Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Every family has one—that is a John the Baptist. In my family it was my uncle Grayson. Uncle Grayson, well how should I say it, was just a bit odd. Without exception, and for all occasions, he wore light colored wrangler jeans, a flannel shirt and wide suspenders. Like all of my mother’s brothers, of which there were four, his girth made the suspenders necessary. He was tall like my grandfather—an imposing man to a young child (and to most adults for that matter). For as long as I had known him, his hair was white and thick like a fresh snow-capped mountain. And unlike the other men in the family, Uncle Grayson wore his hair a bit longer. Not ponytail length, but longer than normal. The way in which he styled this beautiful head of hair can best be describe like that of the most famous preacher in the South at that time—the Reverend Billy Graham.
Unlike John the Baptist, or how I perceive him, Uncle Grayson was a man of few words. But like John the messenger, when my uncle spoke it was usually stern and forceful. Uncle Grayson, his wife and daughter lived in South Carolina during my childhood years so I mostly saw them at holidays and family gatherings. They were usually the first to arrive and by the time my family arrived at my grandparents farmhouse Uncle Grayson had already staked out his spot by the wall on the far end of the plastic green couch. Seating was at a premium in my grandparents’ humble home, especially when the whole family gathered. It was in the front living room, as the chaos of a large family packed into a small home swirled around him, that Uncle Grayson sat quietly as if he were in another world. It wasn’t until the children became unruly and my grandmother expressed concern (usually through her tears) that we were going to break something that Uncle Grayson would speak. “Young’ns,” he would say in the gruffest voice imaginable, “Settle down before I have to get after ya. And go tell your grandmother you’re sorry.” At that moment the room would become still and quiet, and dutifully all nine grandchildren would join in a chorus of, “We’re sorry grandma.” That was our cue to retreat to the bedroom with the big featherbed and large fireplace and watch the roaring fire that my grandfather would have built to keep the house warm.
As I read our gospel text for this second Sunday in Advent I thought of my Uncle Grayson and his forceful command to all of us rowdy kids to speak words of repentance to our grandmother when we got out of line. Remember how our text begins:
In these days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
There were times when Uncle Grayson felt like, well maybe not the kingdom of God, but definitely the fear of God.
Maybe you are wondering why the lectionary has us talking repentance in Advent. It’s a good wondering but I think there is a connection between this locusts-and-wild-honey-eating Baptist proclaiming his message of repentance and the meaning of this Advent season.
“Most of us assume repentance means saying you’re sorry. Or better, that you’re really, really sorry and will never do it – whatever “it” is – again. And, sure, that’s a part of repentance but [it’s] a pretty small part…the heart of the word repentance means turning around, starting over, taking another direction, choosing another course. All of those actions by their nature call into question the value or rightness of one’s current behavior, but the emphasis is less on what is wrong with what we’re doing now and what is right and important and necessary about what we will do differently. Repentance also underscores that change isn’t necessary for change’s sake, but rather that change is necessary because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all God’s people…[And so] Repentance, in short, is [that moment of] realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and [then] changing course.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
Repentance was not just about saying to my grandmother, “I’m sorry.” Repentance was stopping the behavior and redirecting.
When you think of repentance in this way, there is much for us to consider in this season of hope, peace, joy and love. As a community and nation there is much for which we need to repent. When you think about our level of consumption and how we are destroying this very creation that God has entrusted to us, we need a new direction. When we have neighbors far and near who are struggling in poverty often without enough food to sustain them, we need a new direction. When we are faced with the injustices in our criminal justice system best exemplified in overcrowded prisons filled disproportionately with black and brown skin people, we need a new course to follow. When we hear the stories of Latino kids coming home from school in tears asking their parents if they are going to be deported because a classmate told them they would be, we need to choose a different direction.
Maybe our need for repentance is more personal. Maybe it’s a change in direction in a relationship with a parent, child, spouse, friend or co-worker. Or maybe the change in direction has to do with a behavior that has us stuck in an unhealthy place. Only you can know that place where repentance could free you. The list can be long, and a simple “I’m sorry” is not going to be enough. It never has been, and it never will be. True repentance calls for us to change direction, to imagine a new order of how we live and love one another.
This is why the gospel text for this Sunday is paired with Isaiah’s vision of a new order. You know the vision. A green shoot from Jesse’s stump will sprout up. “The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, the Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God. He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay. He’ll judge the needy by what is right, and render decisions on earth’s poor with justice…
The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.”
We, the church—the faithful, have sanitized and sterilized this prophecy by naming it the “peaceable kingdom” passage. We quote it this time a year as a feel-good passage, a pie-in-the-sky vision of what God expects of us, but rarely believing that such a world could really exist. And even more rarely changing our lives to make it happen. On this peace Sunday, I am suggesting that this passage is not about peace at all. It’s about repentance. It’s about a new order, a change in direction, a turning from the course we are on and choosing a different path of how we live in this world. Only then, only when we read this text with repentance on our minds and in our hearts, with our hands and our feet and our voices, can it be about peace. Only when we can image that “it doesn’t have to be this way”—whatever this way is that is oppressing and marginalizing our neighbors; only when we can move closer to God’s dream that Isaiah spoke of, can we truly find meaning in the birth and life of the one whom we anticipate being born again.
For the God-seekers and justice-seekers living in 2016, Advent is as much about repentance as it is hope and peace, joy and love. With the coming of God in human form—specifically in the form of a vulnerable baby—we are presented with a new direction, a new course to follow. Like Isaiah’s vision, this new baby ushers in a new order of being and living. And what does that new order look like? Consider this reflection from Fredrick Buechner.
“Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party or a father who can’t bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the Prodigal Son, it still wasn’t too late. Where John ate locusts and honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what he felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find. Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw any sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred their company to the WCTU, the Stewardship Committee, and the World Council of Churches rolled into one. Where John baptized, Jesus healed.”
Repentance is more than saying “We’re sorry.” Repentance is acknowledging that a new direction is necessary and then choosing that direction. We can appreciate John the Baptist and his call to true repentance and his passion to prepare for a whole new way to live—a way that even he couldn’t understand. But Advent calls us to go beyond John the Baptist and to actually prepare ourselves to live into Jesus’ example of forgiving love, radical grace, being God’s beloved and welcoming the outcast. And that’s why we talk repentance in Advent.