the new age.
In those days, tax collectors could force people to pay not only the basic tax, but a surcharge that went into the tax collectors’ pockets. Soldiers could extort protection money from people by threat or even false accusations. We expect tax collectors to repent by not gouging people and collecting only the amount required. We expect soldiers to repent by not extorting people, threatening them, or falsely accusing them.
But John also gives repentance an unexpected spin. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” If you have two coats, giving one to a person who has none can be an act of repentance. How? Coats and food represent things that are necessary for a secure and blessed life. A common human propensity is to stock up stuff to provide for our own security in the future. Luke, however, believes that the new world is coming soon. When you pass along your second coat, you turn away from protecting yourself and turn towards the new world in which God cares for all. You show a sign of trust that this new world is coming, and that God will provide for you as you provide for others.
John preached in a time of poverty, financial anxiety, and social stress. Many people felt the chill of having little clothing. Many people felt their stomachs growl with hunger. Many people, living from day to day, put their hands in their pockets, and had no change to rattle.
If you have clothing, John says, two coats, repent by giving one to the person who does not have a coat. If you have food, repent by giving some food to the hungry. If you have sufficient financial resources, John says, repent by not accumulating more than you need and by sharing with those who are in need.
Think of what such actions would mean to the child who will wait for the bus on a dark corner in the snow and the cold tomorrow morning, wearing only a sweatshirt because there is no coat. Think of what this would mean to the person rummaging in a dumpster behind a nearby restaurant early on a Sunday morning, looking for food.
Repentance is one of the fundamental themes of Advent. How do we prepare for Christmas? By turning away from the things that deny blessing to ourselves and others, and by taking the positive, dynamic action of turning toward things that create abundance and justice for all.
Now a remarkable thing is that repentance works two ways. It helps other people, and it helps us. It helps other people by making the world more like the place God wants it to be. It helps us by releasing us from fear and self-centeredness and grasping after stuff that we hope will make us secure, only to realize you will never have enough.
Make this season of Advent a time of repentance. Think of repentance as renewal, setting a new direction in our life. Renew your life by making yourself the person God intends your to be. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.