In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This 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.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But 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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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. “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. His 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.”
I am not a fan of Advent. I respect its place in the hierarchy of the liturgical calendar. I appreciate its contemplative holding pattern before the Christmas miracle of Emmanuel. I try to get pumped up about Advent. I am impatient and hate surprises. Also, I suspect that when we talk about Advent we are really talking about is “pre-Christmas.”
You know Christmas trees in our living rooms, strings of lights illuminating our homes, and the BC Clark jingle. We seek to give and hope to receive that perfect gift. We unlock chocolates from their captive foiled dens, gaze upon the beauty of the nativity, and visit the memories of Christmases past, and the sounds and spirit of the season consume us.
Yup, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—in our homes, in our churches, in our communities. And with all the tinsel, Christmas cards, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, we begin to think a lot like Christmas, too. Christmas is here. Frosty, Charlie Brown and gang, and the army of Clauses that fill the malls signal it is indeed Christmas.
Christians do it differently. We have Advent. We are expected to slow our roll and savor the moment prior to the savior being laid in a manger in swaddling cloths. Advent is a time of anticipation, a period of waiting. We get bombarded with the “Spirit of Christmas” in a seemingly relentless wave of commercialism and consumer one-upmanship. We are offered formula after formula as to how we can claim happiness and glee. Rather, we get further in to debt as these systems of bondage increase. This bondage challenges the liberation of Jesus the Christ. A vapid church loses steam in a culture of young adults rapidly drowning in a climate of hopelessness and unrealized dreams.
The crash of cymbals, the sounding of an alarm, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene, bucket in hand, dousing us with cold water, rudely awakening us from our quest for consumer victory and visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. His austere manner, frugality in dress, and OG Mediterranean diet, he lacks any obvious Christmas cheer. John is more Grinch than Father Christmas. And the midst of all this preparing the way, John seems conspicuously and embarrassingly in the way.
John would not be very welcome at most of our holiday festivities. Imagine him at Best Buy warning the folks that waited in line that they needed to repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near. There’s John yelling warnings, in between nibbles of crickets and slurps of honey, at the streaming parade of people holding giant inflatable cartoon characters. John the Baptist is a pain the…you know.
But the gospel—neh, the entire Bible—is filled with people who are, at best—difficult to be around. People we might describe as kill-joys or wet-blankets. People who tell us exactly what we are doing wrong and how mad God is going to be. They usually emerge right about the time things are starting to get fun and the good times roll.
We have a name for these kinds of people—prophets. Prophets have the daunting task of being the mouthpiece of God and are called to communicate a message from God to the wider world. But prophets are not cheerleaders or life coaches or therapists—they are more like Bob or Jillian on the “Biggest Loser”—charged with the task to preach a message of reconciliation and repentance. Generally, God sends a prophet to tell people that they are on the fast track to ruin. And so, prophets do not have the luxury to mince words or to put a positive spin on the message. When judgment and punishment is at hand, there’s no time for flowery sentiment—it’s time to cut to the chase.
For John the Baptist, time was at a premium, because Jesus was just around the corner. His message was urgent—don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, don’t pack your bags or kiss your family goodbye—there is not time for dawdling—you must drop everything and Repent! Confess your sins, repent, and be baptized! Because there is no other acceptable way to prepare yourselves for the coming of the Christ.
So here we are…Advent. The church seeks a tender moment of reflection. We pine for those White Christmas’, just like the one’s we used to know. We shun the prophet’s cry to repent and point the finger towards the other brood of vipers. We fall victim to the warned path and stray from the victorious road of liberated mercy and skip out on the getting ready. Too busy getting ready for Christmas, we overlook Advent. We grab nostalgia instead of change.
You see what John is calling us to, what Advent calls us to, is to repent and to repent is to change. Repenting is changing the way you approach the world. Repenting is changing the way you engage each other. Repenting is changing the world to embody “thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Change is the reason for the season and Jesus is the impetus behind that change. But we are not there yet.
