A Time for Repentance for All
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but in the church, the Advent fast comes first, long before the Christmas festivities are supposed to begin. We are still not quite there yet. This is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, and the second week of Advent’s theme shifts from “Peace” to “Hope” and it is hope, which we find in today’s Gospel reading. Today, Luke introduces us to John the Baptizer, who was the forerunner of Jesus, the one to make pathways straight, and the one “crying in the wilderness.” John through his preaching and call to repentance was preparing the people to be ready for the coming of the promised messiah.
John is preparing us too, so that we can recognize Christ when he comes, to heed his words, and to respond to his mandate for righteousness (or right relationship) with God and with one another. John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance” for the forgiveness of sins, and it was not a mere dip in the river that miraculously washed off the grubbiness of people’s sin. It was an outward sign of the contrite heart and repentant spirit that happened long before the first toe dipped into the water.
Repentance is a word that for some of us comes with unappealing memories. Maybe we have heard a preacher in a pulpit, or a street preacher with bullhorn in hand shouting and screaming with fury, “Repent and be saved.” Maybe we have heard a preacher shout, “Turn or burn.” That fear-based, manipulative, and often punishment avoidant call to repentance is not what John was talking about.
Repentance is not mere sorrow for the wrongs we may have done, or the sin we have committed. Repentance literally means to change one’s mind, to actually turn around. To repent means to leave the wrong path on which, we are traveling and then, to take a new direction. John was calling the first century Palestinian people, and we 21stcentury Christians, to turn from broken relationships, from sin, from our misdeeds, and to once again follow the way of Jesus.
Repentance – “We fall down and we get back up”
Repentance is also not merely a “once and done” proposition. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot and a major leader in the reform of Benedictine monasticism, caused the formation of the Cistercian order. He once said, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.” (3) Another unnamed monk once said, “We fall down and we get back up.” There is hope in these statements if you listen closely, because hope is found in accepting that our failings, our sin, and our missing the mark is not the end of the story. That is Good News.
However, forgiveness, second chances, and new life are not what we hear about in the news or on social media, when we see people fall down. Today, if you make the least public misstep, or you make the misguided slip of the tongue, or you write a naive Tweet or Facebook post, our culture condemns you to judgment and thus, “you are no longer good enough, you are damaged, and you are no longer capable of good.” The problem is that we have forgotten owning one’s own mistakes; saying, “I am sorry;” and admitting, “I was wrong.” We sure could use a little repentant hope right now.
We all get sidetracked and the little detours we take, keep us from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbor, but the hope is that God is still working on us and there is a way home. We find hope in the promises of God’s forgiveness and restoration through the practice of repentance, which is the path to life, not as we were, but to life a new person in Christ. Nonetheless, this pathway of Jesus we all desire to walk is not a leisurely stroll along a well-groomed and cushy thoroughfare. Being a Christian is a rugged corridor and if you are traversing it, you will fall down and with God’s help, get back up again and again every day.
Promises, Repentance, and Hope
A community brought together in Christ, even one with its sinful and repentant people, is a beacon of hope to the world. A few days ago,our own church (the Episcopal Church) more specifically, the National Cathedral in Washington hosted, supported, and proclaimed the virtues and character of a former president, whose life was a reflection of what humility, repentance, hope, and life of loving neighbor might look like. That branch of the Jesus movement shined God’s promises brightly, and so does this local branch of the Jesus movement (St. Monica’s).
Our mission statement here at St. Monica’s is, “Engaging, equipping and empowering one another to live our baptismal promises.” In the shadows of John the Baptist’s cry to repent, it is a good time for a reminder of own baptismal promises to God and each other. Those promises include: (1) continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; (2) persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; (3) proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; (4) seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; (5) striving for justice and peace among all people, and (6) respecting the dignity of every human being. We as a community respond to these promises with, “I will, with God’s help” because we know we cannot keep those promises without God’s grace, but that does not make it an easy journey.
Following Jesus is not just a nice hobby, an alternative past time to daily life, or an occasional social gathering of like-minded folks. There are plenty of clubs, fraternities, and other charitable organizations out there, which can fulfill those kinds of needs, and none of them have these high expectations. Being the church means, that very simply we really follow Jesus. We cannot just respond to the challenge of these promises with “we will with God’s help” and then move on to life as it was before. We have to own those promises and then, when we stray, we turn and live them anew. We must get back up.
Repentance, with God’s help
We stumble and fall down when we succumb to sin. We stumble and fall down when we fail to be Good News in our daily lives. We stumble and fall down when we overlook the image of Christ in others. We stumble and fall down when we when we fail to love our neighbor, at least as much as we love ourselves. We stumble and fall down when we fail to advocate for justice and peace for all people, and in all circumstances. We stumble and fall down when we weaken the dignity and worth of every human being. If we are honest each and every one of us falls down, and each and every one of us has something for which, we must acknowledge, ask for forgiveness, and then turn away from. We all need to repent.
Faithful discipleship comes with high expectations, and often we believe we cannot live up to them and so maybe we just quit trying. There is hopewhen we say, “I will with God’s help,” because God is with us all along the path nudging us back to the straight path of righteousness. Theologian Richard Benke writes, “God softens hearts, removes stubbornness, overcomes rebellion and provides whatever we lack.” God makes the way for our salvation.
So, the Baptizer’s call to turn should not frighten us from seeking God’s help to change, and to be transformed by grace. Our hope and the Good News we hear on this second Sunday of Advent is that we have a promised hope that proclaims, “our failures are not the end of the story.” God makes a way home for us. God promises that every valley blocking our way shall be filled, every mountain and hill we face shall be made low, the crooked roads before us shall be made straight, and the rough ways we traverse will be made smooth. God promises, “ all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We have to take our part in the salvation God is making possible. We have to choose to turn, choose to be changed, and choose to follow that path of hope and promise, by following Jesus and trusting because he is the one who gently lifts us up when we fall, and he will never abandon us all along the way.
(1) Benke, Richard. “2D Sunday in Advent.” Concordia Journal, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 1985, pp. 224–225.
(2) Ochs, Peter. “Church and Sociality.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 9, no. 4, Oct. 2000, pp. 4–5