“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2
I know there’s often angst at this time of year about how to greet people. Do we say “Merry Christmas”? “Happy Holidays”? “Season’s Greetings”? Well, this morning we have our answer. The correct greeting is clearly “Repent, you brood of vipers!”
This is the time in Advent when John the Baptist always makes an appearance. It’s another way in which our sense of time gets distorted during this season. Last week our readings pushed us to think about the second coming of Jesus, which seems like a distant unknown, even though we were urged to “keep awake!” This week we’re back to his first arrival, only this time we land in the story just before Jesus makes his debut as an adult in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is about to begin his earthly ministry, and John has come to get people ready for the ways that Jesus will shake things up.
This scene takes place out in the wilderness – the place where people in the Bible often go for clarity. The wilderness is – well, wild – but in many ways it’s less chaotic than the distractions of the city. I lived for a year in the high desert of Arizona, and there’s nothing like the wide-open spaces there, especially the sky at night. Far from the light pollution of the city, you can see for miles. You feel like you’re looking at the face of God. So the wilderness makes sense to me as a place to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.
What John is saying and doing in the wilderness might seem kind of crazy, but that hasn’t kept people from flocking out there to hear it. People are coming from all around to be baptized by John. But pay attention to what John says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Repent” is one of those words that makes us flinch. Maybe it’s because we imagine someone yelling it at us, pointing a finger in righteous indignation, trying to make us feel shame or guilt. Or we think of the guy holding a sign near Penn Station warning us to repent because the world is about to end.
One of the main reasons we don’t like to talk about repentance is that we don’t like to talk about sin. It’s hard sometimes to tell the truth about ourselves, about our capacity to hurt other people, including those we love the most.
We understand sin theologically in several ways. Sin means doing what is wrong according to the law of God. Sin creates systems that oppress or harm entire groups of people. Martin Luther tells us that sin turns us inward toward ourselves and away from God. Sin is, in one translation, “missing the mark” in the way an archer misses her target. Sin is all of those things. And yet it is also something more than a moral failing.
I am intrigued by the way writer Debie Thomas describes sin. She writes:
[Sin is] anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves. Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony. It’s the sludge that slows us down, that says, “Quit. Stop trying. Give up. Change is impossible.” Sin is apathy. Care-less-ness. A frightened resistance to an engaged life. Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing. Sin is a walking death.[i]
It helps me to think of sin as that which makes us resistant to being changed. God’s creativity has no limits, and God created each of us with a unique combination of gifts to offer the world. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, John says. Repentance is not just an internal process. It will be revealed in how people see us live.
The Greek word for “repent” means to “turn in another direction,” and that’s one way to think about it. Building on Debie’s definition of sin, to repent would mean to turn toward the possibility that God wants something more for us, to turn toward the promise that God can change what we thought was impossible to change.
Repentance gets caught up for us in a fear of judgment. And while we don’t like to talk about judgment either, Jesus is described in scripture as that righteous judge who comes, as we hear today, to separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, Jesus seeks to preserve what is useful for making bread and feeding people and to get rid of what needs to be discarded.
A couple of folks reminded me this week that judgment is not something to be feared.[ii] Judgment does not have to be terrible. Someone who judges fairly sees us with a clarity that means we are truly known and understood. When someone who deeply loves us is the one doing the judging – seeing us exactly as we are – it opens the way to growth.
Jesus is that kind of judge. He sees the wheat in us, sees how we can nourish others. He sees what can be harvested for the common good, for creative and life-giving generosity to the people in our lives and in our communities. He is able to transform what is destructive and to bring out what is holy and creative in us.[iii]
John says that he baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If you’ll allow me to nerd out for a moment, there’s a term from metallurgy that I learned recently.[iv] Metallurgy is the science of metallic compounds– how they’re made and how they can be transformed to produce other substances like alloys. The term is called annealing. It’s the process of heating a metal to a specific temperature so that it softens and becomes more pliable. It’s also a kind of cleansing process because it gets rid of what can weaken the metal at the same time that it allows the metal to be shaped into something that is both strong and beautiful.[v]
That struck me as one way to imagine what Jesus does with that fire of the Holy Spirit and with us. Maybe it’s a kind of annealing, shaping us into something more strong, more beautiful, more loving, and more giving than we thought possible. The 20th century theologian Thomas Merton said it this way: “Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ.”[vi]
Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ. What remains is reflected in a prayer we use during baptism, one that draws from the Isaiah passage we heard this morning. Isaiah talks about the fear of the Lord, but think of that fear not as terror but as awe – awe for what the Lord is able to do with us and with creation. Awe that God can imagine a world in which wolves can live with lambs, alongside leopards and goats, calves and lions, cows and bears, children and snakes. A whole host of natural enemies living peacefully with one another.
I ask you to join me in that baptismal prayer again this morning. Let us pray:
We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your children new birth, cleanse us from sin, and raise us to eternal life. Sustain your people here today with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iv] Thank you to Trey Graham for introducing me to the term in this beautiful piece about sacred music: https://treygraham.substack.com/p/aswim-in-the-unbearable-exquisite?fbclid=IwAR1J4YH-xUpb7iDy9QKMqWexzhtgEwAiXB7PJlAZDN3rO_2Hi62nN8VrG28
[vi] With thanks to the Rev. Elaine Hewes for this quotation and for her powerful insights on today’s texts, found in the latest issue of Currents in Theology and Mission: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/208