The church is in a season of change. It is no longer the axis to which this Nation revolves. Gone is the monopoly in which the spiritual wellbeing of our Nation is entrusted to the Christian God. We the church must contend with the reality that as the prophets spoke we chose to secure our treasures, rather than sell all we have to give to the poor.
The wealth of a nation sits broadly in the hands of a few. Poverty rises as justice and equality is withheld due to a persons love, skin color, nation of origin, and gender. Change swirls around us. John warns us to repent. He calls us to change. Change always blurs the like between prophet, priest, and people. Change can bring out the best and worst in us.
Just ask the Pharisees and Sadducees. “You brood of vipers!” John exclaims, driving them out of the water, creating such a torrent of crashing waves that the men are soaked from head to toe, wringing their tunics out on the river’s bank. “Unless you are serious about change, get out of my sight!” Disgusted and embarrassed, the Pharisees and Sadducees turn their heels, get back into their shiny car, and flee the scene.
So what was it about the Pharisees and the Sadducees that caused John to pull a Jekyll and Hyde? Why did John deny them baptism and the chance to change? If John was calling all people to change, then why were some left out in the cold? Shouldn’t it mean something that they bothered to show up in the first place?
It’s easy to paint John in the same picture as just another insane, self-conversing prophet. A lunatic. A outside agitator. John took his job as prophet very seriously. He knew that the difference between being angry and prophetic is love. His job was not only to baptize those who sought baptism—his job was to love people towards change. His job was to love people into the coming of Christ. And the best way to prepare for change is through the act of repentance as delivered in love.
We toss around the word “repent” a lot in church; we hear it most Sundays, we read it in the Bible. Repenting means that we own the times in our lives when we do not live up to God’s expectations of us and we make a concerted effort not to do those things again. This is why it is difficult to fully embrace Advent and why the Holy of Christmas is so alluring.
It doesn’t matter if we repent, because we can just confess our sins, God will forgive us, and life will be good again. I have asked God for forgiveness of and repentance for all kinds of sin. Tim may have shared a few of those stories with you. And here I am, unlikely that I have ever repented from everything.
Repentance is less about the sin itself and more about the posture of the sinner. No matter how much we try, no matter how much we pray and confess to God, we are going to keep sinning. That’s just the reality of the human condition. As Christians, our job is not to eradicate every bit of sin from our lives, but to do our best to sin less and to make a concerted effort to live as a Child of God. We are to be changing.
And this is where the Pharisees and Sadducees got it wrong and why John sent them running from the river. They didn’t give a lick about change. They were fine, going through the motions, because it was what everybody else was doing. But they had no intention on re-ordering their lives as baptized, forgiven creatures entering the changing process. John has little tolerance for those who are not serious about committing their entire lives to Jesus the Christ.
Repentance is a change in our identity because repenting means that we are no longer bound to sin, as prisoners of a world ruled by oppression and violence. Repentance means that we pledge allegiance not to systems that oppress, but to the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees & Sadducees and other members of the religious establishment were willing to pay lip service to repentance, but had no intention of changing their basic identity and pledging allegiance to anyone or any system other than themselves. John knew this, and loudly rebuked them for their misguided religious showboating.
Change is a communal act, as much as it is an individual act. Change is not just about you, or me—it’s about us, as individuals, as a community—living into our TRUE identity as the body of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God. If we as a church would focus on the contemplation, the reflection, the prayer, the discernment, THE CHANGE I could and would be a fan of Advent. But as I said earlier, I suspect that when we talk about Advent what we are really talking about is pre-Christmas.
It’s tempting for us to skip over this uncomfortable talk about repentance and change. We want to jump right to the “good stuff” of Christmas. But in order for us to celebrate the birth of Christ, we must first make the conscious decision to pledge our faithfulness to Christ and Christ alone. That’s what these weeks of Advent are for—it’s a period of discernment, for prayer and reflection. It is a period of change.