“The Joy of Repentance”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
16 December, 2018
What do you suppose it was that made John the Baptizer so popular? Why was it that so many people flocked to him? Based on all the depictions of him, he was a bit of an eccentric, not a warm fuzzy type, certainly would not have been considered politically correct. Our reading this morning begins with him characterizing his audience as a family of venomous snakes – not a compliment – and ends with him warning them about an unquenchable fire on the horizon. Strangely, Luke closes the scene with the words, “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Say, what? How can these words of harsh judgment and imminent destruction be understood as good news?
John was working in the wilderness—both literally, and metaphorically. The world, to his audience, felt like a bit of a spiritual wasteland at the time. It wasn’t always clear where their sustenance was coming from. They were hungry and thirsty for soul nourishment, a sense of spiritual provision and a connection to the living God, but their religious authorities were not providing good leadership examples, and in fact were sometimes as corrupt as their political officials. Luke reports that John’s crowd included tax collectors and soldiers—men who represented the government, who had a reputation for regularly defrauding and taking advantage of those whom they could. The people in the crowd had realized that society’s “common practice” and their own habits were not helping them to become the people they longed to be. There was a sense that they were all lacking a moral compass, and they knew it, and the moral wilderness they found themselves in was as stark and barren as the distant place they had journeyed to geographically.
Last week, we heard John calling the people to “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, he goes a little further. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he chastens them, maybe with a bit of ironic humor. Then he continues with compassionate exhortation and warning: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” To people who feel like the world has lost its way, to folks who are fed up with the corruption, depravity, apathy, and self-absorption all around them, these are unflinching words of truth and hope. They are words of reassurance that Someone DOES care about justice, and that goodness matters to Someone. And, that Someone’s coming any moment now. Furthermore, when that Someone arrives, justice and goodness will prevail, despite all temporary evidence to the contrary. When mayhem is holding sway, human hearts start manifesting what the theologian David Tracy refers to as a “blessed rage for order”.
Into this moral wilderness, John the Baptizer proclaimed a message of repentance, sealed by the act of baptism. Repentance, for John, meant a change of mind and heart that became expressed through changed behaviors. The good news, then, was partly this: through this prophet, John the Baptizer, God was inviting the people to make a fresh start. Believers marked their commitment to this deeper, more faithful, connected way of being with a bath in the Jordan River: as they were plunged beneath the water, their past was symbolically washed away. As they emerged from the water, they rejoiced in a rebirth—a powerful and jubilant experience of a clean slate, fresh start.
“Repent, turn from your self-centered ways,” John thunders. “Get ready, because the Savior you’ve been praying for is coming.” And this is the rest of John’s good news: God’s promised Messiah was coming—very soon. It’s like when the babysitter has been just awful, and things have gotten completely out of hand. At first it was sort of fun, but now it’s utter chaos, people have gotten hurt, it feels unsafe, and the babysitter says, “Just wait until your parents get home.” They may face repercussions, but the kids are eager for Mom & Dad’s arrival, so that order and peace can be restored.
John also reminds his audience that it’s impossible to be in God’s presence, and not be changed, purified. The Messiah’s coming is like a holy fire drawing closer, and we’d better get ready, because it’ll change us. Which might feel threatening, until we realize how liberating it is to just be the truest version of our self, unencumbered by the different layers we design and construct, supposedly to protect ourselves.
The insightful preacher and biblical scholar Matt Boulton explains John’s words this way:“Every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks – collectively known as ‘chaff’ – from the grain, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain. This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less fair, or less respectful of others. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn has it right: there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person. What each of us requires is restoration, liberation from whatever ‘husks’ are holding us back.”
“What then should we do?” the crowds, including the tax collectors and the soldiers, asked John with an air of urgency. “How can we get ready?” John suggests doing things that help to release us from the “chaffy” or “husky” behaviors the world imparts to us. Behaviors like keeping more for ourselves than we really need (selfishness), mistrust of or diminishing the equal dignity of those unlike ourselves, and bending the rules or circumstances to our personal advantage—these get presented as ways of preserving and strengthening our status or situation. But they actually bind or constrain us. They keep us from revealing the best parts of ourselves.
“Share generously from your abundance,” John responded. “If you’ve got two coats, you must share with anyone who has none. Don’t cheat, or lie, manipulate, or defraud.” Strive in every moment to live more generous, compassionate lives and work to reject anything that inhibits your ability to love and serve others. Pay attention to your inner life as it relates to your interactions with others so that you can practice letting go of your anxieties, your self-absorption, your apathy, your sin. Repentance isn’t easy, but it is freeing.
I had an experience of the power and joy of repentance here a few weeks ago. Some of you may have been present, too. It was during our time of sharing congregational joys and concerns, and someone shared a request for prayers for herself. Because, she said, she was really struggling with how to be a good Christian when she was so angry. She admitted that, just then, she was feeling only hatred and outrage toward some people who were demonstrating intolerance and a lack of acceptance toward people she loved. But she wanted to change, because she recognized her attitude wasn’t life-giving. It was a very public, and powerful, act of repentance—of acknowledging she needed God’s help (and ours) in turning away from an attitude, a response, a behavior we all can relate to. Which of us doesn’t struggle with the inclination to hate those who are hateful, especially when their hatred hurts us, or those we love, personally?
The woman who courageously and publicly repented, told me recently that after saying it aloud, she experienced a profound joy and peace. There was a release, a liberty, discovered in that repentance.
But it wasn’t just her. The peace and joy were shared by the whole body present here. The fact that one individual spoke truthfully about the struggle to be faithful also provided a sense of reassurance to those who aren’t aware that others also find it difficult to be a faithful Christian. There was a collective experience of deeper connection when we heard the truth spoken and together recognized how God drew nearto us all, through us all. Joy.
The good news of our Advent readings this morning, the good news of the Gospel itself is that the Lord isnear; the Creator of the world has chosen us, to abide with us as one ofus. God is close—Christ is coming to us, with all his power to purify and strengthen, with agenda of love and forgiveness. Christ will comedespite the ways that we inhibit, or find ourselves inhibited from, that holy arrival.
The poet Denise Levertov has put it beautifully in her poem entitled,
“On the Mystery of the Incarnation”
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
In response to such surprising grace, how can we do anything but turn away from that which separates us from God’s love and compassion? Why would we do anything other than repent, and embrace the joy of our salvation? Amen.