Monday, 5 December 2016

John the Baptist- repent

John the Baptist is someone who would probably make most of us uncomfortable. He comes calling people to repent. To repent is to change- to change your mind- to change your purpose- to reorient yourself towards God. Change is often uncomfortable. If we want to lose weight we need to change how we eat and our exercise habits. If we want to learn to play guitar it means changing our schedule to make time to practice, which can be hard on the fingers until we build up callouses. If we want to stop a habit like smoking or drinking we will have to change how we react to stress, and change our patterns. … Change is often uncomfortable.

Of course staying the same can be uncomfortable too. Usually we will only change if the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing (I think Tony Robbins said something like that). Sometimes we won’t change our diet until we start having health problems. John made the pain of staying the same greater for those listening to him. He said that the Kingdom of heaven is just around the corner, and if they weren’t careful they were going to miss out. He was like a doctor telling them that if they don’t change their eating habits and start getting regular exercise they are going to have a heart attack.

Those in control tend to want things to stay the same. John says to the religious leaders, “Do 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. Even 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" (Matt 3:9-10). Being a child of Abraham was a way of presuming their relationship with God because of the group they are a part of. John tells them to not rely on that. It’s a bit like saying you belong to a church and were baptized as a child. Those are good things, but don’t think you are safe from judgement just because you are part of that group. John called the most respected religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers”. He told them that if they really were coming to repent that they should produce good fruit- evidence of their repentance and changed life.

What was John’s problem with these religious people? The Sadducees took care of the Temple, which was the only place Jewish people could sacrifice. They cared for the main institution of their faith- they kept the sacrifices and worship services going. In Jesus’ day it was an institution many people felt was corrupt and too aligned with the interests of the Roman Empire. The Sadducees did not want to rock the boat. They were in power as long as the Romans wanted them to be, so it was in their interests to keep the Romans happy.

The Pharisees were similar in their outlook in some ways. They too shared a sense that they had special status before God as the children of Abraham, but they tended to emphasize the keeping of the Law. So much so that they created new laws to keep themselves from breaking biblical laws. When Jesus criticized them it wasn’t so much for following the Bible’s laws, but for these other laws they made up- sometimes called ‘the traditions of the elders’- or for placing too much emphasis on personal purity and not enough on care for their neighbours.

John’s problem with these religious people was that they put on a good show, but they lost the heart of who they were supposed to be. God had called Israel to be the light to the nations. They were supposed to follow God in such a way that the whole world would be drawn in by the beauty of a life following God. It was supposed to be a community marked by love and care for those on the fringes of their society, and complete dedication to God. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is about this. The religious people walk past the man robbed, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch. The religious people probably walk past the man because of fear of the impurity that comes from touching a dead body. Their over-concern for purity rules kept them from helping a person in need, which denies the very heart of who they were supposed to be as God's people.  

That is what John was doing. He was calling people to repent and be the people God has called them to be. He called them back to the Jordan River that their ancestors crossed when they came to the Promised Land so they could re-enter it as the people they were supposed to be.

So what might John say to us? He would challenge us to be who we are called to be. What is the mission of the church as the body of Christ? Being a Christian is not a hobby. A church is not a social club. Being a Christian is not about being a good Canadian. Being a Christian isn’t just about believing in God, or going to church, or being a ‘good person’. … Being a Christian is about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is about learning to live life the way he taught us to live it. It is about allowing the way of Jesus to determine our actions in family, and business, and in everything we do. Being a disciple is to be an apprentice- to learn to live and be as the Master is. It is the life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). … In all the ways that we are not acting and thinking as disciples of Jesus, John would call us to repent. … John would challenge us to be who we are called to be. We call ourselves Christians, he would want to hold us to that. But being a Christian is more than believing in the existence of God. As James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [that]—and shudder!” (James 2:19). … I’ve sometimes found it interesting to try to meditate on my life imagining what it would look like if I took church away- would there be evidence that I am a disciple of Jesus in the ways I treat others? In the way I spend my free time? In my prayer life? In my generosity to the suffering? In my reaction to enemies?  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer hinted towards this).

Being confronted with the idea that we might have to change is uncomfortable. We always expect Advent to be warm and comforting as we prepare for Christmas. Then we are confronted by prophets like John the Baptist calling us to repent and telling us to prepare for a coming judgment. It doesn’t exactly leave us with an egg nog and Christmas cookies kind of feeling.

But for those who were ready to hear it, they went to John in droves to be baptized. They wanted change. They saw a man in the wilderness crying out. They saw their path was crooked and they wanted to make it straight. The Pharisees and Sadducees were offended by John. But there were crowds of ordinary people that welcomed his words into their lives. They saw a prophet like Elijah, and the words of the prophets were on his lips. And prophets were often killed for being in tension with their society and the ruling authorities- as John would be. Prophets offend those who don’t want to change. But for those who know that the world is a mess, and that they are a mess, they are more likely to embrace change.

People were flocking out to see John the Baptist because in repentance they saw hope and life. Our problem is that often when we think of repentance we think of it from one side and we leave it there- We tend to see repentance as thinking “I’m a bad person” and we stop there. In the Bible we read, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn and live” (Ez 18:32); “Turn to me, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you” (Is 45:22; Jer 15:19); “I am the Lord who does not remember wickedness, provided one turn from his evil ways and all his iniquities so that he may live” (Ez 18:21-22). God desires our repentance the way a doctor desires that we will eat better and get some exercise. We define Repentance as recalling the awful things we have done and then feeling bad about those things. The people went to John not because they wanted to focus on their sin, but because they wanted to turn towards God. Really that is what repentance is about- turning to God. This comes with an honest look at our lives to see where we might have turned away from Him.

Christian Spirituality includes repentance. Not as a way of living in guilt and bad self-esteem, but as a life that is constantly turning towards God. The verse from Isaiah that is attached to John the Baptist is 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. We repent to prepare the way of the Lord as he enters our lives.

The goal of human life is to love and serve God and to enjoy him forever. When we understand this and live this way we will find our deep happiness. That is the teaching of the Church and the experience of the saints. Loving and serving God leads to lives of meaning and joy. This is not a simple joy, as if we will never deal with pain or suffering, but it is a joy that will underlay our lives. Repentance is the process of turning towards God in all parts of our lives. Repentance is turning to the One who loves us, and created us, and wants the best for us. Sometimes we have gotten stuck on repentance as being a locked stare on our mistakes and short comings. We need to refocus on repentance as a ‘turning toward’ God. If we do not take repentance seriously, then we will not grow in our spiritual lives because the spiritual life is the process of turning towards God.

I believe that John was so hard because of his great care for others. He believed there were consequences for living a life that was turned away from God. John talks about a tree that is cut down and thrown into the fire, and a chaff that is burned. Just as water is a symbol of washing, so Fire is a symbol of purification. Christ who is coming will baptize with Spirit and with Fire. John wants to see fruit of repentance. He wants to see that we have the humility to recognize that there are parts of our lives that need changing. Maybe we can interpret what he is saying like this- within us all we have branches that need trimming and chaff that needs to be burned. We are living trees with dead branches. We are wheat with the chaff still attached. Repentance is putting forward our dead branches and chaff to be burned by the fire Christ brings. This isn’t about God wanting to cause us pain, rather the branches God wants to remove are infected. He wants them thrown into the fire so that the rest of the tree will not be infected.

If we believe that God is for us and not against us- if we believe that God loves us- then we will not fear repentance. He desires our repentance the way a doctor desires their patient will start eating better. Repentance is ultimately about hope because it implies that there is a better future to turn towards. It implies that our future selves can be more like Jesus and God wants to make that possible.

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