Friday, December 6, 2013

An Exercise in Repentance (Advent 2, Dec 8 2013)

Homily:  Yr A Advent 2, Dec 8 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps 72.1-7,18-19; Rom 15.4-13; Mt 3.1-12

An Exercise in Repentance

“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

Each year during the season of Advent, we hear about John the Baptist.  Who is this John the Baptist?  Why do all four of the gospels, including Matthew in the reading we heard today, why do the gospels begin their account of Jesus’ ministry with something about John the Baptist before launching into the story of Jesus himself?  One reason is surely because the gospel writers believed that the coming of Jesus is so important, so earth shattering, that it requires preparation.  We need to get ready.  And so John is seen as the one who gets us ready, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, as was foretold long ago by the prophet Isaiah.

And what’s with the camel hair clothing and the leather belt and the diet of locusts and wild honey?  Is Matthew just trying to let us know that John’s a bit, let’s say, different?  Perhaps, but he’s also giving us this description and these details to let us know that he sees John as the return of the prophet Elijah, one of, if not the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  Elijah is a hairy man with a leather belt, and at his earthly end the Hebrew scriptures tell us that he was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind of chariots and fire.  And why does that matter to Matthew and his first century Jewish contemporaries?  It matters because in the very last verse, the closing words of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, the prophet Malachi prophesies that before the coming of the Messiah, before the coming of the day of the LORD, God will send Elijah back to the people of Israel, to prepare the way for the Messiah and to get people ready for his coming by turning their hearts.

And so Matthew is claiming here that in John the Baptist, Elijah has indeed returned, and that the one for whom he is preparing the way, Jesus, will indeed be the Messiah long-promised by God, and that in order for us to get ready for his coming, we need to turn our hearts.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

We read these scriptures in Advent because Advent is for us a time of repentance, a time to get ready for the coming of the Messiah.

But repentance is a misunderstood word.  Too often it has the connotation of looking back at our lives and expressing remorse for the wrong things that we have done, and then perhaps doing some sort of penance to make up for these things.  But the actual word used for repentance, metanoia in the Greek, doesn’t really mean this at all.  Repentance is rather a turning around, a turning of the heart and of the mind, a re-orientation, a change in perspective.  For those of you who have studied philosophy, it is the word that Plato uses in his allegory of the Cave to describe the moment when the prisoners physically turn from looking at the shadows on the wall of the cave to looking at the actual objects creating the shadows, and the light shining through the cave entrance.  Repentance is a turning around, a reversal, a change in direction.

And to help us get the point, Matthew has filled this short text on John the Baptist with images of reversals.

At the time of John the Baptist, Jews from all over Israel and beyond would regularly journey from the countryside up to Jerusalem for the major religious festivals.   Four times a year, a great stream of people would flow into Jerusalem.  But in today’s reading we hear that all of Jerusalem streams out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.  The wilderness itself is transformed, from a place of loneliness and desolation to a place that is full of people. This is an image of repentance, a reversal, a complete turning about and change of direction that leads to transformation. 

Similarly, faithful Jews knew that if you wanted to confess your sins and receive forgiveness, the correct procedure was to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and to offer the proper sacrifice.  But here we have John in the wilderness, about as far as you could get from the Temple, proclaiming not a sacrifice but a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.

And John’s use of baptism itself was unique.  In those days, baptism was normally a ritual performed for non-Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism.  But in today’s gospel John is baptising Jewish people.  His action declares that it’s his own people who need to be baptised and converted.  Even those people who were comfortable, who thought they were the people of God by virtue of their ancestry, they are pushed out of their comfort zones and told to change the direction of their lives and experience the baptism of repentance.

Repentance is about reversals, changes in direction, re-orientation and transformation.  And it’s not just theoretical, it’s about the way we live.  As John says, we don’t just need to repent, but we also need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

And because all of this is intended to be practical, not just theoretical, I thought we’d do a little exercise together here today, as part of our Advent preparation.

So here is the first step.  We now have 2 ½ weeks to go before Christmas, and I know that this makes it a busy time of year for many people.  So let’s get organized!  I want you to take one of these file cards and a pencil, and at the top write “To-Do” and then make a list of all of the things that you need to do to get ready for Christmas. 

(allow time for people to prepare a list)

Okay, are you ready for step 2 of our exercise?  This time I want you to take another card, and on this second card, I want you to write down your hopes and dreams for this Christmas and beyond.  You’ll need to give this a little thought.  And I want you to allow yourself to think big, to get in touch with your deepest hopes and dreams.  By all means you may want to write down things like Christmas dinner with family.  But don’t be afraid to go beyond this.  Allow yourself to be inspired by some of the visions of hope that we’ve heard already this Advent season.  By Isaiah’s vision of peace in which the wolf and the lamb can lie down together.  By Paul’s vision of all nations, Gentile and Jew, praising God together.  By Martin Luther King’s vision of a nation in which people would not be judged by the colour of their skin.  By Jody Williams vision of a world free from landmines, so that children can play safely in the fields.  By Nelson Mandela’s vision of “a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

So think for a moment and then write down on that card your hopes and dreams, the ones that are specific to you and your situation, for this Christmas and beyond.

(give people time to think and write)

And now for part 3 of our exercise.  You’ve written down your hopes and dreams.  Read them again.  Then go back to your to do list.  And put the two together.  Which of the things on that to do list will actually contribute to your hopes for Christmas and beyond?

Circle those that will.
You may want to cross out those that won’t.
And then you may want to add a few new things to your list.

(give people a little time to reflect on the list)

I know that when I do this exercise my list changes, and perhaps surprisingly, the one thing that I’ve forgotten that always seems to make it back to the top of my Advent to do list is prayer. 

Now, I don’t know how much your list changed, but if it did, and if those changes actually translate into a change in how you live out your life for the next 2 ½ weeks and beyond, that’s repentance.

Repentance is a re-orientation, a change in perspective, a commitment to turn and live differently, a turn towards God.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.


(With thanks to David Lose for his suggestion for the exercise found on

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