Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist: Repentance and Righteousness
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In the Second week of Advent, we hear the prophetic voice of John the Baptist proclaiming that we need to repent. Repentance in a season of joy, celebration, peace on earth good will towards all, seems like a strange topic, but this is the season of Advent. When we are anticipating Christ’s coming, we are reminded of our utter dependence on God and our necessity to return to God when we stray, when we miss the mark, when we succumb to the siren call of sin.
We are never far from the reality of our own frailty, our own failures, and our own brokenness. In today’s gospel, we are clearly told that none are free from sin; all must repent and live a changed life. We all miss the mark, and we all share a common need for God’s grace and forgiveness. There is good news in all that, because God acts first to bring about reconciliation and restoration. However, we have to respond to that grace, in order to actually experience the impact of a gift that we must only receive.
John the Baptist boldly tells, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” but what does that theologically ambiguous word really mean? Let me try and explain. We have all said to someone we have hurt, “I am sorry” but is that repentance, and where does love come into all this? Some would say, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” However, repentance is more than a kind “I am sorry.” Rabbi Sarah Reines asserts that we must “go one step further because saying those words alone cannot atone for wrongdoing. In fact, even prayer is not enough, and neither is ritual. True repentance demands action.” (2)
Repentance means to turn, which requires us to put our bodies in motion toward a different reality or what our Jewish cousins call, Teshuva. Rabbi Reines writes, “Teshuva expresses a process of reorientation that demands a complete change of mind, heart, and behavior. It requires: recognizing our wrongdoing, expressing our regret, doing our best to reconcile with the injured party or, at least, make appropriate restitution to those we have wronged, and (then), change our ways. (2) We all need a time like Advent, and people like John the Baptist, to shake up the circumstances of our comfort zones. Sometimes we need to be confronted by circumstances that changes everything, or by a person who sees things with fresh eyes, who can help us come face-to-face with our own sin, so we might repent and thus, experience reconciliation and new life.
Repentance and Forgiveness
I watched a popular movie about repentance, reconciliation, and new life the other night. It was the story about a man named Farrokh Bulsar, an immigrant whose family came to England from India through Zanzibar. Farrokh was a talented piano player and song writer, with a strong baritone speaking voice, but sang amazingly in the tenor range. He was a musical genius, who brought to the performance stage a new twist on a particular musical genre. He redefined the future of music, and was a great influence, bringing courage and hope to bands and individual artists like: Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, and Metallica. He had an amazing stage presence, and his offbeat approach to performance, brought attention to what he was trying to accomplish; change.
If you do not know by now about whom I am speaking, Bulsar was the incredible and unmatched “Freddie Mercury,” the lead singer of the band Queen. He was a prophetic voice, an attention-grabbing eccentric who changed the future of music. Mercury, although a successful genius was no different from many of us. He struggled with relationships with others and experienced the brokenness of relational estrangement. Mercury struggled also with the sin of self-importance. He lived with a deep depressive loneliness that as overwhelming and unexpected success came to the band Queen, it led Mercury to abandon his friends and bandmates in order to pursue a solo career. His act of selfish indifference to his friends led to him cutting the ties of relational connections with his bandmates, and the death of the family nature of their association. The great band Queen for a time was no more.
A New Future
Freddie Mercury, John the Baptist, and so many other prophetic voices have over the centuries called us to change, through their unconventionality. Their disruptive presence in the world calls us to new futures and new ways of being. Theodore Wardlaw says that “John (the Baptist) in fact challenges (us) to envision and grow into a different future.” (3) He adds, “A different future is on the way, he says. A time—our time— is being redeemed by the light of a holy surprise drawing near. And all of a sudden, the landscape of life changes. This is the surprising word of John, whose message is: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (3) Advent is a time in which, we live in the hope of a different future, a new possibility, a breaking in of new life. Advent can be for us, can be a “John the Baptist” moment.
Freddy Mercury experienced a “John the Baptist” moment when the prophetic voice of a terminal disease made him realize his life was slipping away. He did not sit still with the decisions of his past and so, he turned from his isolation, his broken loneliness, and reached out to his old bandmates. Mercury did what John the Baptist tell us to do, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” He put his feet in motion and went to his friends and said, “I am sorry,” but that was not where his repentance ended. Mercury convinced his bandmates that they had to do something more than just get back together. Their act of shared repentance beyond themselves came in their return in 1985 at the Live Aid show which aided the victims of the Ethiopian famine. This concert was dubbed by the organizing parties as “the day music changed the world.” The healed family of Queen made the repentant choice to share the grace of reconciliation that they had experienced ,and together they took it beyond themselves.
As the light to the world, the church too is called to live in Harmony so that with one voice, together we may glorify God. We are icons and stained glass windows where the Light of Christ shines through, but we must be proclaimers of repentance in action. Let’s face it, we’re going to mess up, we are going to miss the mark, but God’s grace is abundant and we have to keep trying. None of us are perfect because honestly, none of us are without sin, especially we clergy types.
The good news is that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins. Are we faithful to forgive each other’s? We are one Body of many members. We are not called to this life in Christian community merely for benign membership alone. We are called to be like clay, ready and willing for the Creator to mold and shape us, for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, for God to set us on a new path; a new path not to be traveled alone, but a journey boldly taken together. By living in harmony, working and serving together, bearing each other’s burdens, and forgiving each other’s failures, we are truly being the Body of Christ.
When we the Body of Christ lives in reconciling love, or as the Apostle Paul writes, we choose to “live in harmony with one another, and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we take that hope into the world and everything changes. When we can show the world that we see a different possibility than the one in which we find ourselves today, we share the hope of Advent, the joy of the Incarnation, and reconciling love of God enacted in and through each of us. We then, like our brother John, our brother Freddy, and so many other prophets, we like them, become the voices crying out, or singing out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
(1) Meyers, Ruth A. “Wheat and Chaff.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 32, Nov. 2001, p. 16
(2) Reines, Sarah H. “Turning Ourselves Around.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 2, Apr. 2007, pp. 8–9
(3) Wardlaw, Theodore J. “Preaching the Advent Texts.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 31, no. 1, Advent 2007, pp. 3–10.