31 January 2011

Advent 2 A - Repent?!

Advent 2 A 2010

Isaiah 11: 1-10

Matthew 3: 1-12

By Stuart Pike

I must admit that in all my 22 years of ministry, It has never seriously crossed my mind to begin a sermon by calling my listeners a “brood of vipers!”

I could be missing out on a great opportunity in preaching here, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to me to be the most tactful way of communicating my message.

Evidently, John the Baptist didn’t have the same seminary courses that I had. And yet, what was it that made his preaching so compelling? It appears that people were journeying from Jerusalem and all over Judea to come to see him

So what is really going on here, anyway? Most of us are already starting to get into the Christmas spirit. We’ve already had our Advent Carol Service. There is Christmas music starting to play on the radio, and certainly on the muzac at the shopping centres. The neighbours are already starting to outdo one another with their Christmas lights displays. Everyone is trying to get into the Christmas cheer and here we have this stern voice yelling antisocial things at us from the wilderness. Can’t someone just give the man a glass of eggnog or something? Just something to wash down the locusts and put him in a better frame of mind?

Doesn’t John know that there are only 19 more shopping days until Christmas? Isn’t Advent supposed to be about getting us into the cheery Christmas Spirit?

Well, the answer is basically, no. At least not in the popular way. John was born two thousand years before the phenomenal invention called tinsel! Advent, the first season of a new Church year is about preparing for Jesus’ coming, but not simply about his coming at Christmas, it’s about Jesus coming again at the end of time. And it’s about Jesus coming to each one of us personally in our hearts.

And so John the Baptist calls his listeners to repent. “Repentance” is not a word which is readily used these days. It might conjure up the image of some shabbily dressed guy wearing a sandwich board which might read “Repent, the end is nigh” or something similar. It might at the least make you think of a conservative and judgmental type of Christianity. We don’t want to preach repentance like that here, do we?

Well, I think that the word “repentance” has picked up a lot of negative baggage. Repentance isn’t about making yourself feel guilt and groveling in the dirt. The actual word, repentance means to turn around – to change direction. It isn’t just about feeling sorry and begging forgiveness, it’s about acting to change your direction. It’s about aligning your way to the way of God.

There are a few steps to repentance, and in fact, it is probably best to think of it as a cyclical process. It isn’t just about repenting once, and then you’re done. We should think of this as the way that we grow closer and closer to God. We could call it a Christian’s cycle of quality improvement!

The three steps of repentance are: seeing, assessing, and acting.

The people all knew that there was something missing in their lives, and that is why they trekked for miles along the dusty roads of Judea to see this prophet of whom they had heard so much. They’re wondering, is he the Messiah? And so they ask him so.

John tells them that there is someone more powerful than he who is coming after him and that John is not even worthy to carry his sandals. John the Baptist is telling his listeners to prepare to meet the most important person they would ever meet in their lives, and that is the Messiah.

So how do we prepare for seeing the Messiah?

Well, how do we normally prepare ourselves when we are going to meet someone important? Or if we are going an important event?

Well, even for an ordinary day, I start out in the morning by heading into the bathroom to check out what my face looks like in the mirror. After I get over the initial shock of what I see, I start to assess what needs to be done. I make sure there’s lots of light so that I can make a good assessment – no matter how painful that assessment may be. Then I start to go about the process of damage control! Time to wash the face, shave etc until I look respectable again.

So I will have done those three steps: seeing – looking at myself in the mirror; assessing – deciding just how bad it is, and acting – damage control. If I am preparing for an extra-special event or person, then I might have to get some expert help – like maybe arrange to get my hair cut in advance. All of this is a process of repentance for my face!

John the Baptist is asking people to prepare for the Messiah, however. His call is like shining a bright light on the people and holding up a mirror so that they can see what their lives are like, can assess them, and can act to change them so that they are in alignment with God’s way. John marked the action of repentance with baptism. The people returned to the Jordan river which their ancestors crossed to enter the promised land. Here, they were going back to the river, immersing themselves in it and then climbing back on its bank to find the promised land again. As John says, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” And Jesus, later says, “The Kingdom of heaven is among you.”

And that’s repentance. It’s not essentially about groveling, but it is about changing. And I believe it is something that we need to keep doing as we mature in our Christian faith. We shouldn’t just think that we’ve arrived and don’t need to change. Our faith is a journey along a path. We see, we assess, we act, and then do it over and over again.

And that’s why it is important for us, as a Church to truly experience the season of Advent as a time to prepare, to repent, that is to see ourselves, to assess how we’re doing in our faith, and to act to walk more closely in Jesus’ way, which leads us to our God.

So let’s hold off on that eggnog for now, please, and let’s use this season of Advent to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming. Take a serious look at yourself and at your life. What is missing in it at the spiritual level? What can you change to walk more closely in Jesus’ way? When we see the messiah, we do want to be ready. Amen.

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