2 Advent – December 4, 2022
So today, in Matthew’s gospel, we are introduced to John the Baptist. This odd fellow in the wilderness, preaching about repentance. In doing so, Matthew is orienting us to the story to come. And it is a story of repair.
Confession and repentance loom large in John the Baptist’s prophetic language. John knows no one can repair things without first conducting a thorough exploration of what’s wrong. John insists on truth-telling.
So, are you squirming about this gospel passage yet? How is this all good news, this portrait of a Jesus who judges, sorts, and burns us?
Do we squirm because we misconstrue the meaning of judgment? I tend to equate judgment with condemnation, but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is. Synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception. In other words, a thorough exploration of what is.
What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us? That he knows us at our very core? Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of deep love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests that are still hidden by chaff. Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give Him permission to “clear” us — to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and worthy in us.
Richard Rohr writes, “All of creation has a cruciform pattern of loss and renewal, death and resurrection, letting go and becoming more. It is a coincidence of opposites, a collision of cross-purpose waiting for the resolution in us. We are all filled with contradictions needing to be reconciled. The price we pay for holding together these opposites is always some form of crucifixion. Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth holding on to his humanity and his divinity, a male body with a female soul yet he rejected neither side of these forces but suffered them all and reconciled all things in himself.”
Richard Rohr packs a lot of meaning in a few sentences.
Repentance is also a word we tend to misconstrue. 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 on 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 – taking Isaiah’s vivid imagery seriously – for the whole of creation. Repentance is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and then changing course.
So, this morning, you are invited to take a moment to daydream what God’s vision might be for you. What do you think God wants you to be and to do? God invites us to dream something beyond what we can presently see. In some ways, that is exactly what the Isaiah passage chosen for this Sunday is – God’s dream about a different world where there is no predator or prey, no fear or hatred. It’s not a goal to be achieved, but a dream by which to set a course.
Now choose one – just one! – element of your life of which you would like to repent – that is, change direction – and name this Advent as a time to do that. Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair or address? Can you imagine using your time differently and toward better ends? Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce more abundant life for you or those around you?
The point of Advent is to make room for Christ’s arrival, to be surprised again that God was willing to enter into our lives and history and take on our vulnerability in order to give us hope. We often think that God isn’t supposed to do that. We think that God is supposed to sit up in heaven alternatively smiling or frowning down at us depending on our behavior. But the God we know doesn’t do that. The God we know in Jesus comes down out of heaven to take on our lot and our life and give us hope by being with us and for us, inviting us into a more abundant life and helping us to see in the face of our neighbor not a competitor for scarce resources but a brother or sister in Christ.
Which means we can imagine that “it doesn’t have to be this way” – whatever “this way” is that is oppressing us right now – we can take action and step toward God’s dream for our lives and our communities. Advent is a season to do this.
Author and psychologist Wayne Dyer often says, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” Remember that repentance is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and then changing course. Each time we hold up our usual, or acquired, habits and practices and compare them with our deepest hopes and dreams — we experience the joy of Advent repentance, a time still marked by our preparation to receive and share the grace and glory of God represented in the babe of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh, our Emmanuel.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” We thank you, God of Love and Justice, that you are forever working within us and among us, in our hearts and in our world, to create wholeness and freedom, compassion and connection, equity and reconciliation. Help us to see in a different way, open our eyes, come into our hearts. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen