Advent 2

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ … Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him”.

If we were to declare that at St. Leonard’s we are going to preach on ‘repentance’ for the next 6 months I doubt that the people of Red Deer would flock to St. Leonard’s. … But, that’s what happened with John the Baptist. John left the centers of political and religious power (he wasn’t preaching in the streets of Jerusalem or in the temple). He went into the wilderness. He dressed like a prophet and called the people to repent.

The wilderness was very symbolic. When they left Egypt they entered the wilderness. It was there that they received the Law. John was calling them to reenter the Promised Land through the Jordan River, just as their ancestors did with Joshua. He called the people to repentance and they flocked into the wilderness.

So why wouldn’t the people of Red Deer flock to repent? When I say the word “repent” we get pictures in our minds of someone in the street wearing a sandwich board that says “the end is near”. Or, we get a feeling of being accused and judged. Hearing the word “repent” said in Church can bring up all kinds of uncomfortable feelings for people. Many people carry wounds about feeling judged by the church for a variety of reasons.

No doubt many of you have stories you could share about feeling judged. Often that is the reason we aren’t willing to be vulnerable with each other. We feel like we should present an image of having it all together. We feel like we should hide our doubts, our sins, and our relationship problems.

When those of us who carry these scars hear the word “repent” said in church, suddenly we are in danger of having that wound reopened. So, one reason we don’t like the word is because of past experiences that have been negative, where judgment was placed on us and we didn’t feel that it came with any love.

Another reason we cringe a little when we hear this word is that we are in a culture that doesn’t want us to feel bad. We highly value positive thinking (even if it is delusional in a particular circumstance). We have come to think that something is wrong if we feel bad. Sometimes we are inclined to think we need to be medicated if we feel bad (regardless of our reasons for feeling that way). … More and more we are seeing that people don’t want to have funerals. If they have any sort of gathering, it is not unusual to say that they want it to be happy and celebratory. There is nothing wrong with that it if is coming from a recognition of Jesus’ victory over death, but I fear that too often it is coming from a desire to avoid feeling bad. I once was a part of a funeral at a golf course and everyone seemed to have orders that they weren’t allowed to be sad. … We avoid situations that make us feel any sort of negative emotion.

Repentance for most of us means feeling guilty or unworthy. When we do bump up against something we feel bad about, we are likely to blame someone else for it. We don’t want to take responsibility for it. We find a way to make ourselves out to be a victim. We say things like: I came from a dysfunctional family; This is just the way I was made- it’s in my genes; Everybody does it. … Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, rather than apologize we point to Eve, and Eve points to the serpent- Always passing the responsibility elsewhere. … I admit that responsibility can be complicated in some circumstances, but we should beware of using those complications to justify ourselves.

Or, we try to delegate the whole process of repentance to a bygone era. I was once at a dinner where I was accused of being out of date for fasting during Lent. “Repentance isn’t for modern Christians”- was the message I received. … The problem is that most of us, deep down in our bones, feel that something inside us needs transformation. As much as we try to surround ourselves with positivity, and try to alleviate ourselves of guilt by passing the blame to someone else, or try to convince ourselves that repentance is a crude medieval enterprise, … we still feel it. We still recognize our inner need for transformation.

People were flocking out to see John the Baptist, not because they wanted to feel bad about themselves. They ran to John because in repentance they saw hope. The prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah record God as saying, 
“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 right, quit smoking, and go for regular walks. Usually 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 means. It means turning to God. Of course, this implies that there are parts of us that have turned away from God.

The goal of human life is to love and serve God. That is where 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 a life 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 runs deeper that can’t really be touched by the circumstances of our lives. … If the goal of human life is to love and serve God- if that is the meaning of our lives, then ultimately the meaninglessness we sometimes find in our own lives stems from not being properly turned toward God in certain areas of 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 misunderstood repentance as being a locked stare on our mistakes and short comings. Not even a turning away. I think we need to refocus on repentance as a ‘turning toward’. Spiritual growth is the process of constantly turning towards God.

We all have parts of our lives where we have a tendency to turn to something besides God and the best he desires for us. Repentance is about God realigning our lives with Christ’s life. It is the process of becoming the kind of person that reflects Christ.

John the Baptist takes this process extremely seriously. That is why he is so hard on the religious leaders who come. “You brood of vipers” he calls them. He doesn’t necessarily say they shouldn’t have come. His biggest problem is that they aren’t bearing ‘fruit of repentance’. Their actions don’t communicate repentance. They are just going through the motions. Joel 2:13 says “rend your heart and not your garment”. In ancient Judaism rending your garment was an outward sign of grief. But, it was easy to do the sign without feeling the inner grief. Our grief is to go much deeper. Going through the motions won’t do. Coming to John to get wet in the Jordan river isn’t what this is about. John wants to see fruit of true inward repentance.

I believe that John was so hard on them 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. He uses this symbol of fire that is an image loaded with judgement, but notice that he also talks about the Holy Spirit and the messiah as connected to fire. Christ who is coming will baptize with Spirit and with Fire.

It is easy to slide into the way of thinking that the Pharisees are accused of. The Pharisees suggested that they were righteous because they performed the right action and were of the family of Abraham. We too can focus on the right outward action and not consider our inward motivation. We might not say we are of the family of Abraham, but we might use our Baptismal certificate in a similar way. … We show up on Sundays, so therefore we are the in-crowd. We are safe from the fire as opposed to those naughty people who sleep in on a Sunday morning. But, I worry that we would be making the same mistake as the Pharisees.

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- that need turning. 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 that is 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. 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 parent desires a phone call from a child, and the way a doctor desires their patient will take their medication. 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. AMEN


Popular posts from this blog

Fight Club and Buddhism

Healing Prayer- feast of St. Luke

Psalm 23- freedom from anxiety